Nancarrow, Conlon

Nancarrow, Conlon, 1912–1997, American-Mexican composer, best known for his works for the player piano, b. Texarkana, Ark., studied Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions. A dedicated socialist, he joined (1933) the Communist party and fought against Franco in the Spanish civil war. Returning (1939) to the United States, he found that his passport had not been renewed. In 1940 he moved to Mexico City where, with brief exceptions, he spent the rest of his life, becoming (1956) a Mexican citizen. Nancarrow began his musical life as a jazz trumpeter, turning to composing in the early 1930s. Because pianists found his complex, extremely fast works impossible to play with the clarity he demanded, he began to compose for the player piano. Modifying two such pianos (covering hammers with leather and steel), he created some 50 Studies and other works for the instruments, painstakingly punching holes directly in the piano rolls. The resulting music, usually for two pianos, has layers of complexity, clashes of tempo, conflicting rhythms, and amazing speed, with references to jazz and other styles in a rich, usually atonal blend. His music was largely ignored for years, but interest has grown since 1960.

See K. Gann, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (1996, repr. 2006); Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano (documentary, 2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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