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Don't Shoot the Player Piano: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow

November 2, 2012 - November 4, 2012


Many composers are deemed mavericks, but few truly are when measured against the lifelong contrariness of Conlon Nancarrow (1912–97). Because of his leftist leanings, Nancarrow abandoned the U.S., moving to Mexico City in 1940, where he led a hermetic life while composing a large body of work that remained unknown for almost four decades. During his earlier Stateside career, Nancarrow composed a more predictable, modernist brand of music, influenced by Arnold Schoenberg and others, but the technical demands of his complex compositions made satisfactory performances a rarity. Taking a suggestion from Henry Cowell’s book New Musical Resources, he turned to the player piano because of its ability to reproduce patterns and cadences far beyond human facility. An outpouring of player-piano pieces rife with challenging tempos, fugal virtuosity, and breakneck speed sat quietly in Nancarrow’s studio until Columbia Records issued a limited recording in 1969. A decade later, 1750 Arch Records, under the supervision of Charles Amirkhanian, released four eye-opening LPs and Nancarrow slowly emerged from obscurity.

This fall we celebrate Conlon Nancarrow’s centenary with two evenings of rarely seen films, some biographical, others visual tributes to Nancarrow’s music, including the West Coast premiere of James R. Greeson’s Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano; Uli Aumüller’s Music for 1,000 Fingers, which features the only recorded visit to Nancarrow’s Mexico City studio; and short experimental works by Alban Wesly and Tal Rosner. We also commemorate Nancarrow this fall with Trimpin: Nancarrow Percussion Orchestra / MATRIX 244, a sculptural sound installation by the Seattle-based artist.

Steve Seid, Video Curator

Friday, November 2, 2012
7:00 p.m. Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano
James R. Greeson (U.S., 2012).Yoko Sugiura-Nancarrow, Mako Nancarrow, Trimpin, and Charles Amirkhanian in person. An original documentary on Arkansas native Conlon Nancarrow, who became one of the most original composers of our time while living quietly in Mexico City. With shorts Studies on Nancarrow, #2 and #18. (62 mins)

Sunday, November 4, 2012
4:00 p.m. Music for 1,000 Fingers: Conlon Nancarrow
Uli Aumüller, Hanne Kaisik (Germany, 1993). Yoko Sugiura-Nancarrow, Mako Nancarrow, Trimpin, and Charles Amirkhanian in person. This crisp 1993 portrait shows us composer Conlon Nancarrow in his well-worn space of vigorous creativity, working in his secluded Mexico City studio amidst antique player pianos, a massive library, and a growing collection of piano rolls. With shorts Studies on Nancarrow, #3C and #7. (53 mins)

Don’t Shoot the Player Piano: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow is co-curated by Video Curator Steve Seid and filmmaker Peter Esmonde and presented in conjunction with Cal Performances and Other Minds. Thanks to Charles Amirkhanian of Other Minds and to all the filmmakers for making their Nancarrow works available.

For additional performances and events taking place as part of Nancarrow at 100: A Centennial Celebration, visit otherminds.org and calperformances.org.