Nancarrow, Conlon, remarkable American-born Mexican composer, innovator in the technique of recording notes on a player-piano roll; b. Texarkana, Ark., Oct. 27, 1912; d. Mexico City, Aug. 10, 1997. He played the trumpet in jazz orchs., and then took courses at the Cincinnati Cons, of Music (1929–32). Subsequently he traveled to Boston, where he became a private student of Slonimsky, Piston, and Sessions (1933–36). In 1937 he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and went to Spain to fight in the ranks of the Republican Loyalists against the brutal assault of General Franco’s armies. Classified as a premature anti-Fascist after the Republican defeat in Spain, he was refused a U.S. passport and moved to Mexico City, where he remained for 40 years, eventually obtaining Mexican citizenship (1956). In 1981, with political pressures defused in the U.S., Nancarrow was able to revisit his native land and to participate in the New American Music Festival in San Francisco. In 1982 he was a composer-in-residence at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Aptos, Calif. He also traveled to Europe, where he participated at festivals in Austria, Germany, and France. An extraordinary event occurred in his life in 1982, when he was awarded the “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation of Chicago, enabling him to continue his work. From 1948 to 1993 Nancarrow composed a truly unique set of undated 52 Studies for Player Piano (Nos. 1–35 were originally titled Rhythm Studies, but now all are known simply as Studies). These pieces can be notated only by perforating player-piano rolls to mark the notes and rhythms, and can be performed only by activating such piano rolls. This method of composition gives him total freedom in conjuring up the most complex contrapuntal, harmonic, and rhythmic combinations that no human pianist or number of human pianists could possibly perform. The method itself is extremely laborious; a bar containing a few dozen notes might require an hour to stamp out on the piano roll. Some of his studies were publ, in normal notation in Cowell’s New Music Quarterly. Copland, Ligeti, and other contemporary composers expressed their appreciation of Nancarrow’s originality in high terms of praise. On Jan. 30, 1984, Nancarrow gave a concert of his works in Los Angeles, in a program including his Prelude and Blues for Acoustic Piano and several of his studies. An audiovisual documentary on Nancarrow was presented on slides by Eva Soltes. A number of Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano that could be adequately notated were publ, in Soundings 4 (1977), accompanied with critical commentaries by Gordon Mumma, Charles Amirkhanian, John Cage, Roger Reynolds, and James Tenney. For listeners who appreciate contrapuntal intricacy, Nancarrow’s output is an unrivaled thunderbolt and delight. The music, beyond human-performance agility, is an almost insanely cross-rhythmic display of acceleration of canons, tinged at times with blues and jazz riffs. Among his works for conventional instruments are Sarabande and Scherzo for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (1930), Blues for Piano (1935), Toccata for Violin and Piano (1935), Septet (1940), Piano Sonatina (1941; also as a player- piano roll), 3 Two-Part Studies for Piano (1941), Trio No. 1 for Oboe, Bassoon, and Piano (1942), Piece No. 1 for Small Orch. (1943; rev. as Piece for Large Orch., 1945) and No. 2 for Small Orch. (1985), 3 string quartets: No. 1 (1945, No. 2 (unfinished; fragments only), and No. 3 (1987; Cologne, Oct. 15, 1988), Tango for Piano (1983), Canons for Ursula (Oppens) for Piano (1988), and Quintet (1993; arranged from a discarded player-piano study).
P. Carlsen, The Player-Piano Music of C. N.: An Analysis of Selected Studies (Brooklyn, 1988); K. Gann, The Music of C. N. (Cambridge, 1995).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis Mclntire