Conlon Nancarrow

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Conlon Nancarrow (October 27, 1912 – August 10, 1997) was a United States-born composer who lived and worked in Mexico for most of his life. He became a Mexican citizen in 1955.

Nancarrow 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, not becoming widely known until the 1980s.

Contents

Biography

Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He played trumpet in a jazz band in his youth, before studying music first in Cincinnati, Ohio and later in Boston, Massachusetts with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky. He met Arnold Schoenberg during that composer's brief stay in Boston in 1933.

In Boston, Nancarrow joined the Communist Party. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he traveled to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in fighting against Francisco Franco. Upon his return to the United States in 1939, he learned that his Brigade colleagues were having trouble getting their U.S. passports renewed. After spending some time in New York City, Nancarrow moved to Mexico in 1940 to escape this harassment.

He only visited the USA once, in 1947, and became a Mexican citizen in 1956. When he was in San Francisco for the New Music America festival in 1981, he consulted a lawyer about the possibility of returning to his native country. He was told that he would have to sign a statement swearing that he had been "young and foolish" when he embraced communism, which he refused to do. Consequently, he continued living in Las Águilas, Mexico City, until his death at age 84. Though he had a few friends among Mexican composers, he was largely ignored by the Mexican musical establishment.

Nevertheless, it was in Mexico that Nancarrow did the work he is best known for today. He had already written some music in the United States, but the extreme technical demands they made on players meant that satisfactory performances were very rare. That situation did not improve in Mexico's musical environment, also with few musicians available who could perform his works, so the need to find an alternative way of having his pieces performed became even more pressing. Taking a suggestion from Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, which he bought in New York in 1939, Nancarrow found the answer in the player piano, with its ability to produce extremely complex rhythmic patterns at a speed far beyond the abilities of humans.

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