Conlon Nancarrow


Born: October 27, 1912; Texarkana, AR   Died: August 10, 1997; Mexico City, Mexico  
Conlon Nancarrow was an iconoclastic American composer who wrote in an utterly new way using new instrumental resources. While isolated from the main currents of music, he was virtually ignored by the public and his colleagues until the 1970s. In the 1980s composer György Ligeti said Nancarrow was writing "the best music by any living composer." In his early years Nancarrow played jazz trumpet and enrolled in the Cincinnati College-Conservatory Read more of Music in 1929. He later relocated to Boston for private study with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions. Nancarrow cites his study of counterpoint with Sessions as his most important formal training. He also studied Indian and African music with Henry Cowell in New York. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1937, Nancarrow joined the Lincoln Brigade, an organization of Americans fighting for the Loyalists against General Franco. Upon his return to the United States in 1939, the State Department confiscated his passport for "communist associations." Outraged and fearing persecution, he went to Mexico City, not returning to the States for the next 40 years. He took Mexican citizenship in 1956.

Nancarrow is primarily known for his 50 studies for player piano, which combine a quasi-improvisatory likening to jazz pianists Art Tatum and Earl Hines, with dazzling rhythmic complexity rendered at tempos that exceed the capabilities of human performers. Nancarrow adopted the player piano as his instrument of choice because of its ability to exactingly reproduce his complex rhythmic layers -- sometimes up to 12 layers simultaneously -- and because of his relative isolation from performers while in Mexico. Nancarrow obtained a player piano in the 1940s and began laboriously hand-punching each note onto a piano roll, ultimately producing completed compositions.

Although in 1969 Columbia released an LP of several of his etudes, Nancarrow took no effort to promote his work until he was 59 years old. Motivated by a desire to show his teenaged son that he hadn't wasted his life, he visited the United States in 1981 to participate in the New American Music Festival in San Francisco. In 1982 he was composer in residence at the Cabrillo Festival, and subsequently toured in Europe. In 1982 he won a MacArthur Award (the so-called "genius grant").

Interest in his music increased in the 1980s. Some musicians began to transcribe the piano rolls into conventional musical notation. Guided by the rolls in grasping the rhythmic complexity, pianists Robert MacGregor, Joanna MacGregor, and Ursula Oppens began to perform some of the etudes. The dry wit and frequent warmth of the music comes through in live performance as they never have on a mechanical piano. Some of the more complex works have been arranged for two pianos or chamber ensembles by Yvar Mikhashoff, and played by such groups as the Arditti Ensemble and Ensemble Moderne.

Nancarrow's piano rolls and the player pianos were bought by the wealthy conductor and music collector Paul Sacher. Thus they have remained intact and archived together in the Sacher Foundation's extensive and well-protected archive of original musical documents. Read less
Browse 1-25 of 43 Available Recordings
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  • 1.
    Transcriptions & Beyond: Works And Transcriptions For Piano Duo
    Label: Audite   Catalog: 97708 Release Date: 07/10/2015   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Igor Stravinsky,  Conlon Nancarrow,  Arnulf Herrmann
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Piano Duo Takahashi-Lehmann
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  • 2.
    Panorama Of American Piano Music / Yvar Mikhashoff
    Label: Mode   Catalog: 262 Release Date: 12/03/2013   Number of Discs: 4
    Composer:  Leo Ornstein,  Charles Tomlinson Griffes,  Percy Aldridge Grainger,  Aaron Copland  ... 
    Performer:  Yvar Mikhashoff
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  • 3.
    Echtzeit - Works By Jarrell, Nancarrow, Riehm / Asasello Quartet
    Label: Genuin Musikproduction   Catalog: 13292 Release Date: 10/29/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Michael Jarrell,  Conlon Nancarrow,  Rolf Riehm
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  • 4.
    Mosh Pit / Zofo [CD & Blu-Ray Audio]
    Label: Sono Luminus   Catalog: 92167 Release Date: 04/30/2013   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  George Gershwin,  Conlon Nancarrow,  John Corigliano,  Samuel Barber  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  ZOFO Duet
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  • 5.
    Musica Viva Festival Munich 2008 - 10 Films By Peider A. Defilla
    Label: Neos   Catalog: 50909 Release Date: 03/26/2013   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Adriana Hölszky,  Conlon Nancarrow,  Michael Lentz,  Hans Zender  ... 
    Performer:  Daniel Gloger,  Wolfgang Heisig,  Rex Lawson,  Michael Lentz  ... 
    Conductor:  Rüdiger Bohn,  Sylvain Cambreling,  Brad Lubman
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Stuttgart Southwest German Radio Vocal Ensemble,  Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra
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  • 6.
    24 Lies Per Second - Works For Percussion & Electronics / Powerplant
    Label: Signum U.k.   Catalog: 313 Release Date: 12/18/2012   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Graham Fitkin,  Matthew Fairclough,  Max De Wardener,  Conlon Nancarrow  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Powerplant
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  • 7.
    Conlon Nancarrow: Late And Unknown Works On Rolls
    Label: Wergo   Catalog: 6754 Release Date: 12/11/2012   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow
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  • 8.
    Fascinatin' Rhythm / Alan Feinberg
    Label: Argo   Catalog: 444457 Release Date: 07/17/2012   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  George Gershwin,  Thomas "Fats" Waller,  Edward "Duke" Ellington,  James P. Johnson  ... 
    Performer:  Alan Feinberg,  Daniel Druckman
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  • 9.
    Big Beautiful Dark And Scary / Bang On A Can All Stars
    Label: Cantaloupe   Catalog: 21074 Release Date: 02/28/2012   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow,  Julia Wolfe,  David Longstreth,  David Lang  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bang on a Can
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  • 10.
    Ades: In Seven Days; Nancarrow: Studies 6 & 7 / Hodges, London Sinfonietta [CD+DVD]
    Label: Signum U.k.   Catalog: 277 Release Date: 01/31/2012   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Thomas Adčs,  Conlon Nancarrow
    Performer:  Nicolas Hodges,  Thomas Adčs,  Rolf Hind
    Conductor:  Thomas Adčs
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Sinfonietta
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  • 11.
    Phonola / Wolfgang Heisig
    Label: Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog: 6261716 Release Date: 01/31/2012   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Wolfgang Heisig,  Tom Johnson,  Knut Müller,  Conlon Nancarrow
    Performer:  Wolfgang Heisig
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  • 12.
    Conlon Nancarrow: As Fast As Possible
    Label: Wergo   Catalog: 6733 Release Date: 09/13/2011   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow,  Paul Usher
    Performer:  Helena Bugallo,  Amy Williams,  Ingrid Karlen,  Amy Briggs  ... 
    Conductor:  Stefan Asbury,  Kasper De Roo
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne West German Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Ensemble Modern
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  • 13.
    Frank Zappa's Classical Selection
    Label: Chrome Dreams (Usa)   Catalog: 5049 Release Date: 03/08/2011   Number of Discs: 2
    Composer:  Richard Wagner,  Igor Stravinsky,  Anton Webern,  Gustav Holst  ... 
    Performer:  Ilse Hollweg
    Conductor:  Hans Knappertsbusch,  Igor Stravinsky,  Gustav Holst,  Maurice Ravel  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Gate 5 Ensemble of the World
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  • 14.
    Tangos For Piano
    Label: Ravello   Catalog: 7808 Release Date: 10/26/2010   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Igor Stravinsky,  David Smooke,  Ralph Shapey,  David Rakowski  ... 
    Performer:  Amy Briggs
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  • 15.
    Player Piano 9 - Nancarrow: Studies Vol 5
    Label: Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog: 6451409 Release Date: 11/10/2009   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow
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  • 16.
    Artist Profile Series - Adams, Tavener, Lindberg, Rzewski / Ralph Van Raat
    Label: Naxos   Catalog: 8505040 Release Date: 05/26/2009   Number of Discs: 5
    Composer:  Einojuhani Rautavaara,  Maurice Duruflé,  Olivier Messiaen,  Conlon Nancarrow  ... 
    Performer:  Ralph van Raat,  Maarten Van Veen
    CD: $48.99
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  • 17.
    Scene  Nancarrow: Studies For Player Piano / Ivo Janssen, Calefax Reed Quintet
    Label: Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog: 6191548 Release Date: 03/10/2009   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow
    Performer:  Ivo Janssen
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Calefax
    CD: $18.99
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  • 18.
    Scene Player Piano 7 - Nancarrow: Studies Vol 7
    Label: Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog: 6451407 Release Date: 11/11/2008   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow
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  • 19.
    Nancarrow: Studies For Player Piano
    Label: Other Minds Records   Catalog: 1012 Release Date: 04/08/2008   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow
    CD: $48.99
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  • 20.
    Of Beauty & Light - The Music Of Philip Glass
    Label: Naxos   Catalog: 8504040 Release Date: 03/25/2008   Number of Discs: 4
    Composer:  Philip Glass,  John Adams,  Charles Wuorinen,  Hans Werner Henze  ... 
    Performer:  Nathan Gunn,  Adele Anthony,  Peter Sheppard Skaerved,  Aaron Shorr  ... 
    Conductor:  Takuo Yuasa,  Marin Alsop,  Tamás Benedek,  Hannu Lintu  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ulster Orchestra,  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra,  Group for Contemporary Music  ... 
    CD: $34.99
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  • 21.
    The Silence Of Being - The Music Of Arvo Pärt
    Label: Naxos   Catalog: 8506015 Release Date: 03/25/2008   Number of Discs: 6
    Composer:  Arvo Pärt,  Einojuhani Rautavaara,  John Adams,  Jorgen Plaetner  ... 
    Performer:  Jurgen Petrenko,  Laura Mikkola,  Maria Kliegel,  Elsbeth Moser  ... 
    Conductor:  Noel Edison,  Tamás Benedek,  Hannu Lintu,  Marin Alsop  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Elora Festival Singers,  Elora Festival Orchestra,  Hungarian State Opera Orchestra  ... 
    CD: $48.99
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  • 22.
    Scene Player Piano 5 - Nancarrow: Studies Vol 3
    Label: Md&g (Dabringhaus & Grimm)   Catalog: 451405 Release Date: 01/08/2008   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Conlon Nancarrow
    Performer:  Conlon Nancarrow,  Jurgen Hocker
    CD: $17.99
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  • 23.
    Label: Camerata Records   Catalog: 28105 Release Date: 11/06/2007   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Henri Cliquet-Pleyel,  Jean Wiéner,  Darius Milhaud,  Stefan Wolpe  ... 
    Performer:  Aki Takahashi
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  • 24.
    The American Innovator - Alan Feinberg
    Label: Decca   Catalog: 436925 Release Date: 10/31/2007   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Thelonious Monk,  Ralph Shapey,  Charles Tomlinson Griffes,  Charles Ives  ... 
    Performer:  Alan Feinberg
    ArkivCD $16.99
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  • 25.
    Sonic Rebellion - Alternative Classical Collection
    Label: Naxos   Catalog: 8570760 Release Date: 09/25/2007   Number of Discs: 1
    Composer:  Philip Glass,  Krzysztof Penderecki,  Conlon Nancarrow,  John Cage  ... 
    Performer:  Mia Wu,  Boris Berman,  Peter Skaerved,  Aaron Shorr  ... 
    Conductor:  Marin Alsop,  Antoni Wit,  Hans Zender,  Paul Hillier  ... 
    Orchestra/Ensemble:  Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra,  Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra,  Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra  ... 
    CD: $4.99
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