Handcrafted exuberance

Radio 3 round-up
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The Independent Culture
This week's Sunday Feature on Radio 3 painted an engaging portrait of one of this century's most innovative composers. A composer, moreover, who spent more than 30 years in an almost reclusive devotion to creative work before at last becoming internationally celebrated in the 1980s. The American-born Mexican, Conlon Nancarrow, stands a more than outside chance of becoming numbered among the handful of our century's truly representative composers. He certainly satisfies the current need for a figure who is a master of compositional science while remaining a direct communicator. The hard-line modernist will find as much to admire in his constructivist processes as others will in his joyous wit and exuberance.

The lion's share of Nancarrow's output has been conceived for player- piano. The composer himself punches out the holes in the piano rolls, enabling him to achieve, with total precision, staggeringly complex rhythmic procedures that lie beyond the capability of human performance.Nancarrow was already behind the times when he discovered the potential of the player- piano in the 1940s, but this enabled him to avoid being seduced by the slick efficiency of hi-tech developments. His hands-on, low-tech methods, involving grinding labour to produce even the shortest pieces, have enabled him to compose with a grit and heroic determination that would have been watered down by computers.

Presenter Peter Paul Nash's collage of interviews, analytical comment and music examples revealed the determined visionary, political and artistic iconoclast and polymath (how Nash and the composer's wife chuckled over Nancarrow's vast library, including How to Psychoanalyse Your Neighbour). Totally uninterested in myth-building and material success, Nancarrow simply made music, for many years not even producing scores of his piano- roll pieces that might have promoted his cause. Friends such as Copland and Carter did their best for him, but met with resistance from figures like Boulez who failed to get the point of Nancarrow's all-embracing vision. You can imagine the frenzied boogie-woogie of Piano Study No 1 not going down too well in those quarters. It took the interest of Ligeti, who thought him quite simply the most important composer of the era, to gain for Nancarrow his just reward, and he is now feted in his adopted Mexico as well as abroad. In combining complex intellectualism, popular allusions and infectious body rhythms, Nancarrow has forged one of the most engaging and compelling 20th-century musical styles, and Sunday Feature's tribute came not a moment too soon.

An unsung hero of a different kind was the subject of an extended portrait in Hear and Now on Friday evening. Not as spectacularly neglected as Nancarrow was, but certainly worthy of greater attention, Anthony Gilbert belongs to the generation of Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle and has consistently produced music of high seriousness, individuality and inventive power in all genres. He has deserved far better at the hands of the musical establishment, and his one-time pupil Simon Holt made a good job of pointing up his essential humanity, passionate artistry and quirky wholeness. Excerpts were played from the excellent Beastly Jingles, paradigmatic in its combination of humour and determined compositional process; and we also heard, among other pieces, the complete Ziggurat, a gutsy piece for the unlikely combination of bass clarinet and marimba, and Nine or Ten Osannas. An encouraging and refreshing feature.

ANTHONY PAYNE

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