The Canon Master: Conlon Nancarrow at 70 November 16, 1982

There have been many celebrations of John Cage’s 70th birthday this year, but not so many have remembered that there is another important American composer, Conlon Nancarrow, who was also born in the autumn of 1912. Nancarrow’s contribution is admittedly more modest. His entire mature output consists of 40-odd studies for player piano, or two player pianos. Nor has his music been readily available. Only one long out-of-print Columbia recording ever attempted to convey his work to the general audience, and almost none of his scores have been published. Spending the last 40 years in relative isolation in Mexico City, he has made few efforts to send his music out, and others have made few efforts to find it. Yet his patient devotion to a largely forgotten instrument has resulted in a body of work that deserves careful attention. Thanks to 1750 Arch Records, three LPs, comprising 25 of his studies, are now available, so it is now possible to obtain a fairly clear impression of Nancarrow’s contribution, and the composer is finally attaining recognition. The MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its $300,000 grants this year, the Cabrillo Festival featured his music this summer, and Newsweek recently devoted a full page to his work.

For a time, Nancarrow, who was born in Texarkana, Arkansas, led the sort of life one might expect a talented young composer with experimental tendencies to lead. He studied in Cincinnatti, went to Boston to work with Walter Piston, Nicolas Slonimsky, and Roger Sessions, and had a few performances of his early compositions. But then, in 1937, he joined the Lincoln Brigade and went to fight in the Spanish revolution. Narrowly escaping the Fascist forces there, he returned to his country in 1939, lived in New York, and wrote a few reviews in the magazine Modern Music. But the 1982/piano-man-hans-otte year, at least partly as a result of passport problems and harassment for his political activities, he moved to Mexico. For many years now he has led a quiet life in a comfortable villa outside Mexico City, where most of his composing time is spent perforating holes in player-piano rolls. He is almost completely isolated from other composers, but he keeps in close touch with new music activities here and in Europe through a variety of periodicals. His two upright player pianos are of very good quality, and it is said that when you hear Nancarrow’s music in his studio, the sound is extremely loud and energetic.

This is even apparent on the 1750 Arch records, which were recorded in the composer’s studio, and which produce a lively sound. This is especially true in the most spectacular segments of Nancarrow’s music, where one sometimes hears many different lines moving up and down the keyboard simultaneously at velocities as great as 111 notes per second. The speeds are sometimes so fast, and the textures so dense, that the music becomes quite dizzying. It also becomes quite unpianistic. It is not that the instruments or the recordings have been tampered with, although the composer does use especially hard hammers. The main point is just that the texture goes so far beyond what human pianists could do. Even six or seven pianists, or six or seven pianos, could never equal the sheer density that Nancarrow sometimes gets with his two player pianos, and thus the sounds of his pianos become the sounds of fantasy pianos. Of course, computers and synthesizers can spit out huge numbers of notes too, but they do it so easily that the effect is not at all that impressive. With the player piano, one is still in a world of acoustical sounds, piano keys, and mechanical limitations, and frenetic activity still sounds very frenetic.

In pure compositional terms, perhaps Nancarrow’s greatest contribution has been not his invention of new materials, though, so much as his development of a form which has been known ever since ‘Sumer is icumen in’ in the 13th century, the canon. Nancarrow’s canons are often as strict as any by Bach or Schubert or Webern. Every voice states exactly the same notes, though at different times. Working with player-piano rolls, however, one can juxtapose voices with far greater rhythmic exactitude than when working with live performers, sometimes achieving degrees of precision that could not even be notated very clearly. Thus in Study #14, for example, one voice moves at 88 beats a minute, while another voice moves at 110 beats a minute. The faster line starts a little later and ends a little earlier, and presumably it is exactly synchronized with its counterpart at some point in the middle, though the cross-rhythms are so intricate that I never could hear the exact point. In #37, 12 different voices all proceed in independent tempos. In #40b the composer works with tempos whose ratios are e:pi or 2.718:3.142 or.856. In #21 one voice begins very slow and gradually accelerates, while the other does just the reverse, beginning fast, synchronizing briefly with its companion, and ending slow. In #20 there is a canon in which each voice plays only one note, but the intricate cross-rhythms become intricate melodies. Etc. Etc. Nancarrow tried just about every kind of canon imaginable, and the results are a whole catalogue of fascinating new possibilities.

These brief observations only scratch the surface. There is much more about Nancarrow’s counterpoint, his polyrhythms, his facility with both tonality and atonality, and his sense of harmony that would have to be said in order to do any justice to the depth of his musical style, and to the 40 years he has spent developing it. Yet for all the composer’s depth, his thoughtfulness, and his intellectual discoveries, it is important to add that his work never loses touch with the pure delight of making music. There always seems to be a touch of jazz, a walking bass line, or a vague Gershwin reference somewhere in the background. The music is never stuffy. And when it flexes its intellectual muscles, the goal is never just to show how smart it is, but rather, to create mathematically perfect ritards, dense 10-voice textures, or some kind of quirky rhythmic dance that is appealing on a purely sensual level.

Because of Nancarrow’s self-imposed isolation, the difficulty of finding well-maintained player pianos or transporting those of the composer, the lack of any mature chamber or orchestral scores, and the fact that he has received little support from musicians and critics in his own generation, Nancarrow’s music has taken a long time to attain recognition. But now, thanks to younger people such as Charles Amirkhanian, who produced these recordings, James Tenney, who provided detailed liner notes, and Peter Garland, who devoted a whole issue of Soundings to Nancarrow in 1977, his work is becoming better known, and it is getting its message across. If you haven’t done so, make a little room on your record shelf for the player-piano man, the individualistic expatriate, the brilliant musician, the indefatigable experimenter, the canon master Conlon Nancarrow.


At this point I was still able to write with energy and enthusiasm about Jackson Mac Low or Conlon Nancarrow, but I was generally growing weary of New York, and of my job with the Voice. I turned in one more column devoted to the Minnesota Composers Forum, and then left for Europe once more, this time for an extended period. I sent back a column on Hans Otte, another on Luc Ferrari, and a more general article on European music, and then took a six month leave of absence, during which time I had a DAAD grant in Berlin, did concerts in many other cities, and spent most of my time learning German. In May I resigned from the Voice definitively, as I explain in the ‘Farewell Article’ which ended my journalistic career.