Conlon Nancarrow: A “Mexican of Cornish Descent”

The player-piano studies of Conlon Nancarrow: the Communist from Arkansas who became one of Wikipedia’s five “Mexicans of Cornish Descent”.

For anyone with more than a passing interest in classical music, it’s been pretty near impossible to ignore either Wagner’s bicentenary last week, or Benjamin Britten’s upcoming centenary in November.

However, another musician whose 100th anniversary last October passed almost without comment is the quirkily-named, enigmatic and somewhat reclusive American (later Mexican) composer Conlon Nancarrow – despite the fact that none other than the late György Ligeti, one of the established figures of the 20th-century canon, described him as “the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives … for me it’s the best music of any composer living today.”

Part of the reason that Nancarrow attracts such comparatively little attention is perhaps the fact that his work is so difficult to categorise or pigeonhole; another is arguably his rather unconventional lifestyle.

Despite a fairly conventional conservatoire training, first in his native Midwest and later in Boston, his political involvement with the Communist Party (notably fighting with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War) found little favour in late 1930s America, and on his return from Spain at the age of 27 he found himself forced to move to Mexico, where he remained in political exile until his death in 1997 (eventually taking up Mexican citizenship).

This forced isolation, as has been the case with so many artists, writers, and musicians over the centuries, led Nancarrow to experiment. Cut off from the musical scene in the US, wildly different in musical background and outlook from his Mexican contemporaries, and faced with limited performing forces, the vast majority of Nancarrow’s output consists of madly virtuosic etudes for player piano (fifty-one in total), physically unplayable by human hands.

Nancarrow’s influences – and arguably also the ramifications of his work – straddle the boundary between classical and popular. His early player piano etudes, from the 1940s and 1950s, are based on jazz and ragtime idioms, which, when combined with extremely complex irregular metres and often played at breakneck speed, give off an almost unhinged impression: Scott Joplin on speed. His later works, by contrast, are decidedly atonal and often take the form of complex mathematically-structured canons, revealing somewhat more clearly the influence of his studies with the grand old men of East Coast American formalism, Roger Sessions and Walter Piston.

Moreover, his composition of music which could only be reproduced by machine – an almost unheard-of step in the late 1940s, apart from a few notable experiments by Georges Antheil and Erik Satie – arguably provided a precedent for computer-based music of other genres in later decades, from Kraftwerk to dubstep. This is especially notable at a time when the state of electronic music, then in its infancy, is summarised by this video from 1950, proclaiming “music with a strictly electronic beat”.

So here are three pieces by Nancarrow. First, his early Player Piano Etude no.3a, from the late 1940s:

Secondly, his Etude no.27 (late 1950s):

Finally, his later Etude no.35, probably dating from the late 1960s or early 1970s:

O. Hubbard

Owen will be publishing a regular playlist, traversing genre and geography. If you have Spotify, follow our Oxford Culture Review playlist.

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