Texarkana native Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) has been described as one of the most important classical music composers of the twentieth century. Most of Nancarrow's music was written for player piano which he painstakingly punched by hand. His compositions were the rhythmically complex of any music ever written and have exerted a profound influence on other composers around the world. In his work, one also finds significant influence from boogie woogie and jazz, which further connects the heritage of our region and its profound influence in American and world music.
He was the son of a former mayor of Texarkana, Samuel Nancarrow, whose family lived on Beech St., a charming residential section of Texarkana. Against his father’s wishes he decided to study music and was a talented trumpet player, but after hearing the music of Igor Stravinsky he chose to make music composition his life’s work. Like so many idealistic young men and women during the Great Depression he went to Spain and fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War where he was wounded. He returned to Texarkana briefly but in 1940 decided to emigrate to Mexico City, where he lived the rest of his life.
Nancarrow was always fascinated with rhythm in music - a trait shared with the great Scott Joplin as well. The appeal of Scott Joplin’s ragtime music is driven by the combination of two competing rhythmic elements - a march-like bass part and a jaunty, syncopated treble part. The music of Conlon Nancarrow also focused on rhythm, and began, in a sense, where Joplin left off - but took it to the limits of human perception. Nancarrow’s music also combined different competing rhythmic layers, up to 12 in one piece, each with a different tempo.
Nancarrow’s rhythmically complex music proved to be impossible for musicians to perform, but Conlon found the solution to this problem when he decided to compose all of his music for the player piano. This was a life-changing notion, and one which set the course of the rest of his life. From the late 1940’s until his death in 1997 Nancarrow painstakingly hand punched his own piano rolls for the two player pianos he kept in his music studio in Mexico City. He composed for decades in relative obscurity but after a recording of his music was discovered in a Paris bookshop by György Ligeti, one of Europe’s leading composers, Nancarrow’s powerful, complicated music was finally recognized as the most original of the twentieth century. Within a few years his music was featured in performances in the music capitals like New York, Paris, Vienna, and London. In 1982 he was the recipient of the highly prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant”, and the only Arkansan to ever receive this award. The worldwide acclaim for Conlon Nancarrow continues to grow. In 2012, on the centennial of his birth, a festival dedicated to Nancarrow was held in London prestigious Southbank Centre. In 2015 the new Whitney Museum in New York City presented a major exhibition of his work.
This video is only a couple of minute snippet, but does a great job of explaining why Nancarrow has been compared to a modern Bach and why his fame continues to grow all over the world.
Study #3, the "Boogie Woogie Suite," is one of the most accessible of Nancarrow's work for the first time listener. Further, it directly connects Nancarrow to his roots in the region where boogie woogie was born.
Nancarrow’s most famous composition is his “Canon X.” The “X” in this piece isn’t the Roman numeral for ten, but rather it indicates the relationship of the two musical strands, or voices, heard in this piece. The two voices play the same notes in different registers, but the lower voice starts at a fairly slow tempo of 105 beats per minute. The higher voice plays the same notes but at the amazing tempo of 1,110 beats per minute. Throughout the course of this four minute long piece the higher and faster voice slows down, while the slower and lower voice speeds up creating a sort of audible “X” shape. By the end of the piece the higher voice slows down to a relaxed tempo of 70 beats per minute, while the lower voice speeds up to the phenomenal tempo of 3,330 beats per minute. It is a testament to this 120 year old technology of the player piano that it simply doesn’t fly apart at these amazing speeds!
Study #11 displays Nancarrow’s lifelong fascination with numbers and complicated interlocking musical structures. The appealing sound of this study conceals a melody based on an idea that was first used by musicians in the middle ages. This technique, known as isorhythm, consists here of a melody that is 120 notes long but uses a rhythms that are only 15 units long. Nancarrow enjoyed trying to use old ideas for his new sounding music for the player piano.