The Lost Tape Music of Conlon Nancarrow

Conlon Nancarrow - Lost Works

Reclusive and maverick, Conlon Nancarrow composed some of the most beautifully complex music ever created using an early form of digital programming - punching holes into a roll of paper to be played on a player piano!

Nancarrow's original ambition in the late 1940’s however was to create a complete mechanical orchestra. Lacking the engineering resources this was soon abandoned, but not before it was used as source material for what is one of the most unusual pieces of early music concrete. 

American composer Conlon Nancarrow is best known for his extraordinarily complex pieces for player piano, written in almost complete isolation from the mainstream of musical society at his home in Mexico City. During his early player piano days, Nancarrow had attempted to make a mechanical percussion orchestra but gave up, after deciding that the engineering was beyond him, instead using recordings of the percussion instruments to create an early tape composition (c.1952) of superhuman virtuosity. 

During the Spring of 2009 British composer Dominic Murcott called me to talk about Nancarrow's Piece for Tape - barely 2 minutes of incredibly fast and furious drumming - found on a CD titled 'Lost Works'. It turns out that Nancarrow had been expertimenting with what must have been one of the very first Ampeg tape machines, to painstakingly piece together an electrifying percussive composition.

After a number of workshop sessions to discuss the sonics of the various drums and blocks (we went for 3 bongos, 3 tom toms and 8 woodblocks - 4 high, 4 low) and visits to the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel, Switzerland (where Dominic discovered the original manuscript) the process of arranging and learning this short, yet significant work began.

In July 2010 as part of the Cheltenham International Music Festival (UK) I performed the first arrangement of Nancarrow’s Piece for Tape (for Percussion), closer to 3 minutes - but still pretty damn fast! 

Employing the same set of percussion, I premiered Dominic’s own composition Armed Response Unit alongisde the Nancarrow - which added electronic sounds and live computer processing to create a companion piece that extends and plays with the sonic language of Nancarrow’s Piece for Tape. As with the Nancarrow, the tangled textures are often under pinned by simple pulses, which the listener may or may not detect through the aural camouflage. 

Dominic Murcott is Head of Composition at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, plays vibes with the High Llamas and in April 2012 curated the critically acclaimed festival “Impossible Brilliance: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” at London's Southbank Centre, contributing several new Nancarrow arrangements for the London Sinfonietta.

Both Nancarrow's Piece for Tape (for Percussion) and Murcott's Armed Response Unit are featured on Powerplant's 2012 release 24 Lies Per Second.

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