New Exhibition: Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997)

In April 2012 Trinity Laban’s Head of Composition Dominic Murcott was the Artistic Director for Impossible Brilliance, a festival of the music of Conlon Nancarrow at the South Bank Centre in London. Murcott has for some years been researching Nancarrow and had gained access to his Mexico City studio. Our current display contains artefacts from that studio as well as materials from Murcott’s private collection and that of the Jerwood Library.

Nancarrow actuator
“Actuator” built by Conlon Nancarrow as part of his unsuccessful attempt to make an automated orchestra (Dominic Murcott private collection. Used with permission)

Nancarrow’s output was almost entirely composed for player pianos (also known as pianolas). These were automated acoustic pianos, fitted with a mechanism that reads musical information in the form of a paper roll punched with holes. These were the precursors to the modern sequencing of electronic instruments, but were not particularly esoteric in their time; they were commonplace in domestic homes where they were a form of music reproduction. Piano rolls of all kinds of music were commercially available.

Nancarrow was drawn to them because he was interested in a certain type of rhythmic complexity in music: he wanted to make music in which the different voices were moving at different tempi simultaneously and it was very difficult to find players who were able to do this. (Much later in his life he found such players in the form of the Arditti quartet for whom he wrote a piece in poly-tempi.)

Not only did he cut out the need for live players but made the rolls himself and he was often photographed operating his own hole punching machine in his studio.

The process by which he worked out the spatial relationships between the note values of the different tempi is illustrated in our display as we have one of the rolls of paper on which he had drawn out a tempo scheme. We also have one of his hand-made piano rolls (see below)

Nancarrow hand punched roll
Piano roll hand punched by Conlon Nancarrow (Dominic Murcott private collection. Used with permission)

It has to be noted that the onset of the means to sequence this kind of material (relatively) simply with midi sequences has not produced an extended repertoire of this kind of music, but certainly Nancarrow was an interesting and original thinker.

Do you think you can follow 6 or 7 voices, all played on piano, moving at different tempi simultaneously? Would you enjoy the novelty of hearing, for example, a ‘right-hand’ part getting faster and faster whilst simultaneously the ‘left-hand’ part gets slower and slower; would you find it musically interesting when you had got over the novelty?

You can judge for yourself as the entire collection of pianola studies has been recorded by Wergo and is available on open access in the Jerwood Library (classmark PIA: NAN).

This post was written by our senior library assistant, and curator of this exhibition, Walter Cardew.


One thought on “New Exhibition: Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997)

  1. Pingback: A Fitting 100th Birthday Celebration for Conlon Nancarrow | New Music Buff

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