NANCARROW: Pieces for Small Orchestra / Tango / String Quartet No. 1

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Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997)

Orchestral, Chamber and Piano Music

The United States has spawned numerous composers sooriginal that they were initially rejected as eccentrics.

Among the best known are Charles Ives, Henry Cowell,John Cage, and Lou Harrison. For many years, rumourstold of another such musician, Conlon Nancarrow.

Secluded in Mexico, he was said to be composing someof the most explosive music of the century.

Born in 1912 in Texarkana, Arkansas, Nancarrowattended the Cincinnati Conservatory (1929-1932) andworked privately in Boston with three leaders ofAmerican new music, Nicolas Slonimsky, WalterPiston, and Roger Sessions. Nancarrow considered hiscounterpoint studies with Sessions his only formalcompositional training. In 1937, after completing hisstudies, Nancarrow joined the international fightersgathering in Spain to combat Francisco Franco'smilitary coup. Upon returning to the United States in1939 and settling in New York, however, he foundhimself treated by the American government as personanon grata, because of his earlier communist sympathies.

When his application for a new passport was rejected,he moved to Mexico City (1940), and eventuallybecame a Mexican citizen.

Nancarrow's earliest mature works, fantastical,energetic music, were inspired by his dual loves, Bachand jazz. Yet despite his practical experience as a jazztrumpeter, he soon began pursuing an ideal vision inwhich practical considerations are secondary. Forexample, at the optimal tempo of the wild, neo-baroqueToccata for Violin and Piano (1935), the repeated notesin the piano part are unplayable. Years later Nancarrowrealized his vision by constructing a player-pianoalternative for the piano part, which is used on thisrecording.

Another early work, the Prelude and Blues (alsofrom 1935) fuses Bachian counterpoint with jazz andblues. The blues permeates slow movements throughoutNancarrow's career, but never in a conventional way.

Here, tone clusters, unexpected accents andasymmetries project his whimsical fantasy. Althoughthe Prelude and Blues was written for a soloist, the highenergy and textural intricacy of the Prelude has made itsperformance as a piano duet more effective. The same istrue of the Sonatina (1941), a work in which the 29-year-old composer achieved astonishing compositionalmastery. This successor to the exuberant sonatas of theeighteenth century unites the spirit of jazz with theEuropean tradition. At the same time, the contrapuntalwizardry, enormous range, and boisterousness make theperformers grateful for the four-hands version of YvarMikhashoff, who consulted with the composer onseveral transcriptions of his music.

Other compositions of the early 1940s available in1991, when Continuum recorded this CD for MusicalHeritage Society, include a trio movement for clarinet,bassoon, and piano (1942), a larger work in a popularidiom, the Piece for Small Orchestra (1943), and the1945 String Quartet. Uncovered after this CD was madewere two more movements of the Trio, a very earlySarabande and Scherzo, Three Studies for piano, and aSeptet. That early String Quartet, his last \live" piecefor nearly four decades, hints at the direction he tookshortly, in which layering of rhythmic strata plays anincreasingly important r??le.

During the whole period in the United States,Nancarrow was frustrated by performers' unwillingnessto confront the challenges of his music. In Mexico City,where there were even fewer musicians willing to tacklecomplex new music, the situation was worse. Afterunsuccessfully attempting to construct a mechanicalpercussion ensemble to explore his rhythmic ideas, hefound a solution to his problems, the player piano.

Although impelled by his disillusionment with theattitudes of contemporary performers, his interest in theplayer piano was essentially positive: its unique soundand capabilities, which had fascinated composers suchas Hindemith and Cowell, offered the chance for a newkind of music. Purchasing the equipment he needed topunch his own rolls, he began to pursue his contrapuntaland rhythmic interests in an ideal form.

From the late 1940s until the end of his lifeNancarrow gave the parlour instrument a new lifethrough a compositional virtuosity probably neverdreamed of by its inventors. By rendering the liveperformer superfluous, however, he removed his namefrom the concert stage, limited the potential forrecognition, and obscured the existence of his earlierworks. Eventually, recordings and publication of someof the player piano music, and a MacArthur Foundation"genius" grant (1982), finally brought him to thepublic's attention. Then performers began to encouragehim to write "live" music again. Invited to majorEuropean festivals, he gained an international following.

The player piano compositions, some fifty in all, arerhythmic studies; like nineteenth-century Etudes, eachdeals with a single compositional challenge. But thefascinating structures of the Studies above all were avehicle for Nancarrow's phenomenal vitality. Whilecascades of notes whirl about the playerless keyboard atspeeds that dare our ears to comprehend what ishappening, these pieces retain a good-natured, humanewit. Although most of the Studies remain out of reachfor live performers, one exception is Study No. 15,transcribed for piano four-hands by Yvar Mikhashoff. Itis a canon in which the two parts perform the samematerial at different tempos (in the ratio 4:3). Graduallythe faster, upper part pulls ahead. Then, when it hasfinished its melody, it starts again at the slower tempo.

Eventually the lower part, originally the slower one,completes its leisurely statement of the melody, beginsagain at the fast tempo, and gradually catches up in thiscanonic race. The two hit the finish line simultaneously.

In the early 1980s Nancarrow was persuaded towrite the stylized dance and variations ??Tango? (1983)for Mikhashoff's International Tango Collection. Thenhe agreed to compose a piece for Continuum's 1986Nancarrow retrospective at Lincoln Center, with acommission from the Los Angeles patron BettyFreeman. He modestly warned that the piece might besmall, but what emerged was his first large-scalecomposition since the player piano pieces, the PieceNo. 2 for Small Orchestra (1986). Although compact,this work is a major achievement, summarising theessence of the Studies and opening the door to newpossibilities in live performance. Nancarrow has uniteda tremendous range of moods and gestures within theframework of temporal canons extending techniquesexplored in his Studies. To the ear of the listener, theideas are instantly captivating: the complexities ofstructure are only the means to an end, a work whoseparts fit snugly into a grand and colourful 'whole'. Thepiece is in two connected movements; the second beginswith the oboe solo following the climax of the piano anddouble bass duo.

The commission and premi?¿re of the Piece No. 2catalyzed Nancarrow to restore his relationship with thelive performer. He then wrote another string quartet, atrio, canonic piano pieces, and an orchestral work withlive player piano. Then severe illness put an end to hiscreativity. He died in Mexico in 1997.

?® 2005 Continuum"
Disc: 1
Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra
1 Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra
2 Toccata for Violin and Piano Player
3 Prelude and Bues
4 Study No. 15 (trans. Y. Mikhashoff)
5 Tango?
6 I. Presto
7 II. Moderato
8 III. Allegro molto
9 Trio Movement
10 I. Allegro molto
11 II. Andante moderato
12 III. Prestissimo
13 Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra
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