Conlon Nancarrow

Conlon Nancarrow

Born: October 27th, 1912
Died: August 10th, 1997
Country of origin: Mexico


Studies No. 6 & 7
September 8th, 2015 | Piano Spheres, Zipper Hall - Los Angeles - United States of America

Studies No. 6 & 7
October 30th, 2015 | San Francisco Performances - San Francisco - United States of America


Conlon Nancarrow was an American-born composer who lived most of his life in Mexico.

Nancarrow is remembered almost exclusively for the pieces he wrote for the player piano. He was one of the first composers to use musical instruments as mechanical machines, making them play far beyond human performance ability. He lived most of his life in complete isolation, not becoming widely known until the 1980s. Today, he is remembered as one of the most original and unusual composers of the 20th century.

Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He played trumpet in a jazz band in his youth, before studying music first in Cincinnati, Ohio and later in Boston, Massachusetts with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky. He met Arnold Schoenberg during that composer's brief stay in Boston in 1933.

In Boston, Nancarrow joined the Communist Party. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he traveled to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in fighting against Francisco Franco. Upon his return to the United States in 1939, he learned that his Brigade colleagues were having trouble getting their American passports renewed because of their Communist Party membership. After spending time in New York City in 1940, Nancarrow moved to Mexico to escape the harassment visited upon former Communist Party members.

He relinquished his American citizenship and became a Mexican citizen in 1955. He remained in Mexico until his death in Mexico City, aged 84.

It was in Mexico that Nancarrow did the work he is best known for today. He had already written some music in the United States, but the extreme technical demands they made on players meant that satisfactory performances were very rare. That situation did not improve in Mexico’s musical environment, with so few musicians available who could perform his works, so the need to find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more pressing. Taking a suggestion from Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, which he bought in New York in 1939, Nancarrow found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of humans.

Cowell had suggested that just as there is a scale of pitch frequencies, there might also be a scale of tempi. Nancarrow undertook to create music which would superimpose tempi in cogent pieces, and by his twenty-first composition for player piano, had begun "sliding" (increasing and decreasing) tempi within strata. (see: William Duckworth, Talking Music.) Nancarrow later said that if electronic resources had been available to him at this time, he would have probably written music for them, but they were not.

Temporarily buoyed by an inheritance, Nancarrow traveled to New York City in 1947, bought a player piano, and had a machine custom built to enable him to punch the piano rolls by hand. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work, and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism, and covering the hammers with leather or metal so as to produce a more percussive sound. On this trip to New York he also met Cowell, and heard a performance of John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano (also a result of Cowell's esthetics), which would later lead to Nancarrow experimenting with prepared piano in his Study No. 30.

Nancarrow's first pieces combined the harmonic language and melodic motifs of early jazz pianists like Art Tatum with extraordinarily complicated metrical schemes. The first five rolls he made are called the Boogie-Woogie Suite (later assigned the name Study No. 3 a-e) and are probably the most jazzy of all his works. Later works tend to be more abstract, with no obvious references to any music apart from Nancarrow's.

Many of these later pieces (which he generally called studies) are canons in augmentation or diminution or prolation canons. While most canons using this device, such as those by Johann Sebastian Bach, have the tempos of the various parts in quite simple ratios, like 2:1, Nancarrow's canons are in far more complicated ratios. The Study No. 40, for example, has its parts in the ratio e:pi, while the Study No. 37 has twelve individual melodic lines, each one moving at a different tempo.

His music has a mathematical beauty and elegance that happily coexists with musical expressiveness and a puckish sense of humor. Nancarrow did not see a clear delineation between the two approaches and he never worried about it. This natural, organic 'double-esthetic' is one of his most relevant contribution to 20th century music.

Another important contribution relates to a kind of 'semiological extrapolation'. On the one hand, his music can be heard as 'symbols', with their often-recognized analogical correspondences ("Blues", "Jazz", "Flamenco", etc).

On the other hand, there is an 'abstract, decodified profile' (the complex poly-temporal structures, for instance) which may be also present in the same piece. This fact does break the statement 'something is more different when its similarity decreases' generally used in semiology...

Having spent many years in obscurity, Nancarrow benefitted from the 1969 release of an entire album of his work by Columbia Records as part of a brief flirtation of the label's classical division with modern avant garde music.

In 1976-77, Peter Garland began publishing Nancarrow's scores in his Soundings journal, and Charles Amirkhanian began releasing recordings of the player piano works on his 1750 Arch label - thus at age 65 Nancarrow started coming to wide public attention. He became better known in the 1980s, and was lauded as one of the most significant composers of the century. The composer György Ligeti called his music "the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives ... the best of any composer living today".

In 1982 he received a MacArthur Award which paid him 0,000 over 5 years. This increased interest in his work prompted him to write for more conventional instruments, and he produced several pieces for small ensembles.

Still more recently, Nancarrow's entire output for player piano has been recorded and released on the German Wergo label. Some of his Studies for Player Piano have also been arranged for musicians to play. In 1995, composer and critic Kyle Gann published a full-length study of Nancarrow's output, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 303). Jürgen Hocker, another Nancarrow specialist, published Begegnungen mit Nancarrow (neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Schott Musik International, Mainz 2002, 284 pp.)

The complete contents of Nancarrow's studio, including the player piano rolls, the instruments, the libraries, and other documents and objects, are now in the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. The Germans Jurgen Hocker and Wolfgang Heisig are the current live-performers of Nancarrow's rolls using similar acoustical instruments.