Conlon Nancarrow grew up listening to a player piano in his Arkansas home. In 1948, indebted to Henry Cowell’s suggestion that difficult rhythms and simultaneous multiple tempos could easily be achieved on a player piano, he went to New York and bought one, along with a hole-punching machine to cut the piano rolls. The approximately 50 rhythmically intricate “Studies for Player Piano” he subsequently produced — many are indeed unplayable by human hands — were regarded by composers like Cage and Ligeti as a kind of 20th century “Well-Tempered Clavier.”
On Tuesday, Piano Spheres gave Nancarrow, who would have turned 100 last Saturday (he died in 1997), a birthday tribute by featuring the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo (Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams) at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. The duo’s generous, well-balanced program also included pieces by Amy Williams, Ligeti, Bach, Kurtág and Cage.
Bugallo and Williams brilliantly performed seven selections from Nancarrow’s “Studies,” transcribed for piano duet, on a concert grand. In “Studies for Player Piano” No. 3b, they sustained a bluesy mood (remarkably, Nancarrow was a jazz trumpeter who couldn’t play piano) while bringing out the various melody lines. With No. 20, a study in tone lengths composed around 1965, the duo made a compelling case for the human touch over Nancarrow’s player piano mechanism by producing a warm, transparent sound.
Williams’ “Abstracted Art I and II” for four hands was by turns jazzy, impressionistic and percussive. Bugallo evocatively rendered Nancarrow’s Nine Early Pieces, two-voice miniatures composed before he turned to the player piano. The duo brought rhythmic precision, varied touch and color to Ligeti’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos.
After intermission, there were more deftly articulated Nancarrow “Studies” (Nos. 4, 18, 6 and 15), a Contrapunctus for two pianos from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” a set of alternating Bach transcriptions and pieces from Kurtág’s “Games” and Cage’s “Experience” No. 1, lovely in its simplicity and use of silence. The recital concluded in virtuosic fashion with Sonatina, another pre-player piano Nancarrow score.