Fig. 1: Conlon Nancarrow in his Mexico City studio. Source: Other Minds.
In 1983, James Greeson, professor of composition at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, traveled to
Mexico City to interview Nancarrow. Below are excerpts from that interview.
James Greeson (JG): You probably don't have your music heard much here in Mexico.
Conlon Nancarrow (CN): Not at all. Which suits me because I like the peace and tranquillity. In other parts
of the world there are all kinds of things being done, a lot of fuss being made, which is all right. I'm
still isolated here. If something did happen here, it would be more of a nuisance—invasion of privacy you
JG: Was your trip to Europe last year interesting?
CN: It was very hectic. I was there three weeks. There were two appearances in Austria, one in Germany, and
one in France. They would play the tapes, and Ligeti would speak about my music.
JG: It's a funny story isn't it? I guess Ligeti found some of the Arch recordings of your music in a
bookshop in Paris and just couldn't believe what he was hearing. Have you heard much of his music?
CN: At the time he started writing those things about me, I knew his name, but I'd never heard one single
piece of his music, and I thought, I knew he was famous, but who knows what kind of music he writes. And I
might not be too proud of what he writes ... Then I heard some of his music on records, and I was very
impressed with it.
JG: I hear some similarities. He seems to do a lot of things in his pieces that you had been doing for a
long time. I imagine he was particularly interested in your music because it bears similarities to his own
CN: I suppose so.
JG: How did you choose Mexico City to move to? I had assumed that because you spent time in Spain that you
learned Spanish there and thought that you'd come down to Mexico.
CN: No, I didn't learn any Spanish. It was an American brigade. I learned to say "good day" or something
like that, but I didn't learn any Spanish. No, I learned it here in Mexico. Why I came to Mexico? Well, in
the first place I couldn't get a passport. And there were only two places in the world I could go to without
a passport, Canada or Mexico. So I decided Mexico.
JG: Did you study anything else in Texarkana?
CN: I really hated piano lessons, and I was able to get out of that by taking up trumpet. It so happened
that my trumpet teacher was the trumpeter in the town band. He was an old drunk, but very sympathetic. Very
pleasant, so I liked it. I also conducted an American Legion Band.
JG: You did play jazz?
CN: I played a little of everything. In Cincinnati I played in a German beer hall.
JG: When did you leave Texarkana?
CN: I left Texarkana when I was about fifteen, and then I went to Cincinnati. When I went to Boston I
conducted a WPA orchestra for a while. That's when I discovered I had no talent for conducting. I just
didn't have the personality for it. A conductor has to be a bit of a tyrant.
JG: Was there anything about Arkansas that you especially remember?
CN: It was so long ago. I had an enormous collection of "Little Blue Books" on every subject, on every
conceivable subject. They were five cents each, the original pocket books. They covered everything from
Shakespeare to Einstein. Every popular magazine carried a full page listing of titles for these "Little Blue
Books." They must have had over a thousand titles, and I had several hundred.
JG: You studied with Slonimsky and Sessions in Boston?
CN: More or less. Sessions was the main one. And it was just counterpoint.
JG: It wasn't free composition?
CN: No. I also studied with Piston. Piston and Slonimsky were very vague. They started talking about something
else and forgot all about the lesson. I soon drifted into a friendly relationship with Slonimsky. We would
visit once in a while. Sessions was a taskmaster—strict Fux counterpoint from the beginning. At the same
time I would show him my compositions. He'd take a quick look and say, "That's interesting. Now where is
JG: Were there any cultures that interested you? I would assume African.
CN: Mainly African and Indian.
JG: For the way they use time?
CN: Mainly, yes.
JG: Was there any way that your study gave you some ideas?
CN: No, unless possibly unconsciously. Did you ever see the Shankar Ballet? This Shankar was the brother of
the famous Ravi Shankar. That was my first introduction to Indian music. I saw the ballet and heard their
music in Boston in the 1930s and that got me interested in Indian music.
JG: Was the music you composed during the 1930s performed much at that time?
CN: Never. As far as I know, the first time the Toccata for violin and piano was performed was at
a festival in California last year. I taped a player-piano part of the Toccata. The violin part is
difficult enough, but the piano part is extremely difficult at the speed that I wanted. So I punched it out
at that speed, and this wonderful violinist played it along with the tape, and he did a fantastic job. In
the first place, it's a very difficult violin part, but the problem is that the tape just goes and you have
to go along with it, and he did it.
JG: I was wondering how fast it really went. It says "as fast as possible" on the score.
CN: Yes, the violinist proved he could, but I think the piano couldn't be played at the speed I wanted.
Maybe a Horowitz could do it, but a Horowitz wouldn't go near anything like that.
JG: Did it bother you to hear bad performances of your own pieces?
CN: There weren't that many performances. Of course it bothered me. I wrote a Septet, which was
given a non-performance in New York. It had practically no relation to what I had written. The trouble with
that performance was that there was no rehearsal of all seven musicians together. So at the performance they
naturally just fell apart.
JG: Do you really love the sound of your player pianos, or would you be interested in doing the same sorts
of proportional schemes with different tone qualities?
CN: Oh, of course! In fact the piano thing is very limited, because it's just one tone color. For doing
things for orchestra or live instruments, the complications of that are tremendous in coordination. But I'm
just not very enthusiastic about the electronic sounds.
JG: When people hear your music, they always find your music exciting, and I think it has a lot to do with
the presence of the piano sound. Your pianos have such a strong sound.
CN: It's a live sound. At one time when electronic music was more or less getting going, I was beginning to
regret that I had gotten into player piano. Because I thought that this is the future, and I ought to drop
player piano and start on a new technique I know nothing about. But I didn't. But now I'm glad I didn't
because I'm not enthusiastic about what they've done in the electronic field.
Fig. 2: Nancarrow, Conlon. The final roll for Study 49c. Source: universo.math.
JG: How do you go about converting a score into a roll?
CN: First, I draw out the temporal relationships on the roll. I put the roll on my drawing board and draw
out the proportions that I'm going to use, or the times that I'm going to use, and first I just draw all of
that out on the roll with no notes. Just the places that they are going to be. Then I transfer what I've
drawn on the roll to this music paper. Of course, before I start I have a fairly good idea what the piece
will be like. So then I have this whole stack of music paper with nothing but proportions, or divisions of
time, on it. Then I start composing the piece.
JG: You mean writing the notes in?
CN: Writing the notes in for the specific piece. Then of course I punch it.
JG: So you start off with the proportions on the roll first and then the
music paper and then back to the roll to punch it.
CN: Right. Then after that I make what you might call a legible score that people can read.
JG: When you first have an idea for a piece, is it something like, "I want to write a piece that will have
different percentages of accelerations and ritards in it?"
JG: So your first idea is perhaps proportional and later you worry about the motives or whatever you may
CN: More or less, except even when I'm putting the proportions on I have a fairly good idea of what I'm
going to do, but nothing specific, just general ideas.
JG: For whom do you write your pieces, for yourself only?
CN: I suppose there's no such thing as anyone writing just for himself I've always written with some
vague—not public—but some other ear in mind that would hear it.
JG: At the same time it doesn't bother you, that at least until recently, not much of a public has heard
your music. Although it may be overstating to say that your music hasn't been heard much.
CN: No, you're not overstating. It hasn't been heard much.
JG: Didn't Merce Cunningham do a lot of your pieces?
CN: No, he did just one ballet for a few pieces. And even that, who
knows how many people heard it? It's just been very recently that there has been a public for my music.
JG: Have you heard any of your earlier music played, pieces you'd written prior to the player piano pieces?
CN: The String Quartet was written over forty years ago, and I heard it for the first time in
California when I went [in 1982]. That's a long time. And it's no big deal anyhow. And a piece for small
orchestra was played there more or less well. That was also the first time I had heard that.
JG: Does it interest you to hear these old compositions of yours?
CN: Not much. I feel like it's just another world.
JG: Did you know anything about the MacArthur grant? Did you know you were nominated, or did you just get a
letter in the mail one day?
CN: As a matter of fact, I heard from my brother. He called me long distance and said I'd been nominated,
and I almost fell over.
JG: Are you doing anything in your new pieces that is different from things you've done before?
CN: No, no new ideas. Almost all of my music is canonic. Quite a few are strict canons, but they all have
JG: Roger Reynolds is interested in the notion of perceptual thresholds of music. Do you find that there are thresholds
in your own music—relationships which are too complex, for example?
CN: In my own music? Not hardly, because I know what is there.
JG: Was it Study Number 39 which was a canon with a ratio of 60:61?
CN: You know, someone asked me about that, and I gave the wrong answer. It's not 60 against 61 in the sense
of a rhythm. It's simply the rate of speed at which one thing goes against the speed at which another goes.
In other words they're just going at slightly different speeds, and one finally catches up. Most of my
things are something against something else. But this is not. It's a rate of speed against another rate of
JG: Have you lost interest in the pieces for the two pianos?
CN: No, I'm not throwing them away. In fact, fortunately, all of those pieces now are recorded. Not the way
I would like them, but recorded. So I forget about them, and now I'm onto pieces for just one piano.
Although I'm thinking of the possibility of doing a thing for two pianos and getting a decent tape recorder
and doing it in short sections. And getting it exactly right. Keep recording it until it is just right. Then
take another section and go on that way through the whole piece. Someone who's been working with computer
controlled piano and synchronization wrote me from Australia. According to him it's possible to synchronize
up to one hundred pianos perfectly. I have the feeling that at my age to start on a new technique, which I
know nothing about ... If it had been thirty years ago, I might have liked the idea.
JG: Do you advocate people realizing your player piano pieces on conventional instruments?
CN: It's curious. My manager has gotten several requests from people to arrange something for orchestra.
The composer Wuorinen was at the festival in California. He wanted to arrange Study Number 41 for
orchestra. I didn't think it would be possible because it's so complex. But I met him and discussed it with
him. The talk didn't go so well.
JG: You did some pieces for prepared piano, didn't you?
CN: I did one. That has to be on a grand piano, because things fall out if you put them in an upright. A
long time ago I got a baby grand and prepared it and did a piece for it. And I had so much trouble, not with
the preparation, but the mechanism. In a baby grand the player mechanism is all underneath, and to get at
anything is very difficult. I finally got fed up with it and sold it. But before I sold it, I made a
recording of that one piece, which Arch Records has. It's not a good recording, but at least it's on there.
They also have a tape I did. Years ago when tape first came out I did a piece for tape—a very primitive
thing. I took a bunch of drums and recorded the sound of each drum on tape and then made copies of each
sound—many, many copies and clipped them off. Then I took these little pieces of tape and pasted them
together, made a rhythm out of them. Of course it's just one line. As I say it's extremely primitive. It's
about a minute or two of music. Oh, the work that took. It's a curiosity.
JG: The notion of symmetry seems important to you. Are you a believer in symmetry?
CN: I guess I am a believer in symmetry. As you know I'm a great admirer of Bach, which certainly is the
ultimate in symmetry. Actually Stravinsky, too.
JG: What study are you working on now?
CN: I'm on Number 46 now. I just recently finished Number 45—a long piece, about twenty minutes, for one
- Gyorgy Ligeti is a Hungarian-born Austrian composer and pedagogue.
- Nicholas Slonimsky (1884-1994) was a well-known musicologist best known for his book
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992).
- Walter Piston (1894-1976) was a respected American composer.
- Counterpoint denotes music of two or more lines that sound simultaneously. J.J. Fux
wrote a treatise in 1725, Gradus ad Parnassum, that perpetuated a method of teaching counterpoint
according to strict rules.
- Ravi Shankar became famous in the 1960s for his performances on the sitar, an Indian
- Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) was a pianist of prodigious ability.
- Merce Cunningham (b.1919) is an American choreographer.
- A canon is a composition in strict counterpoint. One melodic strand is imitated, note
for note and in its entirety, in all othen. A round is a type of canon.
- Roger Reynolds (b. 1934) is an American composer. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1989.
- Charles Wuorinen (b. 1938) is an American composer. He won a Pulitzer Prize in
This is an abridged version of a text that first appeared in Conlon Nancarrow: An Arkansas
Original, published by James R. Greeson, Gretchen B. Gearhart and Conlon Nancarrow in the The
Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1995, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Winter, 1995), pp. 457-469.