The United States has spawned numerous composers so original that they were initially rejected as eccentrics.
Among the best known are Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison. For many years, rumours told of another such musician, Conlon Nancarrow.
Secluded in Mexico, he was said to be composing some of the most explosive music of the century.
Born in 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas, Nancarrow attended the Cincinnati Conservatory (1929-1932) and worked privately in Boston with three leaders of American new music, Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions. Nancarrow considered his counterpoint studies with Sessions his only formal compositional training. In 1937, after completing his studies, Nancarrow joined the international fighters gathering in Spain to combat Francisco Franco's military coup. Upon returning to the United States in 1939 and settling in New York, however, he found himself treated by the American government as persona non grata, because of his earlier communist sympathies.
When his application for a new passport was rejected, he moved to Mexico City (1940), and eventually became a Mexican citizen.
Nancarrow's earliest mature works, fantastical, energetic music, were inspired by his dual loves, Bach and jazz. Yet despite his practical experience as a jazz trumpeter, he soon began pursuing an ideal vision in which practical considerations are secondary. For example, at the optimal tempo of the wild, neo-baroque Toccata for Violin and Piano (1935), the repeated notes in the piano part are unplayable. Years later Nancarrow realized his vision by constructing a player-piano alternative for the piano part, which is used on this recording.
Another early work, the Prelude and Blues (also from 1935) fuses Bachian counterpoint with jazz and blues. The blues permeates slow movements throughout Nancarrow's career, but never in a conventional way.
Here, tone clusters, unexpected accents and asymmetries project his whimsical fantasy. Although the Prelude and Blues was written for a soloist, the high energy and textural intricacy of the Prelude has made its performance as a piano duet more effective. The same is true of the Sonatina (1941), a work in which the 29- year-old composer achieved astonishing compositional mastery. This successor to the exuberant sonatas of the eighteenth century unites the spirit of jazz with the European tradition. At the same time, the contrapuntal wizardry, enormous range, and boisterousness make the performers grateful for the four-hands version of Yvar Mikhashoff, who consulted with the composer on several transcriptions of his music.
Other compositions of the early 1940s available in 1991, when Continuum recorded this CD for Musical Heritage Society, include a trio movement for clarinet, bassoon, and piano (1942), a larger work in a popular idiom, the Piece for Small Orchestra (1943), and the 1945 String Quartet. Uncovered after this CD was made were two more movements of the Trio, a very early Sarabande and Scherzo, Three Studies for piano, and a Septet. That early String Quartet, his last "live" piece for nearly four decades, hints at the direction he took shortly, in which layering of rhythmic strata plays an increasingly important rôle.
During the whole period in the United States, Nancarrow was frustrated by performers' unwillingness to confront the challenges of his music. In Mexico City, where there were even fewer musicians willing to tackle complex new music, the situation was worse. After unsuccessfully attempting to construct a mechanical percussion ensemble to explore his rhythmic ideas, he found a solution to his problems, the player piano.
Although impelled by his disillusionment with the attitudes of contemporary performers, his interest in the player piano was essentially positive: its unique sound and capabilities, which had fascinated composers such as Hindemith and Cowell, offered the chance for a new kind of music. Purchasing the equipment he needed to punch his own rolls, he began to pursue his contrapuntal and rhythmic interests in an ideal form.
From the late 1940s until the end of his life Nancarrow gave the parlour instrument a new life through a compositional virtuosity probably never dreamed of by its inventors. By rendering the live performer superfluous, however, he removed his name from the concert stage, limited the potential for recognition, and obscured the existence of his earlier works. Eventually, recordings and publication of some of the player piano music, and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant (1982), finally brought him to the public's attention. Then performers began to encourage him to write "live" music again. Invited to major European festivals, he gained an international following.
The player piano compositions, some fifty in all, are rhythmic studies; like nineteenth-century Etudes, each deals with a single compositional challenge. But the fascinating structures of the Studies above all were a vehicle for Nancarrow's phenomenal vitality. While cascades of notes whirl about the playerless keyboard at speeds that dare our ears to comprehend what is happening, these pieces retain a good-natured, humane wit. Although most of the Studies remain out of reach for live performers, one exception is Study No. 15, transcribed for piano four-hands by Yvar Mikhashoff. It is a canon in which the two parts perform the same material at different tempos (in the ratio 4:3). Gradually the faster, upper part pulls ahead. Then, when it has finished its melody, it starts again at the slower tempo.
Eventually the lower part, originally the slower one, completes its leisurely statement of the melody, begins again at the fast tempo, and gradually catches up in this canonic race. The two hit the finish line simultaneously.
In the early 1980s Nancarrow was persuaded to write the stylized dance and variations ¿Tango? (1983) for Mikhashoff's International Tango Collection. Then he agreed to compose a piece for Continuum's 1986 Nancarrow retrospective at Lincoln Center, with a commission from the Los Angeles patron Betty Freeman. He modestly warned that the piece might be small, but what emerged was his first large-scale composition since the player piano pieces, the Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra (1986). Although compact, this work is a major achievement, summarising the essence of the Studies and opening the door to new possibilities in live performance. Nancarrow has united a tremendous range of moods and gestures within the framework of temporal canons extending techniques explored in his Studies. To the ear of the listener, the ideas are instantly captivating: the complexities of structure are only the means to an end, a work whose parts fit snugly into a grand and colourful 'whole'. The piece is in two connected movements; the second begins with the oboe solo following the climax of the piano and double bass duo.
The commission and première of the Piece No. 2 catalyzed Nancarrow to restore his relationship with the live performer. He then wrote another string quartet, a trio, canonic piano pieces, and an orchestral work with live player piano. Then severe illness put an end to his creativity. He died in Mexico in 1997.