This piece is demented. Absolutely, without question, demented. And I love it. It’s a great piece for the day after Halloween – it’s very spooky. If I ever have an abode that I want to turn into a “haunted house” for neighborhood kids, this will be one thing I play on the hi-fi. The left hand starts and you think, “Okay, a little a-tonal, but intriguing.” And then the right hand kicks in and you think “what in the name of God is that.” But you can’t stop listening! All of a sudden the pace of the hands switches! Why! Why is it switching! And then all you can do is cling to the octaves being played until that gets wiped out, and then…it stops. …What.
Sometimes a piece of music is all about the idea behind its construction. This notion goes all the way back to the earliest notated music we know about, and the early repertory of vocal music is full of arcane structural devices not apparent to the listener. One example of this sort of thing is the canon – a piece of music based on the idea of strict imitation. In it’s simplest form, it’s a round: “Row, row, row your boat” is a canon. One voice sings the idea and it is repeated exactly by the second voice. But you could make that into a retrograde canon by doing the second voice in reverse: “boat your row, row, row.” Composers love ‘em: every third variation in Bach’s famous “Goldbergs” is a two-voice canon in which the second voice starts on progressively higher scale degrees.
So here is a canon in the hands of Conlon Nancarrow, the wildly eccentric composer for player piano. In this case, this canon for two voice is all about time. Both voices are based on the same 54-note melody, but at the start the treble voice plays that melody ten times faster than the bass. As the piece progresses the notes in the treble slow down while the notes in the bass speed up in exact proportion. The time values cross in the middle (the “X” of the title). The overall effect is astonishing. And it was all done by hand, using paper and pencil to plot out the formulae and a piano roll punching machine to manually create the roll.