Twentieth century American composer, best known for his works for player piano.
Born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1912, Nancarrow studied composition with Roger Sessions and Walter Piston, performed as a jazz trumpeter, fought the Fascists in Spain, then moved to Mexico City in 1940 to begin his career of compositional iconoclasm in earnest.
In 1947, inspired by Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources (1930), Nancarrow obtained an Ampico player piano and the machine used to punch holes in the rolls of paper read by the piano. Rather than notating his works on staff paper to be read by human performers, he punched his scores directly into the piano rolls, to be read and performed mechanically by the player piano. With no human intermediary needed to interpret his works, Nancarrow could write precise rhythms and extremely independent lines and know that they would be heard exactly as he intended. Freed from the physical limitations of human performers, he could write works that would have demanded more than ten fingers, or impossible speed.
Between 1948 and his death in 1997 Nancarrow wrote more than fifty "Studies" for player piano. Many sound like avant-garde ragtime, with their complex polyrhythms and jazz-influenced themes. Others use Stravinksy-like massed chords or Bachian fugues and mensural canons.
In the 1960s it became possible to program music for sequencing synthesizers much as Nancarrow had done for player piano. Despite the great musical potential offered by sequencers, most artists used them either for a deliberately cold, mechanical effect (as did Kraftwerk, above all) or as a mere substitute for human performers (as in most 1980s drum programming). Nancarrow, by contrast, used his player piano to extend the range of human possibility. The most nearly comparable current artist might be Squarepusher, whose painstakingly sequenced tracks recall the dizzying speed and unpredictable rhythms of Nancarrow's work.
In the 1980s, in response to increased American interest in his work, Nancarrow wrote several works for live performers. In the late 1980s and early '90s he collaborated with (composer/sound sculptor) Trimpin on realizations of his works performed by computer-controlled percussion.
Nancarrow died in 1997 at his home in Mexico City.
From Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources:
Some of the rhythms developed through the present acoustical investigation [of cross-rhythms] could not be played by any living performer; but these highly engrossing rhythmical complexities could easily be cut on a player-piano roll...."
Cowell, Henry, New Musical Resources. New York: A.A.Knopf, 1930.
Gann, Kyle, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Rodwell, Tom, "Conlon Nancarrow: Personality and Polyphony." http://www.furious.com/perfect/conlonnancarrow.html 3/18/2004