Nancarrow's Player Piano Music Was Ahead of Its Time

Conlon Nancarrow had an unbounded creative vision ... and today he has a virtual cult following among avant-garde musicologists and music students because of his contributions to music.

On October 27, 1912, Nancarrow was born in Texarkana. He started in music by playing trumpet in a jazz band in high school there. After studying music in Cincinnati and Boston, it was his joining of the Communist Party in about 1933 that forever branded him as a revolutionary nonconformist -- in both politics and music.

To avoid the hassle of his political beliefs, he moved to Mexico in 1940, where he lived the rest of his life. He declared his Mexican citizenship in 1956.

Nancarrow spent much of his musical career with a passion for composing highly complex piano music. In fact, it was said to be so complex, that humans could not perform it. 

The outlet for his music actually, then, became player pianos, which were popular at the time. Player pianos typically "read" rolls of paper printed with musical notes. Player pianos could simply perform more demanding pieces than humans.

He became an admired composer of player piano music. In this way his work on player piano music mirrored high-tech computer electronic music produced today. His music was composed predominantly with mathematics instead of attention to pleasing harmonies and melodies.

John Tennison

"I have no doubt that, if Nancarrow were alive and composing today, he would be using digital sound sources, which would overcome the limits of the traditional player pianos of the sort that Nancarrow used in his compositions," says John Tennison, keynote speaker on Nancarrow's impact on music at the inaugural concert of the opening of the Texarkana-based Regional Music Heritage Center in 2016.  

Tennison, a San Antonio-based doctor of psychiatry, will perform his self-composed 17-hour symphony at the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium in Texarkana starting at midnight Sunday, March 3. The symphony, titled Texarkanon, draws directly on principles used by Nancarrow in his compositions. [See concert details.]

“Conlon Nancarrow has been an immense influence on me," Tennison says. "Having grown up across the street from Conlon's brother, Charles, I was exposed to recordings of Conlon's music from a young age. This exposure influenced me to have an understanding of 'music' which is extremely inclusive. As a result of my deep appreciation of Nancarrow's music, I too have sought to compose music which manipulates temporal parameters. I set out to take the principles used by Nancarrow to even further extremes.

"For example, Nancarrow's music used up to 12 simultaneously-different tempos (or tempi), whereas my Texarkanon Symphony uses 88 simultaneously-different tempos (tempi). Nancarrow's music used just over 112 notes per second, whereas Texarkanon uses up to about 4,494 notes per second."

Having spent many years in obscurity, Nancarrow benefited 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.

Nancarrow only started to get noticed at age 65. By 1982, he had won the prestigious MacArthur Award, which rewarded him monetarily for five years. He spent much of that time transcribing some of his early work to be played by other instruments.

He died in Mexico City in 1997.

To listen to a sample of his music, visit his artist page on Spotify at (Free account set-up required.)

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