Conlon Nancarrow – Music / Book / Events

Kamikaze and I were recording a show for NTS the other day and he dropped in something from 1935 by an artist named Conlon Nancarrow. He mentioned at the time that Nancarrow had often composed music too fast or complicated for the human player, so took to punching holes manually in to piano roll for the piano player. In essence, he was one of the first composers to use musical instruments as mechanical machines to then create music that couldn’t be replicated by playing the piano live – a forerunner to all electronic composition we take for granted.

If you’re not familiar with it check the link above, or take my word for it that a piano player is essentially a self-playing piano. The piano roll works as pre-programmed music – sheets of paper or metallic roll with holes punched in it that tell the piano what notes to play. We’re talking layering sequencing on an analog instrument that would be in almost every house, over half a century before the tools of Detroit.

As an accomplished musician it might be strange to consider that instead of composing for a band or himself he dedicated his career and amazing works to rolls of virtually uncredited composition. It was, however, his communist views and even his fighting in the Spanish Civil War that led to his harassment back home in the United States, and as a result the move to Mexico in 1940.

It was in his workshop in Mexico that Nancarrow created the compositions on piano roll, pushing Baroq-esque, ragtime, blues, jazz and many other piano styles beyond the limits of eight fingers and two thumbs. Living and working alone, his work entered the bourgeois houses who championed the piano player throughout it’s popularity, and not until 1977 was his work collected and credited on the first of four album releases. As a result Nancarrow started to become known for his work slightly more in the ’80s, up until his death in 1997.

Kyle Gann is a musicologist (yes that’s a real thing) / writer and the man behind the book The Music Of Conlon Nancarrow, check the blurb below which is a better and more concise biographical overview than I could come up with.

The expatriate American experimentalist composer Conlon Nancarrow is increasingly recognized as having one of the most innovative musical minds of this century. His music, almost all written for player piano, is the most rhythmically complex ever written, couched in intricate contrapuntal systems using up to twelve different tempos at the same time. Yet despite its complexity, Nancarrow’s music drew its early influence from the jazz pianism of Art Tatum and Earl Hines and from the rhythms of Indian music; Nancarrow’s whirlwinds of notes are joyously physical in their energy. Composed in almost complete isolation from 1940, this music has achieved international fame only in the last few years.

Born in 1912, the son of the mayor of Texarkana, Nancarrow fought in the Lincoln Brigade, then fled America to Mexico City to avoid being hounded for his former Communist affiliations. The author travelled to Mexico City to research Nancarrow’s music and to discuss it with him. He analyses sixty-five works, virtually the composer’s complete output, and includes a biographical chapter containing much information never before published.

Like so many musical pioneers before him, Conlon Nancarrow again is an artist who’s appreciated more for his unique boundary pushing talents after his death then for what was coming out of his workshop at the time. A few years back Other Minds Records released a newly remastered version of the original 1977 recordings on 4 CDs, aptly titled Studies For A Piano Player Vol. 1- 4 inclusive of a 52-page booklet with the original liner notes by James Tenney, an essay by producer Charles Amirkhanian and 24 illustrations.

We’d recommend checking it out, as well as the weekend dedicated to his music, happening at the Southbank Centre, April 2012. Starting on the morning of Saturday the 21st, Perfect Constructions: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow is a total of 12 concerts ranging from dedications to player piano concerts of his works.

More on that closer to the event, but in the meantime information and link below.

via Southbank Ticketing

Conlon Nancarrow was one of the most enigmatic, freethinking composers of 20th-century American music. Ostracised in the US for his communist politics, he moved to Mexico and lived there until his death in 1997. There he experimented with player-pianos – mechanised instruments that play pre-programmed compositions – and wrote music with a wide range of influences, including jazz.

György Ligeti described Nancarrow as ‘the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives… the best of any composer living today’. Join us for a special weekend exploring Nancarrow’s work, including performances by London Sinfonietta and the Arditti String Quartet.