Last summer, I met filmmaker Bill Scaff, who had come back down to L.A. to be interviewed for Filmforum's oral history of L.A.'s avant-garde filmmakers. (My lovely fiance was tasked with setting up the interviews.) Scaff was cleaning out the storage space he had left here and he gave me a vintage copy of a vinyl LP with the bizarre title Studies for Player Piano. (I say "vintage" because the record sleeve had a disc-shaped wear mark on the cover.) And there I discovered Conlon Nancarrow, the unforgettably named man behind this strange endeavor. Although I had come across his name in Alex Ross' invaluable The Rest is Noise, I never realized the scope of the man's work and life, which would make a great template for one of those Scott Alexander/Larry Karaszewski screenplays from the mid-90s.
He was from Texarkana but wound up living as a Mexican citizen (he stayed out of the U.S. for forty-plus years); he was an avowed card-carrying Communist who joined the rebel brigade that fought Francisco Franco's fascist forces; he was a jazz trumpeter who wound up composing music that could not be repeated by human hands; he was a recluse who seemed to have met or come into contact with many of the great composers of the modern era; he was influenced by minimalism but his music was "maximalist" to the extreme. His obsession was where music met machines -- he might very well have been one of the first cyberpunks -- and he found his perfect machine in the player piano.
Thirty-two years before Einstürzende Neubauten turned mechanized machines into musical instruments, Nancarrow seemed obsessed with the exact opposite. Influenced by the impossibly complex piano runs of the great jazz pianist Art Tatum and the theories of avant-garde composer Henry Cowell (whose writings on harmonic and rhythmic freedom he stated were "the most influence of anything I've ever read in music"), Nancarrow purchased a custom-built punching machine in New York in 1947, where he would manually produce piano rolls that he dubbed "studies." The reason he did this was simple: his music was so complex that it had to be "composed" without being performed by actual human fingers. Nancarrow, writes Alex Ross, "relied on his mechanical instrument to execute insanely intricate rhythmic designs that only a many-armed robot pianist could have played."
Our blog title was a little misleading: there is a trove of info on Nancarrow on the web. Our blogroll bud Kyle Gann wrote a tasty survey called The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press: 2006), of which you can read excerpts here. There's a site devoted to Nancarrow written by his former assistant Carlos Sandoval and an 80-minute radio program by Alejandro Viňao on musicians influenced by Nancarrow's work. Bruce Duffie interviewed Nancarrow back in 1987, ten years before the composer's death, and Minnesota Public Radio ran a portrait of his life and music just a few months after his death.