by: Conlon Nancarrow
(Arr. by Evan Ziporyn)
Conlon Nancarrow's ideas - politically and musically - put him at odds with American conventional wisdom; in both cases, he chose isolation rather than compromising his principles. In self-imposed exile in Mexico City, he corresponded with Elliott Carter and mail-ordered a Harry Partch LP. For decades, Nancarrow composed only for player pianos, working alone and by hand, spending months punching holes in rolls to produce 40-plus compact, revolutionary Studies, which collectively have redefined our notions of time and meter in music.
Nancarrow's place in the pantheon is now ensured but even Nancarrow's most ardent acolytes often apologize for or ignore key aspects of his music: the simplicity of the melodies, the harshness of the player piano sound, and the fact that the source of his ideas is American popular music. Nancarrow heard something in boogie woogie, in swing, in the blues: not just the implicit polyrhythms of all African American music but the possibility of simultaneous rhythmic identities coexisting in a single piece. Not just cross-rhythms, but Lester Young floating over the bar line. Like Stravinsky, like Bartok, like Andriessen, Nancarrow abstracted these ideas structurally and retained their source on the surface; and as in all these cases, both the abstract ideas and their connection to their popular roots are necessary. These arrangements are attempts to retain the visceral intensity of the music, to retain the juxtaposition of a happy, human lyricism with a machine-made, maniacal energy. -- Evan Ziporyn