Conlon Nancarrow (1912 - 1997)



Conlon Nancarrow, Studies for Player Piano (July 17, 1974)

Charles Amirkhanian introduces recent compositions by this American composer, who since 1947 developed a unique body of complex pieces, all for player piano. Nancarrow was able to punch carefully calculated holes in player piano rolls and make the instrument perform inhumanly difficult figures. His concerns with rhythm and sonority are more advanced than almost any in the world, yet his music makes an immediate impression even to those who don’t normally like avant-garde music. This is music utterly new our ears by an unrecognized genius of 20th Century composition. Nancarrow resided in Mexico City since the 1940s. His music has been choreographed by Merce Cunningham. In this program you will hear a selection of recordings from a Columbia LP, as well as some more recently taped pieces.


Interview, April 28 1977 (46:07)

In April of 1977 Charles Amirkhanian journeyed to Mexico City to talk with composer Conlon Nancarrow, who had settled there after a self-imposed exile from the United States, following the harassment he experienced over his involvement with the Communist Party, and his fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The two discussed the mechanics of composing for the player piano, a process of manually punching literally thousands of holes in long rolls of paper. Nancarrow also relates his association, or lack there of, with other composers, his dissatisfaction with the lack of temporal control in the electronic music of his day, and his experience studying counterpoint with Roger Sessions. Sounding very relaxed and genial, Nancarrow also goes into some detail about how he composes and describes some of his later works.


New Music America 1981: Tapes of Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow (June 12, 1981)

The second Act of the June 12th concert of the 1981 New Music America Festival was devoted to the music of Conlon Nancarrow, who specialized in composing for the player piano. However unlike the ragtime player piano music that many people are familiar with, Nancarrow’s works are distinguished by their immense mathematical complexity and remarkable speed. In some ways they are not unlike a Bach fugue or canon played at speeds that were impossible to imagine before the advent of the computer. Impossible that is, unless you were Conlon Nancarrow, who was perhaps the only person to recognize the unique potential of the player piano to produce such challenging new music. This concert is particularly noteworthy because Nancarrow was in the audience, on his first trip back to the United States after over 30 years of living in Mexico City, where he had moved to after facing persecution for his communist sympathies and involvement in the Spanish Civil War in the early 1930s. Due to the fact that Nancarrow composed for his own player piano which he had modified in order to get a crisper sound, an instrument that was too large to bring on the plane, this concert presented tapes of his studies played over loudspeakers.



Conlon Nancarrow on KPFA's Ode To Gravity Series from 1987 including interviews from Mexico City and New York recorded in 1977 (April 30, 1987)

1. Part 1
2. Part 2


In an interview by Charles Amirkhanian with Conlon Nancarrow at this Mexico City home in 1977, the composer reveals details of his compositions for one or more player pianos including the equipment needed to hand-punch the holes into the piano rolls. Reminiscences of the artists residing in Mexico City from the 1940s on, including Diego Rivera, are recounted. There are recordings of several "Studies for Player Piano" presented, and in one instance, a composition for traditional instruments (String Quartet). Nancarrow prepared a piano roll of the first movement of his String Quartet so that he could hear it. On this broadcast, this piano roll is presented followed by a recording of a performance of all three movements of the Quartet played by the Kronos Quartet. This program provides a fascinating look at an artist who discovered a unique medium in which to display his extraordinary compositional skills.

Pieces as they appear in order include: Study No 7, Study No 25, Study No 3a (1949), String Quartet (1942), Study No 12, Study No 35 (excerpt), Study No 27, Study No 21, Study No 40b, Piece for Tape, Study No 49, and Study No 20.

This program was first broadcast on April 30, 1987.



A Sense of Place: The Life and Work of Conlon Nancarrow (January 28, 1994)

The life and work of Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who turned an anachronistic gadget, the player piano, into a vehicle for greatness. This half-hour portrait includes interviews with family, friends, and other composers, interweaving the man and his music in ways that illuminate both.

Interviewees in Order:

Ardis Wodehouse, Julio Estrada, Mako Nancarrow, Julio Estrada, Letter of Ed Lending read by Forrest Miller, Conlon Nancarrow, Kyle Gann, Yoko Seguira Nancarrow, Kyle Gann, Yoko, Conlon, Yoko, Eva Soltes, Mako, Yoko, Julio Estrada, Yoko, Eva Soltes, Julio Estrada, Yoko, Eva Soltes, Yoko, Ursula Oppens, Yoko, Mako, Yoko, Kyle Gann, Mako.

Music Selections in Order:

Study #40b, Shreveport Stomp: Jelly Roll Morton, Just Snap Your Fingers at Care: Arr. And played by George Gershwin, Study #43, Study #21, Study #2b, Study #43, Study #1, Study #3a, Study #40a, Study #12, Study #21, Study #26, Study #27, Study #41a, Study #45b, Study #43, Study #43b.

Credits:

Writer/Producer/Narrator: Helen Borten, Mix Engineer: Marilyn Ries



Speaking of Music: Conlon Nancarrow (February 2, 1984)

1. Part 1
2. Part 2


Recorded on February 2, 1984 as part of the San Francisco Exploratorium’s Speaking of Music series Charles Amirkhanian interviews composer Conlon Nancarrow before a live audience. After playing a short documentary on the life and work of Conlon Nancarrow, Charles Amirkhanian talks with the composer about his music written for the player piano.