Friday, August 14, 2020

Analog recording without analogs

[slightly edited repost]

Two examples of artists who manually created their works on media normally used for analog recording.

Conlon Nancarrow

Nevertheless, it was in Mexico that Nancarrow did the work he is best known for today. He had already written some music in the United States, but the extreme technical demands his compositions required meant that satisfactory performances were very rare. That situation did not improve in Mexico's musical environment, also with few musicians available who could perform his works, so the need to find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more pressing. Taking a suggestion from Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, which he bought in New York in 1939, Nancarrow found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of humans.

Cowell had suggested that just as there is a scale of pitch frequencies, there might also be a scale of tempi. Nancarrow undertook to create music which would superimpose tempi in cogent pieces and, by his twenty-first composition for player piano, had begun "sliding" (increasing and decreasing) tempi within strata. (See William Duckworth, Talking Music.) Nancarrow later said he had been interested in exploring electronic resources but that the piano rolls ultimately gave him more temporal control over his music.[6]

Temporarily buoyed by an inheritance, Nancarrow traveled to New York City in 1947 and bought a custom-built manual punching machine to enable him to punch the piano rolls. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism and covering the hammers with leather (in one player piano) and metal (in the other) so as to produce a more percussive sound. On this trip to New York, he met Cowell and heard a performance of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (also influenced by Cowell's aesthetics), which would later lead to Nancarrow modestly experimenting with prepared piano in his Study No. 30.

Nancarrow's first pieces combined the harmonic language and melodic motifs of early jazz pianists like Art Tatum with extraordinarily complicated metrical schemes. The first five rolls he made are called the Boogie-Woogie Suite (later assigned the name Study No. 3 a-e). His later works were abstract, with no obvious references to any music apart from his own.

Many of these later pieces (which he generally called studies) are canons in augmentation or diminution (i.e. prolation canons). While most canons using this device, such as those by Johann Sebastian Bach, have the tempos of the various parts in quite simple ratios, such as 2:1, Nancarrow's canons are in far more complicated ratios. The Study No. 40, for example, has its parts in the ratio e:pi, while the Study No. 37 has twelve individual melodic lines, each one moving at a different tempo.

Norman McLaren

McLaren was born in Stirling, Scotland and studied set design at the Glasgow School of Art.[1] His early experiments with film and animation included actually scratching and painting the film stock itself, as he did not have ready access to a camera. His earliest extant film, Seven Till Five (1933), a "day in the life of an art school" was influenced by Eisenstein and displays a strongly formalist attitude.

That included painting on the optical sound track.

In the 1950s, National Film Board of Canada animators Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart, and film composer Maurice Blackburn, began their own experiments with graphical sound, adapting the techniques of Pfenninger and Russian artist Nikolai Voinov.[2] McLaren created a short 1951 film Pen Point Percussion, demonstrating his work.[3] The next year, McLaren completed his most acclaimed work, his Academy Award-winning anti-war film Neighbours, which combined stop-motion pixilation with a graphical soundtrack. Blinkity Blank is a 1955 animated short film by Norman McLaren, engraved directly onto black film leader, combining improvisational jazz along with graphical sounds. In 1971, McLaren created his final graphical sound film Synchromy.[4]

1 comment:

  1. It was a great surprise and honor for me to have Conlon Nancarrow as a guest lecturer at UCSD. I wish I had taped it. He disliked the CBS recordings of his work, but there were subsequent recordings on Arch that he preferred.

    Norman McLaren was a genius, and not just at animation. I still remember seeing this film, "Pas de Deux" at Elmwood Elementary School in 1974, next to a boy named Kirk at the library which was run by the amazing Miriam Wexler, who will just have to deal with the forty-eight minute hug I'm going to give her when I get to Heaven.

    She is a hero of mine. She believed in me and exposed me to so many wonderful books and films.