A Dialogue Between Human and Automatic Performers

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Argentinian-born composer and conductor Sebastian Zubieta is currently the music director at Americas Society, an organization dedicated to education, social change and cultural dialogue in and between the Americas.

Zubieta writes the following of his mixtape:


My job is to listen to Latin America, the Caribbean, and Canada, so my mix has a lot of music and musicians from those places, while also following a web of musical associations and a dialogue between human and automatic performers.

To start, I wanted to spend some time in the company of that nonconformist of nonconformists, Arkansas-born Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow, whose centennial this year was somewhat overshadowed by that of his colleague John Cage. Nancarrow's player piano studies have fascinated me since I bought volume 5 of the Wergo collection at Tower Records in Lincoln Center (years ago!) By the time Nancarrow wrote his, composers had been writing music for the player piano for decades, captivated by its mechanical prowess but often ended up writing music that sounded like the rest of their work.

Listening to Stravinsky’s 1917 Étude pour pianola (our second track), for example, is like listening to a pianist with supernumerary hands and metronomic precision navigating an imaginary Sacre du Petroushka. I find that the most interesting aspect of Nancarrow’s Studies is not his almost absolute dedication to the player piano (and to his player pianos in particular), but the extreme rhythmic freedom that he allowed in his music. I had to stay with inhuman instruments a bit longer with a piece by a composer who admired Nancarrow’s music and supported him towards the end of his life.

As the last metronome in Ligeti's Poème symphonique winds down, I think it is time to bring some blood into our mix, and here are two harp pieces (because one can never have too much harp!) performed by Bridget Kibbey: a fragment from R. Murray Schafer’s The Crown of Ariadne, in which the mysteriously microtonally tuned harp is accompanied by small percussion instruments played by the harpist, and Hani Ramaprah by Argentinean composer (and my first composition teacher) Gerardo Gandini, a fleeting, vanishing piece that is characteristic of his style in the 90s.

It’s time to bring in some air, provided by the voice of Sylvia Rhyne in Asteria’s version of De plus en plus, by Gilles Binchois. I enjoy this intimate version because of the way in which the instrumentation highlights the troubadouresque quality of the music and poetry, full of unrequited and unflagging love. The human voice stays with us for a while, and becomes ethereal in Marcos Balter’s Live Water. The use of the voice in this piece for viola and tape in turn suggested the disembodied, unreal “voices” of the Ensemble d'Ondes de Montréal in Messiaen's Oraison, a 1937, “infinitely slow” piece that started as part of the ensemble piece Fêtes des belles eaux, and found its way into the Qautuor a few years later.

We close with another set from Mexican mavericks, first Bosquejos, an early piece by Julián Carrillo for string quartet (here the Momenta Quartet). Carrillo took it upon himself to revolutionize all of Western music with messianic zeal. Again, I find that the main interest in this music lies not on the unusual intervals and tunings, but on the variably repetitive and static development of the musical discourse. We return to Nancarrow to finish with another study, this time humanized by the Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo. 


Conlon Nancarrow - Study 16 for Player Piano (Helena Bugallo, piano; Amy Williams, piano)
Igor Stravinsky - Étude pour Pianola
György Ligeti - Poème symphonique (Francoise Terrioux, metronomes)
Murray Schafer Crown of Ariadne (Bridget Kibbey, harp)
Gerardo Gandini - Hani ramaprah (Bridget Kibbey, harp)
Gilles Binchois - De plus en plus (Asteria; Sylvia Rhyne, soprano; Eric Redlinger, harp)
Marcos Balter - Live Water (Nadia Sirota, viola)
Olivier Messiaen - Oraison (Ensemble d'Ondes de Montreal)
Julian Carrillo - Bosquejos (Momenta Quartet)
Conlon Nancarrow - Study 44 for Player Piano (Helena Bugallo, piano)