Friday, 25 January 2013

The greatest song in the world ever . . . today
Number three: Conlon Nancarrow’s Study No 3a

When I write ‘today’,
in this case, I really do mean ‘today’. I have only ever heard this tune once all the way through. Just now. I’m not sure I particularly want to hear it all the way through again. Still, just as some of my favourite books are ones I haven’t so much as opened, let alone read, this Nancarrow piece has become one of my all-time favourite pieces of music.

As in other circumstances, it’s the thought that counts. And the thought, the idea, here is a wonderful one. So innovative and wonderful, in fact, that it pretty much obviates the need to actually bother with listening to the music.

I’ll describe the idea. Take a player piano — those worked contraptions which worked without a pianist and were worked by a roll of paper with holes in it, a predecessor of early computers’ punched tape. While these paper rolls were, I guess, generally mass-produced, they could also be cut by hand.

That’s what Nancarrow did. It took him years, apparently. The two hands play independently, but moving together towards the centre of the keyboard . . . and faster and faster as they do so. So far, so academic. What makes it so much more than that is that it’s a kind of boogie-woogie — that speeds up till the two hand-patterns collide, madly, into each other.

Various songs are nominated as the very first rock and roll track. Amateurs generally say something like Rock Around The Clock. Professionals often go for Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 — with Ike Turner driving the band.* Awkward cusses favour the likes of Lionel Hampton’s Flying High. It’s a large field.

Conlon Nancarrow’s Study No 3 a is my new choice. It’s that good. And it’ll drive a lot of people right out of the room — which has to be a prime requisite for the first rock and roll record. No enemy, no life.

One more point. Music that speed up and up is, inevitably and correctly, often linked to sexuality. Ravel’s Bolero, that kind of thing. This, though it starts out that way, is different. It rocks but it doesn’t bounce. And then there’s that mad finale . . . Oh, well, maybe I take back what I just wrote.

Finally . . . Before today, I’d only heard a fragment of it — and a description — on a podcast, Radio 3’s 50 Great new music series.

It was Stephen Fry’s favourite piece of modern music. He — or someone else on the short show — informed me that Nancarrow was a mid 20th century American composer who fell out with his homeland’s anti-communism and chose instead to live in Mexico, homeland to sloppy dictatorship and corruption.

* Once upon a time, I had a chat, on a cold, cold Mississippi November evening, with the woman who sewed Ike’s tie the night before he and the band headed up to Memphis to cut Rocket 88. (I’m almost as intrigued by that as the fact that I’ve shaken the hand of not just one but two men who, as children, had their hair tousled by Hitler. And sometime I’ll tell you about my link to Oscar Wilde and the corpse in Blow Up and . . .)