Conlon Nancarrow


At 1pm on Saturday, June 15th, 2013 Church of the Friendly Ghost is proud to present the Austin premier of the film,  Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano followed by a Q&A by Dr. James Greeson from the University of Arkansas Music Department and player piano performance of Piano Study #7 ( and Piano Study #31 (

Born in Texarkana Arkansas in 1912, Conlon Nancarrow had an eclectic musical education, playing trumpet in various jazz bands and from 1929 to 1932 he attended the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. Later he would study counterpoint, in Boston, with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston and Roger Sessions.

A dedicated young radical Nancarrow joined the American Communist party and in 1937 fought in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil war. Upon his return to the United States Nancarrow became a figure in the New york New Music scene, associating with such luminaries as Aaron Copland and Elliot Carter. Unfortunately, for Nancarrow, his political affiliations would soon make his life in the United States untenable.

Seeking an ever increasing rhythmic complexity and speed, Nancarrow’s work quickly outpaced the abilities of most performers. While it was never his goal to write unplayable music, by his own admission, “It just happens that a lot of them are unplayable.” After several unsatisfactory performances Nancarrow withdrew his work from public performance.

Nancarrow would later find a solution to his musical conundrum in a passing suggestion made in composer and theorist Henry Cowell’s 1930 manifesto; The New Musical Resources. Here Cowell briefly muses that greater acoustic complexities (beyond human abilities) could possibly be achieved by composing directly to piano roll. Conlon Nancarrow ran with this suggestion and made it his life’s work. All of the 50 plus piano studies were hand punched, directly to piano roll, by Conlon Nancarrow using a customized punching machine he purchased in New York city. He would only return, briefly and reluctantly, to composing for human performers (by commission) towards the end of his life in the 1990s.

Angered by government harassment (the US declined his passport) over his Socialist leanings and his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, Nancarrow left the United States for Mexico City in the 1940s. Refusing to officially renounce the political beliefs of his youth, Nancarrow became a Mexican citizen in 1956. He lived, worked and raised a family with his wife Yoko in Mexico City until his death in 1997.

For the purposes of our performance we will be utilizing a Yamaha U1 Disklavier player piano. The Yamaha Disklavier is a contemporary version of the player piano device (circa 1987), which uses a digital midi file as a guide instead of a piano roll. While the information is digital, the performance is still an acoustic one. We found that the newer piano and Disklavier device was a little better at handling the speed and complexity of Nancarrow’s break-neck tempos. As we discovered in our research, even Conlon Nancarrow, was forced to soup up his pianos to better handle his compositions. We will have two facsimile rolls available on view during the performance.

We would like to thank Ron Carson of Strait Music, for lending his time, skills and tireless dedication to transferring our midi files to (of all things) floppy disc and preparing our files and piano for performance! Many thanks go out to the countless individuals who helped us locate a piano!

Our deepest gratitude goes out to Dr. James Greeson from the University of Arkansas Music Department. We thank him for his enthusiasm, for sharing his knowledge, for lending us his department’s facsimile piano rolls, allowing us to use his midi files and for the rights to show his film. Without his tremendous generosity this program would not exist!

Here is a short section from the 56 minute documentary by James Greeson on the life and music of Conlon Nancarrow:

Arrive early at noon to enjoy a complimentary brunch with your admission!