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.