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Conlon Nancarrow

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Conlon Nancarrow (b. October 27, 1912, Texarkana - d. August 10, 1997, Mexico City) was an American-born composer who lived most of his life in Mexico. Nancarrow is remembered almost exclusively for the pieces he wrote for the player piano. He was one of the first composers to use musical instruments as mechanical machines, utilising their capacity to play complex polyrhythms at tempos far beyond human performance ability. Not becoming widely known until the 1980s, Nancarrow lived most of his life in complete isolation. Today, he is remembered as one of the most original and unusual composers of the 20th century.

Nancarrow was born in Texarkana, Arkansas. He played trumpet in a jazz band in his youth, before studying music in Boston with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and Nicolas Slonimsky.

A member of the Communist Party, Nancarrow travelled to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in their fight against Franco. After spending time in New York City in 1940, Nancarrow moved to Mexico to escape the harassment visited upon former Party members. It was in Mexico that Nancarrow did the work he is best known for today. Without the resources to perform his technically demanding pieces, he took a suggestion from Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources, and turned to the player piano.

Cowell had suggested that just as there is a scale of pitch frequencies, there might also be a scale of tempi. Nancarrow undertook to create music which would superimpose tempi in cogent pieces. Nancarrow had a machine custom built to enable him to punch the piano rolls by hand. He also adapted the player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by tinkering with their mechanism, and covering the hammers with leather or metal to produce a more percussive sound.

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