Conlon Nancarrow and Player Pianos
My musician/composer friend, Gil, introduced me to the remarkable music of Conlon Nancarrow. Nancarrow, living in exile near Mexico City, spent over forty years painstakingly composing a series of "Studies" for player pianos. Using a device similar to those used in commercial piano-roll houses, he would spend months or years punching out his compositions directly on rolls.
Nancarrow was born October 27, 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas, and studied music in Cincinnati and Boston with Walter Piston, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Roger Sessions. In 1937, he fought against the Facist government in Spain as part of the Lincoln Brigade. He relocated to Mexico in 1940 after harassment from the U. S. government on returning to this country. Nancarrow died on August 10, 1997.
His studies for player piano started in 1949, each numbered and in inexact chronological order. The music, at times humorous and overwhelming, often could not be played by the human hands and carries a number of influences. His experience as a jazz trumpeter during the 1930's shows through in some of the music's improvisational and "bluesy" quality. One can hear hints of the music of Africa and India, as Nancarrow explores our perception of rhythm, time, and texture.
There has been a rediscovery of Nancarrow's work in recent years, with the release of his music on CD and books dealing with the composer.
Below are two brief Real Audio excerpts of Nancarrow compositions, taken from the album "Complete Studies for Player Piano; The Music of Conlon Nancarrow - Volume 1" (1750 Arch Records S-1768, released in 1977).