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Conlon Nancarrow

Conlon Nancarrow

Country of origin: Mexico
Birthday: October 27, 1912
Date of death: August 10, 1997

About Conlon Nancarrow

This music is the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives… his music is so utmost original, enjoyable, constructive and at the same time emotional... for me it's the best music of any today living composer. (György Ligeti) 

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. 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 contributions to music history.

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. 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.

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.

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. It was most notably György Ligeti who, fascinated by the music of his Mexican fellow composer, supported Nancarrow and became the most important advocate for the worldwide recognition of his musical lifetime achievement.
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.