Please wait
Tagged with: Performance, Exhibitions, Interview, Events, Behind The Scenes

High Pressure Repairs:
Restoring the Player Piano for Conlon Nancarrow

Terry Chamberlain and Mark Hennen stand with the 1921 Marshall and Wendell player piano they restored

Terry Chamberlain and Mark Hennen stand with the 1921 Marshall and Wendell player piano they restored

Tools used in the restoration are deceptively simple, among them glue, screwdrivers, and wrenches

Tools used in the restoration are deceptively simple, among them glue, screwdrivers, and wrenches

With their brittle materials—wood, rubber-coated fabric, and valves as fragile as eardrums—the few player pianos that have survived the last century are painstakingly difficult to restore. Preparing one to play a score by composer Conlon Nancarrow, whose whirlwind compositions are unmatched in speed and complexity, requires an unusual amount of mettle. While most pieces for player piano mimic a single performer, Nancarrow's Studies contain more notes in quick succession than three people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder could play at once. They are demanding to perform, even for a well-oiled machine.

Finding such a machine was one of the first challenges the Whitney faced in mounting the first United States retrospective of the composer’s work. Since their heyday in the 1920s player pianos have become increasingly rare, as have restorers capable of fixing them. After sourcing a 1921 Marshall and Wendell Ampico upright very similar to Nancarrow’s own and shipping it from Ohio to New York, the Whitney’s curatorial team reached out to restorers Terry Chamberlain and Mark Hennen of the Piano Technicians Guild to prepare the piano for what will be its most ambitious performance to date. On June 28, the last day of the festival, the Whitney will host a marathon, eight-hour concert featuring Nancarrow's fifty plus Studies.

Chamberlain attests that even routine adjustments frequently present surprises—and early on, it became clear that Nancarrow’s compositions called for a considerable overhaul. He described one of his first tests: after playing commercially-produced, stock rolls without issue, he loaded a Nancarrow roll. “We thought the piano was going to crash and burn. The whole thing was shaking.”

Nancarrow customized his machine so it could keep up with the barrage of perforations in his music rolls. Chamberlain and Hennen needed to match those changes. “We knew that Nancarrow modified his machine for speed, but the only thing we had to go on was an original recording of Study #36 from the 1970s,” said Chamberlain. “The recording was about four minutes and three seconds long, but when we first played it on this piano, it lasted five minutes and fourteen seconds.” When the restorers succeeded in bringing up the speed by more than twenty-five percent, they started to hear other problems. At that tempo, if one key released even a fraction of a second slower than another, the sound became muddy. Every key had to release at exactly the same rate.

To make the Whitney's renditions as accurate as possible, the restorers also needed to replicate changes Nancarrow made for sound quality. On an ordinary piano the high notes ring and overlap. Nancarrow added dampers to create clean tones, and also put in percussive brass tacks that produce, in Chamberlain's words, “a sharp, clacking, brilliant sound.” The standard tacks that Nancarrow likely used are no longer available, so Hennen designed a new set from scratch.

Though many of their adjustments were custom, some of the restorers' concerns were inherent to the instrument. The player piano is a vacuum-driven system, and maintaining high pressure is a common problem. If at any point the pressure is lost, so is the sound. While the abundant perforations in Nancarrow’s rolls invite air to seep out, here Chamberlain and Hennen encountered a bit of good luck. Nancarrow created his Studies in Mexico City, which is a mile high. “Fortunately,” said Chamberlain, “here in New York we’re at sea level. We'll get the highest volume and best percussive effects here—better than Nancarrow could have achieved at 7,000 feet."

Anywhere In Time: A Conlon Nancarrow Festival continues through tomorrow, June 28.

ALL STORIES

Fast Forward: Joyce Pensato In The Studio
Fast Forward: Joyce Pensato In The Studio
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Vik Muniz on Saul Leiter and Robert Frank
Human Interest: Vik Muniz on Saul Leiter and Robert Frank
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Martha Rosler on Susan Meiselas
Human Interest: Martha Rosler on Susan Meiselas
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Robert Buck on Georgia O’Keeffe
Human Interest: Robert Buck on Georgia O’Keeffe
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Scott Rothkopf on Jasper Johns
Human Interest: Scott Rothkopf on Jasper Johns
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Judith Bernstein on Urs Fischer
Human Interest: Judith Bernstein on Urs Fischer
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Kalup Linzy on Duane Hanson
Human Interest: Kalup Linzy on Duane Hanson
Exhibitions
Share Your #WhitneyPortraits
Share Your #WhitneyPortraits
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Mathew Cerletty on Jean-Michel Basquiat
Human Interest: Mathew Cerletty on Jean-Michel Basquiat
Exhibitions
Human Interest: K8 Hardy on Sturtevant
Human Interest: K8 Hardy on Sturtevant
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Byron Kim on Avery Singer
Human Interest: Byron Kim on Avery Singer
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Martha Wilson on John Coplans
Human Interest: Martha Wilson on John Coplans
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Jared Bark on John D. Graham
Human Interest: Jared Bark on John D. Graham
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Barkley Hendricks on Alice Neel
Human Interest: Barkley Hendricks on Alice Neel
Exhibitions
Human Interest: Artists Discuss Whitney Portraits
Human Interest: Artists Discuss Whitney Portraits
Exhibitions
Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby On Her Billboard Project, <i>Before Now After</i>
Artist Njideka Akunyili Crosby On Her Billboard Project, Before Now After
Exhibitions
Preserving Privacy:<br>On the State of Surveillance
Preserving Privacy:
On the State of Surveillance

Exhibitions
The Whitney Beekeepers
The Whitney Beekeepers
Behind the Scenes
Beyond Documentation: Davarian Baldwin on Archibald Motley’s Gettin’ Religion
Beyond Documentation: Davarian Baldwin on Archibald Motley’s Gettin’ Religion
Whitney News
What does it mean to ring<br> in the New Year?
What does it mean to ring
in the New Year?

Whitney News
Frank Stella’s Paintings Inspire a Giant Marble Run
Frank Stella’s Paintings Inspire a Giant Marble Run
Behind the Scenes
How to Install a Two-Ton Star
How to Install a Two-Ton Star
Behind the Scenes
What Is Your White Whale?
What Is Your White Whale?
Whitney News
Q&A with Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff:<br>New Theater in a New Context
Q&A with Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff:
New Theater in a New Context

Exhibitions
High Pressure Repairs:<br>Restoring the Player Piano for Conlon Nancarrow
High Pressure Repairs:
Restoring the Player Piano for Conlon Nancarrow

Behind the Scenes
A Guide to Late Summer Nights at the Whitney
A Guide to Late Summer Nights at the Whitney
The New Whitney
The Player Piano in Print
The Player Piano in Print
Exhibitions
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Adam Weinberg
Whitney Stories Video:
Adam Weinberg

The New Whitney
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Donna De Salvo
Whitney Stories Video:
Donna De Salvo

The New Whitney
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Fiona Donovan
Whitney Stories Video:
Fiona Donovan

The New Whitney
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Sarah Michelson
Whitney Stories Video:
Sarah Michelson

The New Whitney
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Jay Sanders
Whitney Stories Video:
Jay Sanders

The New Whitney
Closing Time Uptown: Snapshots from the Whitney’s Final Night on Madison Avenue
Closing Time Uptown: Snapshots from the Whitney’s Final Night on Madison Avenue
Whitney News
Pinch Points: Joshua Rosenblatt on Installing Art, Uptown and Downtown
Pinch Points: Joshua Rosenblatt on Installing Art, Uptown and Downtown
Behind the Scenes
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Jeff Koons
Whitney Stories Video:
Jeff Koons

Exhibitions
Scott Rothkopf on Planning Jeff Koons: A Retrospective
Scott Rothkopf on Planning Jeff Koons: A Retrospective
Exhibitions
Interview: Kassel Jaeger and Akira Rabelais
Interview: Kassel Jaeger and Akira Rabelais
Behind the Scenes
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Christine Sun Kim
Whitney Stories Video:
Christine Sun Kim

The New Whitney
American Legends: Common Threads across Generations
American Legends: Common Threads across Generations
Exhibitions
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Cory Arcangel
Whitney Stories Video:
Cory Arcangel

The New Whitney
Interview: Flawless Sabrina, Zackary Drucker, and Elisabeth Sherman
Interview: Flawless Sabrina, Zackary Drucker, and Elisabeth Sherman
Exhibitions
Tony Tasset Opens Up the Artist List
Tony Tasset Opens Up the Artist List
Exhibitions
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Carter Foster
Whitney Stories Video:
Carter Foster

The New Whitney
Spring at the New Building Site: Swimming in the City
Spring at the New Building Site: Swimming in the City
The New Whitney
Whitney Stories Video:</br>Vincent Punch
Whitney Stories Video:
Vincent Punch

The New Whitney
Q&AWith the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Three
Q&AWith the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Three
Exhibitions
Q&A With the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Two
Q&A With the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part Two
Exhibitions
Two of the Whitney’s Hoppers Keep the President Company in the Oval Office
Two of the Whitney’s Hoppers Keep the President Company in the Oval Office
Whitney News
Whitney Stories Video:<br>Renzo Piano
Whitney Stories Video:
Renzo Piano

The New Whitney
Q&A with the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part One
Q&A with the 2014 Whitney Biennial Curators: Part One
Exhibitions
In Memory: <br>Cecil Weekes, 1956-2013
In Memory:
Cecil Weekes, 1956-2013

Behind the Scenes
Whitney Stories Video:</br>Larissa Gentile
Whitney Stories Video:
Larissa Gentile

The New Whitney
“Am I As Much As Being Seen?” Fred Wilson Collaborates with Whitney Teens
“Am I As Much As Being Seen?” Fred Wilson Collaborates with Whitney Teens
Behind the Scenes
Whitney Stories Video: Fred Wilson
Whitney Stories Video: Fred Wilson
The New Whitney
Construction Continues on the Future Whitney
Construction Continues on the Future Whitney
The New Whitney
Exploring the Legacy of the Meatpacking District
Exploring the Legacy of the Meatpacking District
The New Whitney
Raising Spirits
Raising Spirits
Behind the Scenes

Behind the Whitney Stories Video Series
Behind the Scenes
A Space Without Walls: T.J. Wilcox’s Studio, Photographed by Marco Anelli
A Space Without Walls: T.J. Wilcox’s Studio, Photographed by Marco Anelli
Exhibitions
Welcome to Whitney Stories
Welcome to Whitney Stories
Whitney News
Conserving Franz Kline’s Mahoning
Conserving Franz Kline’s Mahoning
Behind the Scenes
Whitney Stories Video: Carol Mancusi-Ungaro
Whitney Stories Video: Carol Mancusi-Ungaro
The New Whitney
The Future Whitney In Progress
The Future Whitney In Progress
The New Whitney
Vlogging About Art: The Whitney Video Blog Project
Vlogging About Art: The Whitney Video Blog Project
Whitney News
Words on Walls: A Conversation with Tom Black
Words on Walls: A Conversation with Tom Black
Behind the Scenes
Cubes and Anarchy: An Installation
Cubes and Anarchy: An Installation
Exhibitions
Picturing Progress: Building the Future Whitney
Picturing Progress: Building the Future Whitney
The New Whitney
The Whitney Does D.I.Y. With Desert Island Comics
The Whitney Does D.I.Y. With Desert Island Comics
Whitney News
Mapping the Whitney in New York City
Mapping the Whitney in New York City
History of the Whitney
Breaking Ground
Breaking Ground
The New Whitney
Into the Future with <span class="caps">CHERYL</span>
Into the Future with CHERYL
Exhibitions
Choreographing Community
Choreographing Community
Whitney News
Cory Arcangel Re-Blogs the Internet
Cory Arcangel Re-Blogs the Internet
Behind the Scenes