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Conlon Nancarrow

From Academic Kids

Conlon Nancarrow (October 27, 1912 - August 10, 1997) was an American composer who took Mexican citizenship in 1955. He is remembered almost exclusively for the pieces he wrote for the player piano, using it as a sort of mechanical music sequencer. He lived most of his life in complete obscurity, not becoming widely known until the 1980s. Today, he is remembered as one of the most original and unusual composers of the 20th century.

Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He played trumpet in a jazz band in his youth, before studying music first in Cincinnati, Ohio and later in Boston, Massachusetts with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky. Later still, he went to New York City and studied with Henry Cowell, another great iconoclast.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out, Nancarrow went to Spain to fight against Francisco Franco. While there, he joined the Communist party, as a result of which he was refused an American passport after his return. He subsequently moved to Mexico City, which remained his home until his death.

It was in Mexico that he did the work he is best known for today. He had already written some pieces in America, but the extreme technical demands they made on performers meant that satisfactory performances were very difficult to mount. In Mexico, where the contemporary classical music scene was poorly funded, and there were even fewer musicians capable of performing his works, the need to find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more pressing. He found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of humans. Nancarrow has said that if electronic resources had been available to him at this time, he would have probably written music for them, but they were not. It is possible that Nancarrow hit upon the idea of using the player piano through Henry Cowell, an acknowledged early influence, who wrote about the possibilities of using the player piano in serious music in his book, New Musical Resources (1930).

Nancarrow had a machine custom built to enable him to punch the piano rolls by hand. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work, and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism, and covering the hammers with leather or metal so as to produce a more percussive sound.

Nancarrow's first pieces combined the harmonic language and melodic motifs of early jazz pianists like Art Tatum with extraordinarily complicated metrical schemes. The first five rolls he made are called the Boogie-Woogie Suite (later assigned the name Study No. 3 a-e) and are probably the most jazzy of all his works. Later works tend to be more abstract, with no obvious references to any music apart from Nancarrow's.

Many of these later pieces (which on the whole he called studies) are canons in augmentation or diminution. While most such canons, such as those by Johann Sebastian Bach, have the tempos of the various parts in quite simple ratios, like 2:1, Nancarrow's canons are in far more complicated ratios. The Study No. 40, for example, has its parts in the ratio e:pi, while the Study No. 37 has twelve individual melodic lines, each one moving at a different tempo.

Having spent most of his life in obscurity, Nancarrow benefitted from the 1969 release of an entire album of his work by Columbia Records as part of a brief flirtation of the label's classical division with modern avant garde music. (Others benefitting included Steve Reich, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, and percussionist Max Neuhaus).

Nancarrow became better known in the 1980s, and was eventually lauded as one of the most significant composers of the century. The composer Gyrgy Ligeti called his music "the great discovery since Webern and Ives ... the best of any composer living today." In 1982 he received a MacArthur Award which paid him $300,000 over 5 years. This increased interest in his work prompted him to write for more conventional instruments, and he produced several pieces for small ensembles.

Still more recently, Nancarrow's entire output for player piano has been recorded and released on the Wergo label. Many of his studies have also been arranged for musicians to play, and Joanna MacGregor has used multitracking to record several pieces on a normal piano.

Carlos Sandoval, who was his assistant (1990-94), says: "Nancarrow’s imagination was a mixture: the result of mixing the fantasy of an artist and the imagination of a scientist. Apart from his musical mastery, there is in his music a mathematical beauty: he did not see a clear border between both approaches and he never looked worried about it. This 'double-esthetic' is one of his most relevant contribution to the 20th century’s music.”

"Other important contribution has relation with a kind of 'semiological extrapolation'. On one hand, his music can be listening as 'symbols', with their often-recognized analogical correspondences (Blues, Jazz, Flamenco, bla-bla). On the other hand, there is an 'abstract, decodified profile' (the complex poly-temporal structures, for instance) which may be also present in the same piece. This fact does break the statement 'something is more different when its similarity decreases' generally used in semiology.

"His work can be, and has been considered Die Wohltemperierte-Klavier [Well-Tempered Clavier] of the 20th century. The similarity is clear, of course, but the difference with Bach is more relevant. With Bach the superlative degree of abstraction, synthesis, rationalism, construction, elegance and even religious devotion is more evident and easily recognized than the inner origin of his art. With Nancarrow, it is quite difficult to separate his technical capacities from his deep sense of cultural belonging. His practical acquaintance with traditional music through aural-oral tradition is not just a datum. There is not any Study for Player Piano named in Hindu, Nhuatl, Spanish or any African language. He is dealing with an echo, a sense, an origin, a philosophy. This is another important contribution: the relationship of his cultural belonging with technology. However, this relationship is not just a philosophical one. If we belong to a specific culture in a genuine way, we have to be considered as a part of a group, we have to define ourselves politically, in both theory and practice. This is the case with Nancarrow."

"His answer to the electronic music –where everything has to be invented, and meaning (signum), origin (origo), symbol (symbolon) are not necessarily implicit, not to mention explicit— is the creation of a closed self-contained system, at the same time versatile and self sufficient. Just like the systems one can find in aural-oral tradition systems. This issue is related with the idea of a 'natural language', based (in his case) upon a very generic sense of motif, applied to different level resources: melody, tempo, rhythm and texture."

"Many scholars think on Nancarrow as a exiled in a small island called Mexico. Typical colonialist arrogance: An isolated is someone who ignores everything around him, not someone who is ignored by others."

Sound samples

  • Opening of the Study 3a (Vorbis format, 20 seconds, 92KB) - one of the first piano rolls that Nancarrow made, clearly showing the boogie-woogie influence of his early work
  • Ending of the Study 40b (Vorbis format, 16 seconds, 74KB) - this later piece demonstrates Nancarrow's mature, abstract style, with copious use of glissandi. 40b is one of the studies for two player pianos playing simultaneously.

External links

de:Conlon Nancarrow ja:コンロン・ナンカロウ

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