Conlon Nancarrow’s Math-Mad Music

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

To anyone who met Conlon Nancarrow in the 1930s — or '40s, or '50s — he must have seemed like a bit of a lost sheep. A thinly educated trumpeter whose father was the mayor of Texarkana, he drifted from school to school, city to city, enthusiasm to enthusiasm. He tried his hand at composing, conducting, marriage, and communism, none of which worked out very well. In 1936, he signed on with a shipboard band bound for Europe and eventually made his way to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. He returned skinny, swashbuckling, and handsome, with a musketeer’s facial hair and shrapnel in his neck. Since he bore the brand of communism, he moved to Mexico City, kept writing music, and lived on a thin stream of family money.

Nancarrow was an old man before the world realized that he had spent decades in his studio producing a set of musical marvels. He spent his last years collecting belated tributes, and his death in 1997 yielded glowing obituaries. This week, the Whitney Museum launched a ten-day event: “Anywhere in Time: A Conlon Nancarrow Festival,” which partly makes up for the fact that his centennial in 2012 went largely uncelebrated in the United States. It began, and will end, with Nancarrow’s medium of choice: a player piano of the kind that once plunked out tunes in parlors and bars. When one of the show’s co-curators, Dominic Murcott and Jay Sanders, loads a perforated roll onto the spindle and flips a switch, it’s like a scene from a mad-scientist movie. The engine hums, the belt turns, pistons churn, and the keys toggle faster than human fingers could press them, sending notes skittering off the strings like oil from a hot pan. Music explodes out of the little upright, sounding at once familiar and strange: wild, jittery blues; off-kilter counterpoint; bent canons; steely chords trailing puffs and trills. This is how this music should be experienced, the mind primed by looking at Jackson Pollock and Jacob Lawrence and Louise Bourgeois, ready to absorb Nancarrow’s staggering originality.

In Mexico City, where much of life takes place behind high, stuccoed walls, Nancarrow retreated ever further into himself. He built a house, then a separate studio where he could tinker with music machines: an apparatus that cut records, tape players, a device that he hoped would operate his orchestra of drums. After realizing that performers would balk at the complexity of his rhythms, he spent years huddled over a worktable in his thick cardigan, laboriously marking off units of time on piano rolls and punching holes by hand.

Nancarrow purified his language to sometimes off-putting extremes. He hardened the hammers on his instrument with strips of metal, producing a tinny timbre somewhere between a harpsichord, an early synth, and a barroom piano. His music can be loud or (occasionally) soft but hardly ever displays any shades in between. Tempos vary according to rational processes, mechanically executed: There’s no such thing as stretching a beat or taking a breath just because a performer feels like it. Even his late-life, limited fame had a sort of fairy-tale purity. A trickle of acolytes came to meet him. In 1977, the producer Charles Amirkhanian recorded his player-piano music for the small devotees’ label 1750 Arch. When the eminent Hungarian composer György Ligeti got a hold of the LPs, he proclaimed the studies “the best music of any composer living today.” In 1982, Nancarrow received a MacArthur Foundation grant. He was 70.

It’s hard to write about his music without making him sound like a slide-rule mechanic who cared more for ratios than for expression. He used proportions too arcane to register consciously and sometimes too close to be perceived at all. Study No. 33 is a canon in which the two voices sound at different speeds in the ratio of 2:√2. No. 41 spins off into mathematical absurdity: Just try tapping in the other — or detecting an error if the player piano gets it wrong. What you have zero trouble perceiving, though, is the allover cascade that opens the piece, followed by a tentative boogie-woogie, which quickly starts shedding pieces of itself like a spacecraft reentering orbit. Each piece operates like a miniature vehicle: You don’t need a Ph.D. to savor the thrill of the open road, but you sure are glad that the engineers who designed the gas pedal knew what they were doing.

That’s especially true with his canons, written in an antique form that he subverted with brilliantly idiosyncratic logic. To get a crude idea of how he worked, gather some friends and do this at home: one person starts singing “Frère Jacques,” the next comes in slightly slower, the third person slower still, and so on. See how many seconds you can last until the whole thing falls apart in a clangorous mess. That’s why Nancarrow avoided live performers. The player piano allowed him to pin each voice to its own unvarying pace, or to speed up or slow down by deliberate degrees, without getting pulled off course by the others. In Study No. 21, one voice speeds up while the other slows down, so that they cross at the midpoint of the piece. It’s a simple game, really, that produces results of dazzling complexity, an apparatus of wheels whirring at changing speeds.

Nancarrow’s career coincided with a midcentury fascination with beauty that could be mechanically derived. Steve Reich grew entranced by listening to two tape recorders playing the same loop but falling gradually out of synch. Sol Lewitt reached for the sublime by writing out instructions for drawing pencil lines on a wall. Mies van der Rohe fetishized the purity of straight lines and unbroken planes. But Nancarrow, with supernovas of notes and exotic forms of friction, was no minimalist. For all his method, his music can sound engagingly mad.

In embracing the musical machine, Nancarrow may have thought he was walking away from human performers, but actually he was throwing down the gauntlet. Musicians have responded, learning to execute his crazy cross-rhythms with accuracy and aplomb. (At least in this way, the world has measurably improved over the last century: Even ordinary virtuosos today can do things that would have made their teachers cry.) The Whitney has assembled a roster of experts and groups, including Alarm Will Sound, which will play some of his studies deconstructed for mixed ensemble. But the fitting center of the festival is an inanimate object cranking out some of the most weirdly human music that an American composer ever wrote.

*This article appears in the June 29, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.