“Just Sounds”: Conlon Nancarrow at 100 13.11.2012

Nikolai Sadik-Ogli 13.11.2012

The centennial of the birth of one of the most innovative and unique twentieth century composers, Conlon Nancarrow, was celebrated in Berkeley on the weekend of 2-4 November 2012 with exhibitions, film showings, informative panel discussions and unique concerts. Nancarrow wrote almost all of his music exclusively for player piano in a series of fifty-one studies that primarily explored rhythmical issues. His music requires the mechanical precision of the player piano and is generally impossible for humans to perform; the most famous example of this is seen in Study # 25, which uses 1,028 notes in the last twelve seconds.

Conlon Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas on 27 October 1912 to one of the community’s leading businessmen, the manager of a barrel factory, Samuel Nancarrow and his wife Myra. Conlon was sent to Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois, where he discovered music, primarily blues and jazz by Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Earl Hines, who would all become lifelong influences and interests for him. Nancarrow started composing at around age fifteen but eventually attended Vanderbilt University to study engineering at the request of his father. This mathematical background would also have a large influence in Nancarrow’s musical experiments.

After one semester of engineering studies, Nancarrow finally went to the Cincinnati College-Conservatory to study music. There, he played jazz trumpet and also discovered and was impressed by Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps and the music of Bela Bartok. This importantly demonstrates his aversion to and avoidance of Schoenberg’s twelve tone system of composition, which served as the important alternative to Stravinsky’s direction at the time. From 1934-1935, Nancarrow studied privately with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky in Boston. There he also heard Indian music for the first time, and it, along with African music, would become another major influence and interest in his life. Eventually, Nancarrow became famous for his extensive book and record collection that covered all of these and many other diverse topics.

From 1937-1939, after having toured Europe with a jazz group, Nancarrow joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight in the Spanish civil war against Franco. During this time, Slonimsky published Nancarrow’s first pieces, the Tocatta, Prelude and Blues, in Henry Cowell’s important magazine, New Music.

After returning and moving to New York, Nancarrow discovered that the US government denied his passport application due to suspicions regarding the Communist nature of his involvement in Spain. He therefore moved to Mexico City in 1940, where he remained for the rest of his life, returning to the United States only in 1947 to obtain his player piano and specially built roll punching machine, which was eventually modified even further to allow complete freedom in where he could punch the rolls. The hammers of Nancarrow’s two Ampico pianos were also modified; one had leather strips placed over the felt hammers, while the other used metal strips to create a unique, powerful sound that has been difficult to capture on record in comparison to the live sound that others heard in Nancarrow’s own soundproof studio.

In New York, Nancarrow had arranged a performance of his Septet, but, as there were limited rehearsals that were never attended by the full ensemble, the performance ended disastrously. In Mexico, Nancarrow had written a Trio for clarinet, bassoon and piano, but, again, rehearsals went badly and the clarinetist refused to perform the difficult music that sounded “wrong” and the performance was cancelled.

Because of these poor experiences, Nancarrow started to dream of a way to make music that would do away with the need to have a live performer and allow him the freedom to explore any unusually difficult musical ideas without limitation. He discovered his answer in Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources, which had been started in 1916 but was not published until 1930. The book included an exploration of rhythm and time, from which Cowell created scales of rhythm based on overtones (which Nancarrow had tacked up in studio for lifelong reference), and made the suggestion that “[s]ome of the rhythms developed through the present acoustical investigation could not be played by any living performer; but these highly engrossing rhythmical complexes could easily be cut on a player piano roll.” Cowell never followed through on this idea, but it became the basis for Nancarrow’s entire career.

For the rest of his life in isolation in Mexico, Nancarrow created fifty-one numbered Studies for Player Piano. Many of his earlier works were still based in blues and boogie-woogie styles, though such obvious influences later disappeared. Many of the studies are rooted in canon form, so that the different voices are played in different registers at different tempos determined by ratios.

For example, Study # 37 contains up to twelve voices, while the voices in Study # 19 are played according to the tempo ratios of 12/15/20. It could take many months of work to create five minutes of music on a roll, as Nancarrow’s compositional process involved making a traditional score, creating the rhythmical templates, and then hand punching the roll. Many of the resulting visual patterns on the rolls are beautiful in and of themselves.

Sporadically, word of Cowell’s experimental and revolutionary work leaked out. His Study # 1 was published in New Music in 1951, the same year his Sonatina was premiered in Washington, D.C. Elliott Carter referenced Nancarrow’s work in an article on rhythm in The Score in 1955, the year before Nancarrow became a Mexican citizen. One concert using Nancarrow’s actual player pianos was held in Mexico in 1962, after which only one piano was ever moved out of the studio again for a concert in 1990. John Cage arranged tapes of Nancarrow’s music for Merce Cunningham, who choreographed six of the studies for the piece “Crises”, which was presented on a world tour in 1964. Based on this exposure, Columbia Records issued an LP of twelve studies in 1969 (though it was later deleted from the catalogue in 1973). Also in 1969, Nancarrow was sought out by Charles Amirkhanian, then the music director of KPFA in Berkeley and now the director of Other Minds, the important new music organization that arranged the centennial celebration. In 1972, Nancarrow was sought out by composer Peter Garland, who later published several of his scores in the magazine Soundings.

Several studies were included on a New World Records LP of avant-garde piano music, and the complete collection of studies was finally recorded and released on four LPs by 1750 Arch Records. The pieces were recorded in Nancarrow’s studio and are the most celebrated recordings of his works (they have recently been reissued on CD by Other Minds). These records were discovered by Györgi Ligeti, who became a lifelong champion of Nancarrow’s music and wrote a foreword to the new book Encounters with Conlon Nancarrow by Jürgen Hocker. The European Broadcast Union commissioned a piece in 1978, which resulted in Study # 39. Nancarrow also won a Guggenheim fellowship that year and was later also awarded the McArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1982. Concerts, first featuring recordings and eventually actual player pianos, were held in various cities in America and Europe throughout the 1980s. Seattle based sound sculptor Trimpin visited Nancarrow and copied all of his piano rolls into MIDI files, thus finally preserving exact copies of the fragile, one-of-a-kind originals. Trimpin had to use a pneumatic system because Nancarrow had covered erroneous holes in the rolls with scotch tape that the optical system was unable to filter out. Another complete set of the studies was recorded and released by Wergo in 1991.

Nancarrow’s health started to decline in the 1990s, but he continued to compose with the help of an assistant, Carlos Sandoval, until his death on 9 August 1997. In 2006, Dabringhaus und Grimm released a new set of the complete studies played on modified Ampico-Bösendorfer grand pianos. Though they were not the originals from the composer’s studio, Nancarrow had supervised the modifications made to the pianos and they had been used in several European concerts of his music in the late 1980s. Most of Nancarrow’s non-player piano music has now also been released on CD. Nancarrow’s musical archives, including his scores, player pianos and record collection, are now located at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland.

The centennial festival opened on Friday, 2 November 2012, at the Berkeley Art Museum with an exhibition of the recreation of Nancarrow’s percussion orchestra by Trimpin. The recreation used Nancarrow’s original drums and other percussion equipment rigged onto three piano frames standing on the floor. Listeners can press a button to hear one of 16 pre-programmed examples of music or demonstrations of the instruments. The exhibition was followed by a showing of the extremely informative new documentary, Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano by James Greeson. The documentary provided excellent insight into Nancarrow’s life and work, including interviews with key people who also attended the festival, including, in addition to many of those mentioned above, his widow Yoko Sugiura (an accomplished archaeologist with the Universidad Autónoma de México), son Mako, and biographer Kyle Gann.

A panel discussion involving all of these key people was held in Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on Saturday. Mr. Amirkhanian noted how it was necessary for Nancarrow to create limitations in his music, working within strictly defined tempo ratios for example, because otherwise, the virgin piano rolls offered him unlimited freedom. Dr. Meyer of the Sacher Foundation described how they have been duplicating and microfilming the collection and are also creating new MIDI files of the piano rolls based on an improved optical scanning system. Mr. Garland noted how Nancarrow’s music has a built-in intimate quality because for years it existed only on the original piano rolls that could only be heard in the composer’s own studio. Similarly, Nancarrow worked in complete isolation, without pursuing prizes, publicity or other external recognition.

The panel discussion on Sunday centered on issues surrounding the performance of Nancarrow’s work. Dominic Murkott (of the High Lamas) has studied Nancarrow’s singular Piece for Tape and transcribed it for a live percussionist.

His deconstruction of the piece, which is made up of single drum sounds that were closely spliced together, was illuminating while the high-speed live performance was exhilarating. The Helena Bugallo – Amy Williams piano duo discussed some of the problems of transcribing Nancarrow’s complex and fast music for four-handed performance. Pianola expert Rex Lawson and Chris Froh performed Nancarrow’s early Toccata for Piano and Violin . Mr. Gann ended the proceedings by playing recordings of some of the unidentified piano rolls found in Nancarrow’s studio. A second film screening presented Uli Aumüller’s revealing documentary Music for 1,000 Fingers that had originally been made for German television in 1993. The important film had been taken in the late 1980s and shows Nancarrow at work in his studio, punching and playing rolls, discussing his life and music, and showing his record collection and extensive library.

Unfortunately, this author was unable to attend any of the three concerts that were held on Saturday and Sunday. Fortunately, the panel discussions included a good amount of Nancarrow’s music. The effect of watching a player piano being hammered violently by Trimpin’s vorsetzer, a box that sits on top of the piano keyboard and hammers the keys, seen here playing one of Trimpin’s pieces, is ghostly and even somewhat disturbing, especially considering the unusual intensity of the music that the piano is being forced to play.

It is interesting to consider Nancarrow’s work in light of the other abuse that American experimental composers have vented against the instrument. Harry Partch despised it as a symbol of the outdated European concert tradition and called it “twelve black and white bars in front of musical freedom.” Henry Cowell scandalously pounded the keys with his fists and played inside the piano directly on the strings themselves. John Cage invented the prepared piano that was loaded with nuts and bolts and other sound-altering ephemera. Nancarrow had personally experienced the premier of the Sonatas and Interludes during his time in New York and experimented with the medium in Study # 30, (heard here without the preparations), and eventually started using amplified pianos that were hit, kicked and slammed in concert.

In jazz, Sun Ra pioneered the use of synthesizers and other keyboard alternatives to expand the available musical palette. American popular music also reflects a revolutionary approach to the instrument, considering that Little Richard would stand on his piano and Jerry Lee Lewis played with his feet and even set them on fire. Nancarrow, in turn, pushed the instrument beyond all human limitations and capabilities, creating an astonishing, stunning and completely unique set of musical compositions.


Henry Cowell: New Musical Resources. Cambridge University Press, 1996. pp. 64-65.

Kyle Gann: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Conlon Nancarrow: The Original 1750 Arch Recordings. Other Minds, 2008. Liner notes by James Tenney.

Conlon Nancarrow: Studies. BMG Music, 1993. Liner notes by Leslie Gerber.

Conlon Nancarrow: Studies for Player Piano. Columbia Records, 1969. Liner Notes by Gordon Mumma.

Nancarrow at 100. CalPerformances Festival Brochure. 2012.

Player Piano: Conlon Nancarrow, Vols. 1-5. Dabringhaus und Grimm, 2006-2009. Liner Notes by Dr. Jürgen Hocker.

For more information see:


Conlon Nancarrow

Kyle Gann

Other Minds, Nancarrow

Berkeley Exhibition

Other Minds, Nancarrow 100