Conlon Nancarrow was a US born composer who lived and worked in Mexico for most of his life. He is best remembered for the pieces he wrote for the player piano. He was one of the first composers to use musical instruments as mechanical machines, making them play far beyond human performance ability. He lived most of his life in relative isolation. Today, he is remembered as one of the most original and unusual composers of the 20th century.
In 1947, buoyed by an inheritance, Nancarrow bought a custom built, manual punching machine to enable him to punch piano rolls. The machine was an adaptation of one used in the commercial production of rolls, and using it was very hard work, and very slow. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism, and covering the hammers with leather and metal so as to produce a more percussive sound.
Nancarrow’s first pieces combined the harmonic language and melodic motifs of early jazz pianists like Art Tatum with extraordinarily complicated metrical schemes. The first five rolls he made are called the Boogie Woogie Suite and are probably the most jazzy of all his works. Later works tend to be more abstract, with no obvious references to any music apart from Nancarrow’s.
Many of these later pieces are canons in augmentation or diminution or prolation canons. While most canons using this device, such as those by Johann Sebastian Bach, have the tempos of the various parts in quite simple ratios, like 2:1, Nancarrow’s canons are in far more complicated ratios. The Study No. 40, for example, has its parts in the ratio e:pi, while the Study No. 37 has twelve individual melodic lines, each one moving at a different tempo.
His music has a mathematical beauty and elegance that happily coexists with musical expressiveness and a puckish sense of humor. Nancarrow did not see a clear delineation between the two approaches and he never worried about it. This natural, organic esthetic is one of his most relevant contributions to 20th century music. Another important contribution relates to a kind of semiological extrapolation. On the one hand, his music can be heard as symbols, with their often recognized analogical correspondences.
The complete contents of Nancarrow’s studio, including the player piano rolls, the instruments, the libraries, and other documents and objects, are now in the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel.