The Music of Conlon Nancarrow

For today we have the music of a composer who was largely unknown until late in his life. Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas but spent most of his life living in Mexico. His early musical education included a stint as a trumpeter in a jazz band and studies with eminent American composers Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and others. He left Boston at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War to join the XV International Brigade (the famed “Abraham Lincoln brigade”) in fighting the fascist Francisco Franco. Uncomfortable in the United States after his release from the Gurs internment camp in France, Nancarrow fled to Mexico City where he made his home and returned to his study of music.

Having found performances of his complex compositions unreliable and inspired by Henry Cowell’s polyrhythmic theory in the book New Musical Resources, Nancarrow took an interest in composing for the player piano. With an inheritance he returned to New York City in 1947 to acquire a custom piano roll punching machine and began to produce by hand rolls which carried his compositions. The work was so slow that some of his Studies for Player Piano which last only a few minutes took more than a year to program.

The player piano can “perform” at speeds far beyond human ability, allowing Nancarrow to create previously unimaginable polyrhythmic structures in his Studies. At the same time, player pianos are unable to produce tones with the delicacy of human fingers, and pound out the notes in a furious fortissimo. Nancarrow accommodated for this challenge by adapting his two Ampico player pianos — covering the hammers of one with metal and in the other with leather in a manner familiar to followers of Henry Cowell of John Cage.

Nancarrow’s work with the player piano presages much of the early explorations into electronic composition (such as the music in this post from May). He would later admit that if he had waited a little longer to begin his work he would have taken an interest in electronics. His Studies for Player Piano evolve over the years from the first several which bear the mark of Art Tatum’s advanced stride piano technique to complex canons with entirely idiosyncratic rhythmic ratios.

The release of an album of his Studies in 1969 brought some attention, but he continued to work in isolation into the 1970s. He was not even known to Mexican musicians and composers. The work of two American avant garde composers began to bring about Nancarrow’s rise to recognition. The first was minimalist composer Peter Garland, who started publishing Nancarrow’s scores in 1976, and the second was Charles Amirkhanian, then the musical director of a listener-funded Berkeley, California radio station one might compare to Minneapolis’ own KFAI. Amirkhanian recorded the complete Studies for Player Piano on Nancarrow’s player pianos under the composer’s supervision and released them on four volumes on his record label, 1750 Arch.

The first of these volumes is presented here today. These records are out of print, but there is a CD box set which collects them all. A couple later CD sets collect the late Studies composed after the recording of the 1740 Arch albums. Amirkhanian’s extensive notes contain enticing details about Nancarrow’s works, as well as a photograph of an unfinished pneumatic percussion machine which was to perform the work of an ensemble from programmed rolls.

One of the most enthusiastic acolytes of Nancarrow’s music was György Ligeti, the Hungarian composer best known to American audiences through the frequent use of his music in Stanley Kubrick’s films. Legeti discovered these albums in a record shop while, according to one story, looking for albums of his own, and they were an inspiration for his own landmark Etudes. In a television documentary, Ligeti said of Nancarrow, “His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed, but at the same time emotional … for me it’s the best music of any composer living today.”

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