A Virtual Conversation with Jaron Lanier

Nancarrow

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Wasn’t it about the same time that you hitchhiked to Mexico to visit Conlon Nancarrow?

JARON LANIER: Right. When I was a kid somebody played me a tape of some of the Nancarrow studies. If I’m not mistaken it was a reel-to-reel tape of an LP that was put out by 1750 Arch. I think it had all kinds of prepared piano and microtonal piano, maybe. There were 3 [Nancarrow] piano studies on it. I don’t remember which ones, but they were some of the more striking Romantic studies that have great special effects in them.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Was it No. 21, Canon X?

JARON LANIER: No, I didn’t hear Canon X until later. And Canon X is a little bit more austere. I don’t remember, but it was three of them and I was so turned on by them that I couldn’t talk about anything else for months. I was just so enthralled.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: How did you meet Nancarrow?

JARON LANIER: It was another one of those lucky things. I just decided I had to meet this guy and somehow I got this notion in my head that I’d hitchhike to Mexico City and show up on his doorstep. And I did that in my teens a couple of times. Mexico in those days was a sweeter place. It was out of control, but it was more like Italy. The drug trade wasn’t this ugly murderous thing, so it wasn’t such an outlandish thing to do and there were all sorts of hippy kids floating through there. So I had my own little odyssey of showing up in Mexico City at his doorstep and then finding myself so in awe that I couldn’t speak to him. So here’s this weird American kid who shows up at this hermit’s doorstep, unable to say a word. So it took a while to establish why I was there, you know? It turned out, though, that Conlon was very interested in mathematics and well read on it and had been particularly interested in different kinds of infinity. So I finally told him, “Oh, I know about that,” and he said, “Come in, come in!” And we talked about all sorts of mathematical topics and Yoko, his wife, took care of me and fed me and I still was almost unable to speak to him. But then, you know, he took me to this sort of bunker…

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: Behind the house?

JARON LANIER: Yeah, he had this bunker, this very thunderously resonant space filled with bookshelves. He ordered documents from all over the world and he was extraordinarily aware of everything. He wanted to be both worldly and isolated. Hearing his music in his space was just so thrilling.

WILLIAM DUCKWORTH: That must have been fantastic.

JARON LANIER: You know, I think Nancarrow also did something else. I think he plays a special role in intellectual history because you could say he’s one of the first artists and probably the first musician who confronted the problem of having achieved total control and total flexibility in some important parameter. In his case, it was in time. What do you do if you get to the point where you can do anything, where you can make any sound and you’re not pushing against the capabilities of the human player or the instrument or whatever? Of course, it’s an illusion because you’re still pushing against the ability of cognition to perceive something, which he is in his music, especially by creating these special effects. But there’s also the sense that he’s dealing with a level of freedom that no composer had ever had before and I think that that creates a sort of crisis. And it’s a very typical and endemic crisis in the digital age where you have this sort of flexibility that you didn’t have before brought about by computers. But Nancarrow was the first person to peek at that before there were computers. And in many ways, I think, he found a better path than anyone has since in dealing with that. What he decided to do was to come up with a very abstract idea of organizing time, like this idea of irrational time signatures and all these crazy things he did. And then, as he said, pushing against human cognition: Can you hear an irrational time signature? Yes, actually you can! So I think he found a way forward which was beautiful and I’m still astonished that he’s not better known.

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