Composer Conlon Nancarrow produced a body of work that is among the most challenging in twentieth-century music. He composed work for the player piano, an instrument that was already old-fashioned when he took it up in 1947. It took nearly half a century for Studies for Player Piano—or their composer—to achieve general recognition among musicians or the public. In 1982, Nancarrow was not mentioned in the Biographical Dictionary of American Composers. Within a few years, however, musicians such as Gyorgy Ligeti were comparing Nancarrow to Anton Webern and Charles Ives. Describing Nancar-row’s achievement, England’s Independent wrote: “He took a predominantly entertainment medium… as the vehicle for the most far-reaching rhythmic explorations in the entire history of music.”
Conlon Nancarrow was born and raised in Texarkana, Arkansas. The future composer’s family was anything but musical. He described them to Cole Gagne and Tracy Caras as “tone deaf… but great music lovers.” He had piano lessons as a child but didn’t like his teacher—“some horrible old spinster” as he described her to William Duckworth in Talking Music— and soon switched to trumpet. As a teen he was good enough to join the town band and later to support himself with his playing. Significantly, while he was growing up, there was in his parents’ house a player piano.
Nancarrow was a rebellious type from an early age. He avoided school and argued with his father that he could give himself a better education at home. Being shipped off to military school as a teen apparently did not change his feelings. His self-education planted the seeds of a budding political radicalism. From the age of ten, he used his allowance to secretly mail order the Little Blue Books, a series of pamphlets published by the Wobblies, the International Workers of the World, a left-wing organization of workers. The titles covered a broad range of subjects, from history and politics to human sexuality. “My brother told me once that they were remodeling the house and in the attic my mother came across [the Little Blue Books ], and going through the titles looking at them she was sort of shocked,” Nancarrow told Duckworth. “So she said, ‘Now I understand what happened to him.’”
By the time he finished high school, Nancarrow had become interested in composition. In 1930, he moved to Cincinnati to attend the Cincinnati-College Conservatory, but it disillusioned him as much as other schools had. He left after a single semester, determined to learn music as he had everything else, outside of schools. His key musical experience in Cincinnati was hearing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for the first time. “It was a total revelation. At the time I’d heard practically no contemporary music, and suddenly The Rite of Spring was thrown at me, and it just bowled me over,” he told Gagne and Caras. “It’s always been in the back of my mind. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music.”
From Cincinnati, Nancarrow went to Boston where for a year he had private counterpoint lessons with the composer Roger Sessions, work Nancarrow would later characterize as the only formal musical training of his life. He was composing pieces of his own. He finished the “Sarabande and Scherzo for Oboe, Bassoon and Piano” in 1930. Politics, though, was a more potent force in Nancarrow’s life in Boston. He worked actively as a fundraiser for the Communist Party, and by the mid-1930s had joined the Party himself. In 1934 he organized a Lenin Memorial Concert, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Soviet leader’s death. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Nancarrow was one of the American radicals who enlisted in the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to fight Franco’s Fascists. During the fighting, he became seriously ill with hepatitis and had to be hospitalized. In the meantime, Spain fell to Franco’s army. Nancarrow had to be smuggled to Barcelona in the hold of a cargo ship and later hike across the Pyrenees into France.
He returned to New York City and became involved in the music scene there. While he was fighting in Spain, his friend composer Nicolas Slominsky had published three of Nancarrow’s compositions, Toccata, the Prelude for Piano, and Blues. Nancarrow began writing about music for the New Music Quarterly, work that won the praise of composer Aaron Copeland. A few of
For the Record…
Born on October 27, 1912, in Texarkana, AR; died on August 10, 1997, in Mexico City, Mexico; married Helen Rigby, 1932; divorced 1938; married Annette Margolis, 1947; divorced 1951; one son; married Yoko Seguira, 1970; one son: David. Education: Studied at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, 1929-32.
Studied counterpoint with Roger Sessions in Boston, MA, 1934; worked his way to Europe playing trumpet in shipboard band, 1936; enlisted in Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in Spanish Civil War, 1937; first compositions published, 1938; in New York, met luminaries of American music including Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter, 1939; read Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources, 1940s; moved to Mexico after U.S. government denied him a passport, 1940; purchased first player piano and punching machine in New York, 1947; began writing Studies for Player Piano, 1948; Elliott Carter arranged publication of Study No. 1 in New Music, 1951; became American citizen, 1956; at urging of John Cage, Merce Cunningham choreographed dance “Crises” to six of Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano, 1960; Columbia Records released first recording of Nancarrow’s music, 1969; as guest of honor at the New Music America ’81 Festival in San Francisco, made first trip to U.S. in 33 years, 1981; received MacArthur “Genius” Award, 1982.
Awards: MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, 1982.
his early pieces were performed in concert around this time as well.
In 1940, Nancarrow’s radical political leanings came back to haunt him, an occasion that would have momentous implications for his music. A few leftist friends of his were denied passports; when Nancarrow applied for one, he was refused, too. Disgusted with the treatment and the country’s obvious rightward swing, Nancarrow made up his mind to leave the United States. There were two countries he could enter without a passport, Canada and Mexico. Nancarrow moved to Mexico City where he would remain in virtual obscurity for most of the next forty years of his life. In 1960 he became a citizen of Mexico.
Player Piano Rediscovered
In Mexico Nancarrow read New Musical Resources by composer Henry Cowell, a book which encouraged the directions on composition his thoughts were already taking. Nancarrow’s main interest in music was time and rhythm. Cowell’s book suggested that complex musical rhythms—a meter of five superimposed on a meter of seven, for example—could be easily realized using the mechanical resources of a player piano. It was an idea that Cowell himself never experimented with. Nancarrow, perhaps thinking back to the player piano in his parents home, was intrigued by the idea. On a trip to New York City in 1947, with a small inheritance from his father, Nancarrow purchased a player piano and a machine to produce the piano rolls, long sheets of heavy paper, punched with holes in specific patterns that produced the musical tones.
Nancarrow’s road to the player piano was not direct. Early in the 1940s, while he was still in New York, musicians had mangled one of his works trying to perform it. The player piano gave Nancarrow a way around human performers. “I was always constrained by players’ limitations,” he told the New York Times’ John Rockwell. “With the player piano, I just did what I wanted to do.” He no longer had to consider whether a human hand was fast enough, or long enough, or had enough fingers, to play the notes in his score.
In fact, he did not need scores at all if he didn’t want them. Back in Mexico City, he reworked his piano roll punching machine so he could compose on it directly. When he composed, he first sketched out his ideas for himself, as an aid to punching the roll. Then he drew out the music on the roll and punched the holes. He frequently edited his ideas, making changes, as he punched. Once the entire piece had been punched into the roll, the work was for all intents and purposes, complete. The roll contained the composition. He could write out a score if he wanted to—he scored many of his early Studies for Player Piano in the 1960s—but it was not necessary.
Once punched, a work was finished. Nancarrow revised only a single Study after it had been punched— No. 27, a work whose tempo he felt he had badly miscalculated during the punching process. The work was extremely time intensive. Nancarrow once estimated that he needed ten hours of time to produce under ten seconds of performed music. The longest was a five-minute work that Nancarrow worked on a full year.
In 1947 Nancarrow married Annette Margolis, an artist who introduced him to the circle of people around painters Diego Rivera and Freda Kahlo. Another artist, Juan O’Gorman, designed a house for Nancarrow and Margolis that included a soundproof studio. There he began composing the Studies for Player Piano, work to which he would dedicate himself for the rest of his life. He also used the studio to modify the instruments he had assembled. He covered the hammers on his player pianos with leather and steel to give the instruments a sharper, brighter sound, like a harpsichord. Having altered his own instruments, he was loathe to allow the Studies to be performed on other player pianos—the sound was as much a part of the composition as the notes.
Back from his 1947 trip to the United States and established in his Mexico City home, Nancarrow began a period of isolation that would last until the 1980s. Nancarrow’s visitors heard his music, but few others. He sent tapes of some of his early Studies to his friend, the composer Elliott Carter. Carter arranged to have Study No. 1 published by New Music Editions, but it was five years before Nancarrow learned of the piece’s publication. Reportedly, that other great American musical eccentric, Harry Partch, visited Nancarrow in Mexico but never realized that he was a composer.
Nancarrow and Margolis divorced in the early 1950s which unleashed a period of severe depression for Nancarrow. It was, however, an extremely productive period, during which most of the Studies were written. He stopped composing completely for about five years in the 1960s, but used the time to write out conventional scores of his older Studies, hoping they would attract interest among other musicians.
By and large, they did not. However, an early success occurred in 1960 when John Cage persuaded choreographer Merce Cunningham to use Nancarrow’s work in a dance piece entitled “Crises.” In 1969, Columbia Records released an album of some of the Studies, a recording whose sound quality Nancarrow later complained about. The poor quality hardly mattered though; the record was deleted almost immediately. In 1976 Nancarrow sent a tape of some Studies to Nonesuch Records, who not only rejected the work out of hand but also asked if they could simply destroy the tape rather than return it. Nancarrow didn’t start to reach a wider audience until the late 1970s, when 1750 Arch, a small record in Berkeley, California, initiated a program of issuing all the Studies on a series of LPs.
1750 Arch was able to release 41 of Nancarrow’s nearly 50 Studies before they folded in the mid-1980s. Those recordings helped make Nancarrow’s name. Around 1980, composer Gyorgy Ligeti chanced upon the albums in Paris and could not believe what he heard on them. “Last summer, I found in a Paris record shop the records you made with Conlon Nancarrow.” Ligeti wrote to 1750 Arch in a letter quoted by John Rockwell. “I listened to the music and became immediately enthusiastic. This music is the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives.... His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, constructive and at the same time emotional. For me, it is the best music by any living composer of today.” Ligeti started spreading the word, and used his influence in 1982 to obtain for Nancarrow a prestigious—and lucrative—MacArthur Genius Grant, an award worth $300,000 over five years’ time. The money came at an opportune time. The inheritance long gone, the composer and his third wife, Yoko Seguirà, were living a hand-to-mouth existence.
From that point on Nancarrow, by then 69 years old, was recognized as one of the masters of twentieth-century music. He returned to the United States in 1981, the guest of honor at the New Music America ’81 Festival in San Francisco, California. The following year he visited several cities in Europe. He began composing for “human” musicians again, satisfied that in the meantime standards of musicianship had improved. When his Studies for Player Piano were performed, it was generally on tape. He wanted the pieces performed only on his modified instruments, which were to heavy and fragile to transport. The noise of the mechanisms, when amplified in a hall, would have interfered with the music in any case.
Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano are one of the musical landmarks of twentieth-century music. Their cascades of notes, tumbling over the listeners in impossible numbers, at impossible speed, suggest a team of pianists. Late in his life he admitted that if electronics had been developed earlier, he probably would have used it for his music rather than the old-fashioned player piano. The player piano was a lucky accident for him, however. Unlike much electronic music, the instrument has a human sound, a human connection, even when it is making music no human could hope to play. Nancarrow was asked once if he deliberately composed music that was impossible for humans to perform. “No, not at all,” he told Gagne and Calas. “I just write a piece of music. It just happens that a lot of them are unplayable.”
By the mid-1980s, Nancarrow’s health began to fail after he suffered a series of strokes. He died on August 10, 1997, of heart failure in his home in Mexico City.
Complete Studies for Player Piano, Vol. 1, 1750 Arch, 1976.
Complete Studies for Player Piano, Vol. 2, 1750 Arch, 1980.
Complete Studies for Player Piano, Vol. 3, 1750 Arch, 1982.
Complete Studies for Player Piano, Vol. 4, 1750 Arch, 1984.
Studies for Player Piano - Vol. I & II, Wergo, 1990.
Studies for Player Piano - Vol. Ill & IV, Wergo, 1990.
Studies for Player Piano - Vol. V, Wergo. 1990.
Studies for Player Piano Vol. I-V (complete), Wergo, 2000.
Lost Works, Last Works, Other Minds, 2000.
“Two Canons for Ursula,” Ursula Oppens: American Piano Music of Our Time, volume ii, Music & Arts, 1992.
“Trio,” Conlon Nancarrow Studies —Ensemble Modern, BMG Classics, 1993.
Duckworth, William, Talking Music, Schirmer Books, 1995.
Gagne, Cole and Tracy Caras, Soundpieces: Interviews with American Composers, The Scarecrow Press, 1982.
Daily Telegraph (London), August 20, 1997.
Guardian (London), December 17, 1999.
Independent (London), May 14, 1994; August 20, 1997; January 11, 2000.
New York Times, June 28, 1981.
San Diego Union-Tribune (San Diego, CA), May 1, 1986.
Sunday Telegraph (London), May 29, 1994.
Times (London), August 19, 1997.
Washington Post, January 22, 1984; January 26, 1984.
—Gerald E. Brennan
Spending most of his career in Mexico City, Conlon Nancarrow worked in relative obscurity for several decades. The composer's work has enjoyed popular attention since the 1980s, however, with critics and audiences alike recognizing the significance of his 50 studies for player piano, as well as his other works. Because he composed mainly for an automated instrument, Nancarrow is also regarded by some as the founder of electronic music. Nancarrow died in 1997, but his work continues to receive popular and critical attention, with performers even offering various interpretations of complex pieces that he wrote specifically for the player piano.
Nancarrow was born on October 12, 1912, in Texarkana, Arkansas, where his father worked as an executive for Standard Oil and served as the town's mayor from 1925-30. He began taking piano lessons at the age of six, but soon switched to trumpet. He became interested in jazz, particularly the music of pianists Art Tatum and Earl Hines. In addition to music, Nancarrow demonstrated an early interest in politics, subscribing at the age of ten or eleven to an obscure series of pamphlets published by a member of the communist organization International Workers of the World. "I think I mainly got my education from those books. There were a lot of political things and I became quite interested very young," Conlon told William Duckworth in an interview published in the 1999 book Talking Music.
Nancarrow attended the Western Military Academy in Illinois and the prestigious Interlochen music camp in Michigan. Encouraged by his father, he enrolled briefly as an engineering student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Returning to music, he studied at the Cincinnati College Conservatory in 1929, but left the school after one semester. He continued to pursue music outside the academic system, however, and played in bands at local beer halls and other venues. By the mid-1930s Nancarrow had relocated to Boston. He was inspired by hearing a performance of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and soon turned his interests from performance to composition, studying with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions. During this time, Nancarrow worked briefly as a conductor through the federal Works Progress Administration, but found he did not have the temperament for the position. "I had the musical knowledge, and I guess even my technique was alright, but I was too easygoing. In order to be a good conductor, you have to be a bit of a tyrant," he told the New York Times. Nancarrow continued to work for the WPA as a composer for the theater. He maintained his political interests in Boston as well, joining the Communist Party there and arranging a musical program for the organization.
Nancarrow picked up the trumpet again in 1936, playing with a dance band on a cruise ship bound for Europe. He returned to Europe the following year to serve as a soldier in the fight against General Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Upon his return to the United States he was refused a passport and, fearing further problems with the government due to his political activity, he moved to Mexico City. Nancarrow had married in 1932, but his wife divorced him while he was serving in Spain. He remarried in 1947, but divorced again four years later. He became a Mexican citizen in 1956.
Nancarrow brought with him to Mexico a copy of composer Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources, which he would cite many years later as an important influence. The book solidified his interest in rhythm over melody, and helped direct his interest toward the player piano, an instrument for which he would compose almost exclusively over the remainder of his career. "He talks in there about certain rhythmical problems," Nancarrow said of Cowell's book in the Duck-worth interview. "He says, 'Of course, it can be done on player piano.' But he never did it! Well, I did it." Nancarrow supported himself for a time as an English teacher and translator, while composing for piano and other conventional instruments. In 1947 he returned to the United States for the first time and, using money from a trust fund set up by his father, purchased a player piano and commissioned the building of a roll-punching machine. Nancarrow's interest in the auto-mated instrument stemmed from the complexity of his rhythms, which were sometimes too fast and intricate for musicians to play, and sometimes so complicated that musicians refused to play them. "Ever since I'd been writing music I was dreaming of getting rid of the performers," Nancarrow told producer Charles Amirkhanian in 1977, as quoted in a 1997 obituary in the London Independent.
In 1948 Nancarrow began what would become his life's work—the first group of an eventual 50 studies for player piano, composed directly on piano rolls. He continued the studies, generally regarded as too rhythmically layered and complex for musicians to play, through 1992. In 1960 composer John Cage used some of the studies in a score for a Merce Cunningham dance performance, Crisis, and Columbia released a dozen of the studies on album in 1969. Composer Peter Garland published several of the scores in Studies in Soundings in 1975. But the studies did not receive widespread recognition until the 1980s. He returned to the United States in 1982 to perform, to a standing ovation, at the 20th annual Cabrillo Festival in Aptos, California. That same year he was awarded a lucrative and prestigious inaugural Macarthur Award. Today, his piano studies are highly regarded by many. Writing in the London Independent, critic Phil Johnson called them "among the most compelling works of the 20th century." Composer Gyorgy Ligeti wrote of Nancarrow in a letter to Amirkhanian, cited in a 1981 New York Times article, "His music is so utterly original, enjoyable, perfectly constructed but at the same time emotional; for me it's the best of any composer living today!" Nancarrow's appeal extended beyond classical music circles. The avant-garde pop musician Frank Zappa proclaimed in a 1987 New York Times article, "In terms of individualism I think [Nancarrow] ranks up there with [Anton] Webern, Stravinsky, [Edgard] Varese, and [Arnold] Schoenberg. There's been nothing like him before or after." In 1993 the Wergo label released three albums containing five volumes of the studies, and issued all five volumes collectively in 2000.
A handful of adventurous pianists have transcribed some of the piano rolls into musical notation and performed some of the studies. Most notable among these are Robert MacGregor, Joanna MacGregor, and Ursula Oppens, for whom Nancarrow wrote the 1989 conventional piano piece 2 Canons for Ursula. Critics have noted a previously unrecognized warmth and dry wit that emerges when the studies are performed by musicians. Because he composed for an automated instrument, Nancarrow is regarded by some as the founder of electronic music. He dismissed that designation in a 1987 New York Times interview, but stated an affinity with electronic musicians. "If electronic music had existed when I started this whole thing of player pianos, I would have gone into that instead, because it would have been a lot simpler," he said. "The player piano is a tremendous amount of work, punching all those holes by hand, one by one, hundreds and thousands of them."
Nancarrow died on August 10, 1997, at his home in Mexico City, survived by his third wife, Yoko Seguira, a Japanese archaeologist, and a son. Ten years before his death, he told the New York Times that he found the growing recognition of his work pleasing. "All those years I had been working now have some point," he said. "There are so many artists and writers who are doing something they think is worthwhile, and it turns out to be junk. I thought that maybe mine was the same thing, but now I see it wasn't."
For the Record . . .
Born on October 12, 1912, in Texarkana, AK; died on August 10, 1997, in Mexico City, Mexico; married three times; children: one son. Education: At tended Western Military Academy, Vanderbilt University, and Cincinnati College Conservatory.
Professional trumpet player, 1920s and 1930s; conductor and composer for theater through federal Works Progress Administration, 1930s; Mexico City-based composer, 1939-97, best known for his studies for player piano, composed 1948-92.
Awards: MacArthur Award, 1982.
Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano, Vols. 1 and 2, Wergo, 1993.
Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano, Vols. 3 and 4, Wergo, 1993.
Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano, Vol. 5, Wergo, 1993.
Nancarrow: Studies, BMG, 1993.
Studies for Player Piano, Vols. 1-5, Wergo, 1999.
Conlon Nancarrow: Lost Works, Last Works, Other Minds, 2000.
Sarabande and Scherzo (oboe, bassoon, and piano), 1930.
Toccata (violin and piano), 1935.
Blues (piano), 1935.
Prelude (piano), 1935.
Septet (orchestra), 1940.
Sonatina (piano), 1941.
Trio no. 1 (clarinet, bassoon and piano), 1942.
String Quartet no. 1, 1945.
String Quartet no. 2, late 1940s.
Studies nos. 1-50 (player piano), 1948-92.
Tango? (piano), 1983.
Piece no. 2 (small orchestra), 1985.
String Quartet no. 3, 1987.
2 Canons for Ursula (piano), 1989.
For Yoko (player piano), 1990.
Trio no. 2 (oboe, bassoon, piano), 1991.
Contraption no. 1 (player piano), 1993.
Duckworth, William,Talking Music, DeCapo Press, 1999.
Independent (London, England), August 20, 1997; January 11, 2000.
New York Times, June 28, 1981; October 25, 1987; August 12, 1997.
"Conlon Nancarrow," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 29, 2005).
"(Samuel) Conlon Nancarrow," Grove Online,http://www.groveonline.com (June 29, 2005).