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. After hearing a performance of John Cage's music, he also experimented with a prepared piano. Nancarrow's first pieces combined the harmonic language and melodic motifs of early jazz pianists like Art Tatum with extraordinarily complicated metrical schemes.
Many of these later pieces (which he generally called studies) are canons in augmentation or diminution or prolation canons. Having spent many years in obscurity, Nancarrow's music was released in 1969 by Columbia Records. In the mid-70s, Peter Garland began publishing Nancarrow's scores in his Soundings journal, and Charles Amirkhanian began releasing recordings on his 1750 Arch label. He became better known in the 1980s, partly for his influence on György Ligeti. Ligeti called his music "the greatest discovery since Webern and Ives ...
the best of any composer living today". Nancarrow's entire output for player piano has been recorded and released on the German Wergo label. The complete contents of Nancarrow's studio, including the player piano rolls, the instruments, the libraries, and other documents and objects, are now in the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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