A Farewell Retrieved from the Files

My esteemed colleagues at Sequenza 21 note that yesterday was the ten-year anniversary of Conlon Nancarrow’s death. (While at the Voice I was always amazed at how many composers die in August – Feldman, Cage, David Tudor, Nancarrow, Earle Brown – and always noted it, because there is a dearth of New York concerts in August, and I was always stuck for column material. Someone usually died in the nick of time, and I always considered their timing their final gift to me.)

Anyway, as I was saying, Nancarrow died in 1997, and the obituary I wrote for him is not in Music Downtown, my collection of Village Voice articles. I don’t know why. I’m sure I intended to include it, but as I was going through the proofs, I noticed its absence, too late to rectify it. I am happy for the bulk of my columns to disappear into oblivion, but of all the ones omitted, the Nancarrow obit is the one I most wish were in there. So I’ve long intended to post it here, and the anniversary is as good a peg as any. This is the pre-edit version, actually a touch longer than the one that was published:

Piano Rolls and Fresh Mangos

Conlon Nancarrow, 1912-1997

Conlon Nancarrow’s wife Yoko Segiura used to tell me that, in the first years of their marriage, she would ask him what to do with all his player-piano rolls after he died. He’d shrug and say, “Burn ’em.” Kind of a black sense of humor, right? And yet, in the nine years I knew Nancarrow, I never found any evidence that he was kidding. He seemed immune to the charms of public recognition. He wrote music because he wanted to hear what it would sound like to have two tempos running at once, one of which was the square root of two times the other. Once he had heard it, that was that. Oh, he’d keep the player-piano roll around because he wanted to hear it again, down there in his comfortably cluttered, garage-like, Mexico City studio. But he didn’t seem to crave applause for that square root of two, and he endured the travels, film crews, and interviews his growing celebrity required with patience rather than enthusiasm. If his public persona was a pose, it never cracked.

Nancarrow’s death at 7:10 PM, August 10, [1997] from apparent heart failure, caused no tremors in the music world. The difficult part was getting a sense that this underground legend really existed in the first place. Except for some brief exposure in the ’60s when Merce Cunningham choreographed several of his Player Piano Studies, he waited until age 65 for real interest to be shown in his work. He didn’t make public appearances to promote his music until 1981, and he only did so then – so his then-manager Eva Soltes tells me – as a way of proving to his teenage son that he hadn’t wasted his life. Even down in the musical backwater of Mexico City where he lived for 57 years, he had few connections to the local, Eurocentric music scene. Until the last few years, if you wanted to know something about Nancarrow, you had to seek him out.

I did so on three trips to Mexico City (resulting in a book, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, from Cambridge University Press). On the first visit, in 1988, I found him as people had told me I would: suspicious, grudgingly hospitable, taciturn, opinionated about politics, impatient with discussing musical details. The interviews I taped with him on that trip contain entire quarter-hours of silence. He’d look at a manuscript I’d ask him about and finally sigh “I don’t know,” but mention Reagan and he’d rail against the Democrats for not putting up a real alternative. (Driving through his home town Texarkana, I once called up his younger brother Charles, who insisted on taking me out to dinner, and told me, “Conlon’s to the left of Che Guevara, and I’m to the right of Atilla the Hun.”) Nancarrow was no musical philosopher; I went with him to a concert and he immediately dismissed any piece that wasn’t rhythmically complex.

By the time I returned a year later he had come to trust me, and became warmly hospitable. If he had a quiet lifestyle, it could be a delicious one. He had an amazing cook who prepared the best Mexican food I’ve ever had, and succulent, fresh mangos and papayas (completely different fruits from what you can get under those names in America) were passed out like dime-store candies. Nancarrow didn’t care for publicity, but he liked the good life.

After his first stroke, his mental abilities were never quite the same. At first he was strictly protective of the studio where his player pianos stood, and in which he had spent 40 years punching on piano rolls the most rhythmically complex body of music ever written. Later he relinquished control and let me explore there by myself. Along with waist-high piles of manuscript scores and correspondence, the place contained complete editions of Source magazine, Musical Quarterly, Perspectives of New Music, and other journals that showed how avidly he had kept up with the contemporary music scene that he viewed for decades from a wary distance. The walls were still lined with tempo charts made from Heny Cowell’s New Musical Resources, the 1930 book that Nancarrow had bought in New York City after returning from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and which suggested using player pianos to achieve complex rhythms.

Now, rather than being burned as he suggested, all those scores, sketches, rolls, and even the pianos have been sold to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Switzerland (Sacher being the industrialist who bought, among many other things, the manuscript of Le Sacre du Printemps). That’s how he had money to live on the last few years, after the inheritance Charles left him when he died ran out, which is what he lived on after his 1983 MacArthur Award ran out. Mexico cancels your health insurance at age 70, and he was paying his own hospital bills. I wish Nancarrow’s studio could be preserved as a historical site, a kind of musical Thoreau’s cabin; after all, the museum-houses of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (whom he knew) are several blocks away. But it isn’t going to happen.

Nancarrow no longer talked on the phone in the last year and a half of his life. A series of strokes had rendered him liable to forget who he was talking to, and his laconicism became exaggerated to the point of monosyllabic answers. He remained lucid long enough to look through the book I wrote about him and express confused appreciation. Problems with his back, lungs, and teeth confined him to bed, although according to Yoko he rallied at the end, and was energetic enough to walk with assistance the day he died. He was cremated the day after his death, with only a couple of local composers – Julio Estrada, Mario LaVista – and Yoko’s friends present.

I once pointed out to him that he was probably the only American composer complex and modernist enough to be admired by Elliott Carter fans and also free and vernacular enough to be loved by John Cage fans. He chuckled in surprise. I don’t think it had ever occurred to him.


  1. mclaren says

    Nancarrow’s wonderful music represents one of the best examples of how mid-to-late-20th century music started breaking out of the confines of our existing Western Common Practice Notation.
    From what I’ve seen of ’em, Nancarrow’s scores look perfectly comprehensible in a computer sequencer time grid notation, but are largely unnotatable in traditional CPN notation. Yes, Nancarrow did notate his studies in conventional form, but the results don’t look like anything I can follow. Whereas his original piano rolls are simplicity itself.
    It’s interesting to note that the other big name of mid-to-late-20th century music, Harry Partch, also blows apart conventional musical notation. While you can force-fit Nancarrow and Partch into conventional notation, the distortions grow so severe that the results don’t tell you much. Viz., Partch’s notation is a kind of tablature and the color-coding completely transgresses against conventional notational practices.
    When we add in the electroacoustic composers like Pierre Henry and Otto Luening & Validimir Ussachevsky, along with computer composers like Jean-Claude Risset, western notation has entirely broken down by the end of the 20th century. You cannot meaningfully represent the timbral transformations of Risset’s Songes (1978) or Chowning’s Turenas (1967) with conventional Western musical notation. In the same way, you cannot meaningfully depict the multiple changing tempo curves in Nancarrow’s Canon X (1948-1960) using conventional Western notation, just as you cannot give a reasonable representation of the pitches and timbres (which depend on the method and place of striking) of Harry Partch’s Eleven Intrusions (1949-50) using conventional Western notation.
    What’s fascinating is the early dates on these pieces. James Tenney’s Bell Lab Noise Study dates from 1961; Jean-Claude Risset’s Mutations dates from 1968, Chowning’s Turenas from 1967. Nancarrow’s Study 21 dates from 1948, Partch’s Eleven Intrustions from 1949, Ussachevsky & Luening’s seminal MOMA tape music concert from 1952, while Pierre Henry’s Train Study was done in 1948.
    So well before the midpoint of the last century, conventional Western notation had collapsed under the strain and become grossly inadequate for cutting-edge music.
    You have to ask: where does that leave us now, 50 years later? Can we even see conventional Western notation now that we’ve left it so far behind?
    The other aspect of Nancarrow’s work that’s fascinating is the extent to which current music criticism and contemporary music education have completely ignored this basic reality about music notation. Students still get taught from conventional musical scores as though this is still what 21st century composers do. Composers like Kraig Grady don’t use anything like Western notation, yet their music is highly structured. Kraig uses scores that look (visually) a lot more like empty crossword puzzles combined with Korean music notation than anything out of the Western punctus-contrapunctus tradition. Critics still expect a conventional Western score in order to take a new piece of music “seriously.” Show a music critic a Csound note-list or a Supercollider algorithm or one of Kraig Grady’s scores, and the critic is liable to get cranky or confused, or both. Especially when Grady starts talking about how he symbolizes MOS rhythms and scale horagrams. “That’s not music, that’s just [fill in the blank]!”
    Nancarrow + Partch + the electroacoustic tape/computer composers sum up the single most important and single most carefully ignored direction for late 2th century music — Wendy Carlos’ 1987 rallying cry: “Any possible timbre, any possible tuning, any possible timing.” That’s where we are right now. And yet virtually all high-prestige hall music concerts and all current music education and all current music criticism completely ignore this 21st century musical reality.
    You have to wonder at what point contemporary music education and contemporary music criticism will pull their collective heads out of the sand and start dealing with the kind of music that has been composed for more than 50 years here in America… At what point does the Potemkin village fall down and reveal itself as a series of cardboard outlines?