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.