Nancarrow and MEV get boxed

Two sumptuous four-CD box sets reached me in December with which I thought fit to begin this new year which, many predict, is going to be an unrelenting 12 months of bitter grief, gloom and economic misery. Heigh-Ho! A complete set of Conlon Nancarrow‘s recordings for the 1750 Arch Recordings label has been issued by Other Minds RecordsStudies for Player Piano (OTHER MINDS CD 1012-1015-2) collects all four volumes of this series, previously only issued on vinyl LP between 1977 and 1984 and now rather rare – I’ve only got two of the originals, so this is most welcome. There were also recordings on the German WERGO label, but the 1750 Arch versions were supervised by Nancarrow personally. Plus if you buy this 25mm monster there’s a 52-page booklet inserted with mucho informational gobbets and not a few visual delights for the assiduous student of this realm. Nancarrow’s work usually amazes all novices who hear it, when greeted for the first time by these impossibly complex and speedy piano works. When said novices are told that the works were produced on a player piano (or pianola), their eyebrows proceed to raise another 25cm and recede into their brains; and when they learn that the composer himself produced all the piano rolls himself, working for months by hand with a punching machine just to produce a few minutes of music, said listeners usually enter a six-month coma of disbelief. There are some astonishing photographs in the booklet here, although they’re reproduced quite small, and they don’t quite manage to convey the dizzying extent of Nancarrow’s achievement, not even when you see him diligently hunched over a machine hard at work, or standing with his sleeves rolled up before his pneumatically-operated percussion ensemble invention. This last device (also operated by the piano roll method) was never completed in his lifetime and I’m itching to read further to learn more about its history. The happy purchaser of this CD set will hopefully enjoy a similar revelation, while training their ears to try and keep track of these intricately-patterned and hyper-fast compositions; and many will make the same observation, i.e. it’s almost like an analogue form of computer music, except that Nancarrow was preparing the ‘punched tape’ himself. Indeed, I think some form of archiving/rescue project has been initiated, which involves converting the information on the original pianola rolls into digital data. Some composers might bend and break under the strain of all this work, yet every photo you see of th’ Nanster (an impeccable hepster with his neatly-coiffed moustache and beard) conveys the image of a genial and jovial fellow, who seems ready to offer you a glass of fine Tequila and a Havana cigar at the drop of a pumpkin seed as he invites you to enter his New Mexican abode and view his fine collection of Navajo rugs and Pueblo pots.

Second gargantuan box comes to us from those very generous souls at New World Records in New York City, a label that also specialises in providing glorious remastered reissues of many a classic rarity from the history of American avant-garde and modernist composition. Musica Elettronica Viva‘s MEV 40 (NEW WORLD RECORDS 80675-2) is a four-disc set compiling a number of selected performances of the last 40 years from this very special and pioneering improvising noise combo who formed in Rome in 1966. I’ve tried my utmost to get my hands on every record, CD, bootleg and tape I can from this fabulous group of players, of which the core members (Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum) were composers, jazz musicians and classical players in their own right. Their international membership was often supplemented with additional players, as is the case here including certain geniuses I never heard of before and some names which surprised me – for example Steve Lacy, the American jazz alto player who often interpreted Monk’s work with such innovation, who joined them for a 1982 performance in Amsterdam. MEV also had a couple of fine LPs released on the BYG label, at a time and place (France, 1969) when it seemed their open-ended and inclusive approach to music-making could overlap successfully with the dying remains of the fuzzed-out hippie brigade, who I think to some extent participated in the making of The Sound Pool (ACTUEL 26). And their very rare Friday LP from 1969 (originally released on Polydor) has also recently been reissued by Alga Marghen (plana-M 29NMN.073), a copy of which I snapped up fairly swiftly. If you never heard any MEV before, this selection (personally curated by members of MEV) is a fine place to start where you can immerse yourself in a strange and scary world of unidentifiable clanking noises mixed with extremely impolite (sometimes wild and fierce) electronic sounds. And it is always worth reading what the composers/performers have to say about the development of their working methods, which have involved a considerable degree of intelligent thinking and preparation for a particular kind of collaborative working, along with very radical decisions about choice of instrumentation and methods of playing…oh, this stuff is just matchless! Share the excitement of MEV’s explorations and please hear this soon.