by Kyle Gann
Conlon Nancarrow had a reputation as one of the worst interviewees in the history of music. Three answers sufficed him for most questions: "No," "I don't know," and "I don't see why you'd want to know that." Yet he wasn't an unfriendly man, he just didn't like talking about his music very much. He loved recounting his adventures in the Spanish Civil War, especially how he was famous in the fabled Abraham Lincoln Brigade for his ability to roll a cigarette with one hand. Get him on the subject of politics, and he'd rail against the Democrats for trying to imitate Republicans instead of offering a real alternative. He was an unrepentant Communist, or more accurately Socialist, which is why he lived in Mexico City from 1940 on, to escape persecution during the McCarthy witch hunts. He had strong opinions, he kept up with world affairs, and he loved telling stories. It just seemed that, in interviews, no one ever asked him the right questions.
Hardly anyone knew of Nancarrow's music until he was 65. There had been a little bit of attention. Aaron Copland had reviewed his Prelude and Blues for piano in New Music in 1938. Elliott Carter published an article about Nancarrow's Player-Piano Study No. 1 in 1955. And around 1960, the composer sent John Edwards, librarian at the New York Public Library, a tape of his music, which Edwards gave to John Cage, who gave it to his partner the dancer Merce Cunningham, who choreographed several of the studies for player piano. That exposure led to a short-lived Columbia recording in 1969. This slim list just about exhausts Nancarrow's public career in the first 65 years of his life. The dramatic turnaround came between 1977 and 1983: Peter Garland started publishing Nancarrow's scores in his Soundings journal, and Charles Amirkhanian released the recordings on the 1750 Arch label, upon which Gyorgy Ligeti, one of Europe's most celebrated composers, called Nancarrow's "the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives... something great and important for all music history... the best music of any composer living today!"
From this point on, Nancarrow began to be a musical celebrity, but he never liked it. I remember once he had recently been visited by a German film crew making a documentary. He was incensed because they made him play his Study No. 21 over and over again on his player piano while they tried to get the light and sound just right. He said that by the end of it he never wanted to hear that piece again. Conlon's wife Yoko used to tell me that she would ask him what she should do with all his player piano rolls and scores when he died. "Burn them," was always the offhand response. Through the last decade of his life that I can vouch for, Nancarrow kept up an image of someone who only wrote music to satisfy his own curiosity, someone who didn't care about being recognized for the music he'd spent his life writing. If it was merely a facade, I never found a crack in it. In 1982 his manager Eva Soltes persuaded him to go on a European tour only by convincing him that it would prove to his then-13-year-old son Mako that he hadn't wasted his life.
There had indeed been something directionless about Nancarrow's early life. The troublesome son of the mayor of Texarkana, Arkansas, he was sent to military academy where his father hoped he would get some discipline - but he discovered the trumpet instead. An attempt to get an engineering degree at Vanderbilt fared no better, and Nancarrow dropped out after a semester. From there he went to Cincinnati College-Conservatory, where he heard and was inspired by Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, and thence to Malkin Conservatory in Boston, where he studied with Roger Sessions and seems to have met Arnold Schoenberg, who had emigrated to Boston to escape the Nazis. Then came the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a hair's-breadth escape in an olive-oil freighter sliding between Italian submarines, and a return to Texarkana where the locals considered him a hero under the mistaken belief that he had been fighting Catholics. Returning to New York to visit friends, Nancarrow learned that Brigade members were being denied passports because of their Communist Party membership.
By the time he expatriated to Mexico City, the 28-year-old Nancarrow had a pretty bare resume. He had written a handful of short, impractical works, most of which hadn't been performed. One problem was that the rhythms he wanted to write (though tame by today's standards) were too complex, and players balked. An attempt to get a Septet played in Mexico City ended in disaster, and contacts with local composers provided little help. In 1947, however, Nancarrow received a modest inheritance from his father (which he would pretty much live on until 1970, American dollars going further in Mexico then at home). With this he traveled to New York, and, taking a suggestion from Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, bought a player piano and commissioned a punching machine to punch player piano rolls. This, at age 35, was the real start of his career.
Nancarrow wrote his phenomenal series of about 51 Player Piano Studies between 1948 and 1993, at first inspired by the jazz pianism of Earl "Fatha" Hines and Art Tatum. (The numbering of the Studies is complicated. For instance, he renumbered Studies 38 and 39 to make them look like he composed them later to fulfill commissions, so officially Nos. 38 and 39 don't exist.) Many of his rhythmic ideas had come from Cowell's book, ideas that Cowell never used himself - Cowell's charts correlating rhythm and pitch hung on Nancarrow's studio wall until the day he died. He was interested in speed, and in complex polyrhythms of different-length patterns looping at the same time and going out of phase. To facilitate the latter he revived a medieval technique called isorhythm, in which the same rhythm would be repeated over and over with different pitches. Soon he became interested in tempo canons, in which the same melody would be played against itself in two (or three or four or twelve) different transpositions and in as many different tempos. Composers of the Renaissance such as Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin Desprez had written tempo canons, but no one else had ever explored the medium with such intensity and variety as Nancarrow subsequently did in more than two dozen examples.
At some point in the late 1950s, Nancarrow realized that the player piano could be more than just a really fast piano - that it could create humanly unplayable textures and thus a totally new sound that hardly resembled the piano at all. In Study #25 he started using huge figures that ripped across the keyboard in a second or two, and his subsequent music is full of these (as he liked calling them) "Nancarrow licks." In later years, he became intrigued by ever more complex tempo relationships: Study No. 33 is a canon with two tempos at ratios of 2 against the square root of 2, and Study No. 40 uses tempos at a ratio of e (the irrational base of natural logarithms) against pi.
From 1960 to 1965 Nancarrow went through "kind of a depression" and stopped composing, copying out neat versions of his studies in case anyone ever showed an interest. This seems to suggest that at least at some time in his life he had some concern for posterity. He was pretty reclusive, but he did know Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, who lived nearby; met Ernest Hemingway at a dinner party and was disappointed that the author hardly said a word; and he narrowly missed an introduction to Marilyn Monroe. Nancarrow did not seal himself off from the world. He subscribed to journals like Die Reihe and Musical Quarterly, and kept up with the musical news. His downstairs basement eventually contained tens of thousands of books on every conceivable subject. Harry Partch once visited Nancarrow, curious because Nancarrow had ordered one of his Gate Five records, and Partch wanted to see who in Mexico City was listening to his music. Nancarrow didn't play Partch any of his own, however. Nancarrow's brother Charles told me that Conlon wasn't as reclusive as reputed. He screened his visitors and often wouldn't answer the door, but if an old friend came by, or someone in need, he was all hospitality.
Nancarrow never saw a couple of his dreams realized. He had experimented in the '50s with a player-piano-like percussion instrument, but couldn't get it to work well, and he fantasized about having a video conductor that could conduct an ensemble in two or more tempos at once. He harbored no qualms about the mechanical nature of three-fourths of his life's work; for him, music consisted of abstract patterns in time, not an emotional expression on the part of a performer. He envied the ease with which younger composers, inspired by him, could achieve similar tempo contrasts via computer software with only a fraction of the work, but he said he was too old to start over again on a new technology. He was humble, reticent, full of integrity, sure of himself, but imposing no expectations on others. Taking John Cage's politics with a grain of salt, he once told me, "Cage isn't really an anarchist, he just doesn't want to be bothered!" But Nancarrow didn't like to be bothered either - even though he spent his life making a music so fascinating that the world had little choice but to come bother him.
Gann, a composer, is the author of