Nancarrow, Conlon

Nancarrow, Conlon,

1912–1997, American-Mexican composer, best known for his works for the player pianoplayer piano,
an upright piano incorporating a mechanical system that automatically plays the encoded contents of a paper strip. This strip, perforated with holes whose position and length determine pitch and duration, is drawn over a pneumatic device that shoots streams of air
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, b. Texarkana, Ark., studied Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter PistonPiston, Walter,
1894–1976, American composer and teacher, b. Rockland, Maine. Piston studied at Harvard and with Nadia Boulanger in Paris; he joined the faculty of Harvard in 1926. He became a Guggenheim Fellow in 1934.
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, and Roger SessionsSessions, Roger,
1896–1985, American composer and teacher, b. Brooklyn, N.Y. Sessions was a pupil of Horatio Parker at Yale and of Ernest Bloch. He taught (1917–21) at Smith, leaving to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music as Bloch's assistant.
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. A dedicated socialist, he joined (1933) the Communist party and fought against Franco in the Spanish civil warSpanish civil war,
1936–39, conflict in which the conservative and traditionalist forces in Spain rose against and finally overthrew the second Spanish republic. The Second Republic
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. 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).

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Nancarrow, Conlon

(1912–  ) composer; born in Texarkana, Ark. He pursued both jazz and classical studies in his youth and in 1937 fought in the Spanish Civil War. Three years later he settled in Mexico City, where he created a series of unique, highly complex works for pianola by working directly on the piano rolls. He emerged from relative obscurity by way of a 1982 "genius" award from the MacArthur Foundation.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.