Conlon Nancarrow, Posthumously

In my book on Conlon Nancarrow I analyzed 65 of his works, which was everything known to me at the time. However, like Schubert, Conlon goes on producing music posthumously, and recently I’ve been getting information on three pieces I didn’t include. First, pianist Helena Bugallo, who has been performing his player piano works in piano duo arrangements, has just completed her doctoral dissertation at SUNY Buffalo, entitled Selected Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow: Sources, Working Methods, and Compositional Studies. (It’s available from the ever-helpful UMI Dissertation Services.) She lists two works I’d never heard of, called Didactic Studies and For Ligeti, with dates 1980 and 1988 respectively, but neglects to mention what medium they’re written for. [2/14 UPDATE: They're for player piano. I'll be writing more extensively to give all the details soon.] These may have come from about 60 unnamed (and unnumbered) player piano rolls that Conlon had left in his studio as unfinished or abandoned works or sketches. Bugallo did her research in the Nancarrow archive at the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, whence all of Nancarrow’s materials were moved before he died. I knew that a group of odd little piano pieces (for live player) had been found, but they were written clearly in Conlon’s 1940s style, and can’t have been the Didactic Studies referred to if the latter truly came from 1980.

Something else Bugallo provides is a renotated complete score, recreated from the player piano roll, of Conlon’s Study #47, the final score of which had been lost. Very welcome.

More excitingly at the moment, the chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound is giving the US premiere next Saturday, Feb. 19, at Miller Theater in New York, of Nancarrow’s Three Movements for Chamber Orchestra, supposedly his last work, written in in 1993. I had heard from Conlon’s assistant Carlos Sandoval that this was an arrangement of music from some much earlier player piano rolls. Nancarrow had a stroke (actually a stroke-like condition brought on by pneumonia) in January of 1990, and afterward his music became much simpler, almost naive, in a not unattractive way. He was commissioned by Parnassus for an ensemble piece, and – so the story I heard goes – had Carlos help him arrange something from an unnumbered player piano study, since he didn’t feel up to conceiving a major new work. (Some of the abandoned player piano rolls are complete multi-movement works, so this is plausible.) But I had also heard the work was a quintet, and virtually unplayable, and it turns out to be for three winds, three brass, five strings, percussion, and piano. So this is a mystery, and I’m eager to get it cleared up.

One further Nancarrow mystery, which I’ve never addressed in public: You’ll occasionally read references to Nancarrow’s “Three Canons for Ursula,” which he wrote for Ursula Oppens, but on the available recordings there are only “Two Canons for Ursula.” The third canon required the pianist to play four tempos at once. Conlon showed me its opening pages, but told me he had abandoned the piece as too difficult to play. So Ursula premiered the Two Canons, and in recent years the third canon has surfaced, and has apparently been played by a pianist in Europe. English composer Thomas Ades, in a review of my book, lambasted me for “hiding” the existence of this third canon, but Conlon had told me he was deleting it from his catalogue; I believe he hadn’t even finished it at the time, and didn’t plan to. Since I published my book while he was still alive, I felt that I should limit my assertions about his music to ones that he didn’t contradict. Now that he’s gone and the archive at Basel is being organized and mined by scholars, however, new Nancarrow music is coming to light, and it’s certainly true that he wrote a lot more pieces than he officially acknowledged.

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