Born on October 12, 1912, in Texarkana, AK; died on August 10, 1997, in Mexico City, Mexico; married three times; children: one son. Education: Attended Western Military Academy, Vanderbilt University, and Cincinnati College Conservatory.

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 Duckworth 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 automated 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."

by Kristin Palm

Conlon Nancarrow's Career

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.

Conlon Nancarrow's Awards

MacArthur Award, 1982.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…