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Conlon Nancarrow

Gavin Thomas introduces the work of Conlon Nancarrow (1912–1997).

  • Overview


For all the modern world’s obsession with technology, Conlon Nancarrow remains the only classical composer to have established a lasting reputation on the basis of music written almost entirely for a machine.

Not only does his remarkable sequence of player-piano studies prove that it’s possible to do without human performers entirely, they also offer a compelling exploration of the myriad new structures and sonorities obtainable through mechanical means.

Born in 1912 to a respectable family of Arkansas worthies, Nancarrow spent a wayward youth learning trumpet, developing a passion for jazz and determining to become a musician.

In 1934, braving parental displeasure, he trooped off to Boston to study composition with arch-academics Roger Sessions and Walter Piston, an experience which seems to have borne little immediate fruit, although he would later emphasize the value of Sessions’ obsessive contrapuntal training.

In Boston, Nancarrow also joined the Communist Party, and in 1937 went to Spain, fighting for two years in the Civil War as a foot soldier with the Republican forces.

In 1940, having been denied a passport by a US government suspicious of his Communist past, Nancarrow decided to leave the increasingly repressive political climate of the States for Mexico City, where he lived for the remaining 58 years of his life, acquiring Mexican citizenship in 1956.

The immediate effect of Nancarrow’s move to Mexico was less than propitious. Already politically ostracized, he now found himself almost entirely cut off from US musical life and the chance to have his increasingly challenging music performed.

Making a virtue of necessity, in 1947 Nancarrow acquired a player-piano, or pianola – a mechanical piano operated by a roll of punched paper – on which he could “perform” his own music.

The player-piano’s ability to execute any sequence of notes – no matter how fast or rhythmically complex – also allowed Nancarrow to explore the arcane rhythmic structures which became the basis of his mature music, and whose difficulties would have defeated even the best performers of the time.

The following quarter century was one of extreme musical isolation, as Nancarrow laboured on the immense series of Studies for Player Piano which form the bulk of his output.

The first step towards recognition was the 1969 Columbia recording of twelve of the studies, but it wasn’t until 1977, and the first part-publication of the studies, followed by further recordings, that Nancarrow’s work began to be widely known.

In 1981, in the wake of his burgeoning reputation, he returned to the US for the first time since 1947 – though subsequent enquiries about the possibility of his going back to live in his home country were stymied by the bluestocking attitudes of American officialdom.

More positively, Nancarrow also found a new generation of virtuoso performers rising to the challenge of his music: Yvar Mikhashoff’s pioneering orchestrations of selected piano-player studies were brilliantly realized and recorded by the Ensemble Modern, whilst the wizardry of performers such as pianist Ursula Oppens and the Arditti String Quartet persuaded Nancarrow to return to writing for live performers after a gap of some forty years.

Article and review pages originally published in The Rough Guide to Classical Music