Conlon Nancarrow interviewed by Natalie Wheen
This interview was first broadcast on the BBC Radio 3 programme, Third Ear on
the 18 January 1990, and the transcript is reproduced by kind permission of the BBC.
WHEEN: I know when I first heard a Nancarrow piece it made me think of a mad jazz
pianist possessed of superhuman piano technique. Very wide of the mark, I'm afraid. Conlon
Nancarrow was never a piano player, well not what we would normally think of as a piano
player. He used to play the trumpet. His music comes from a highly complicated brain
matched by a virtuoso pair of ears . . . These days, Nancarrow is in demand. He's featured
in festivals, given awards and scholarships and fêted by the American authorities
who once hounded and persecuted him for having fought with the Lincoln Brigade against
Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
In 1940, Nancarrow decamped to Mexico which was more civilized about left wing
opinions, and he's been there ever since, living in a quiet suburb of Mexico City, doggedly
working away, day after day, punching holes in hia player piano rolls. It's been a long,
solitary road, even though Mexico City is permanently in a ferment of artistic argument,
and it's a place where it is possible for the strangest things to be taken quite
seriously. So, when we met at his house, just before lunch (hence the percussion section
in the background), I wondered how much the place had worked its effect on him.
NANCARROW: Oh I'm sure Mexico has some - well, it had an effect on me which should have
an effect on the music in one way or another. More than Mexico, my influences have been,
say, jazz and ethnic music, you might say. Quite a few ethnic musics have appealed to me
WHEEN: It's such an extraordinary sense of layers and possibilities and surprises in
your music, y et contained within this very formal and very singular tone world - if we
come in through the piano pieces for example.
NANCARROW: Well, it is. In fact, that's the one limitation. It doesn't bother me, but
that's one of the attractions of electronic music. You can do the same things as electronic
music as I can with the piano, and you have all these sounds. As a matter of fact, if I'd
started earlier going to mechanical music, if electronic music had existed, I probably
would have gone that way. But it didn't even exist. So I got into player pianos. And
another thing about electronic music. I like acoustic sounds of live instruments, and
electronic music still is not. It's on the edge, but it's still not there.
Shepherd's Hey by Percy Grainger: Rex Lawson
The editorial board of this journal is well aware that a sizeable proportion of its
readership does not have immediate access to pianolas or other roll-operated instruments,
so that the music mentioned in these pages risks remaining somewaht obscure. It seemed
sensible, therefore, to undertake a series of transcriptions of music specially written
or arranged for player-piano. Score-reading musicologists and six-handed pianists may
find useful additions to their repertoire, but these reconstructions are not intended as
practical performing editions. Many pianola manuscripts remain untraced, no doubt thrown
out when roll companies ceased trading, so our aim is to recreate their composers'
An excerpt from "Shepherd's Hey", by Percy Grainger.
Shepherd's Hey is a good example to start with, since it is arguably one of the
first pianola compositions of international repute, and since Grainger's manuscript has
not been found. By it should be borne in mind that by late 1914, when the rolls of this
work were first published, several minor composers had already tried their hands (or
feet!) in a similar way.
The Player Piano on Record - a Discography (Part 1): Denis Hall
This discography was planned as a postscript to the article published in Journal
No.2, and was intended to include just a few of the better recordings of which the writer
was aware. As the project developed, it seemed more sensible to include as many discs as
could be traced, and to make recommendations where it was felt this could safely be
done. For the rest, enthusiasts can form their own judgement - and perhaps stumble on a
real gem which had slipped into obscurity.
This, then, is the pattern which has been followed. As many recordings as could be
found have been included. Only those which can be purchased as souvenirs from museums have
knowingly been excluded on the grounds that they have never been readily available to the
record-buying public, and are often of somewhat dubious quality.
It is inevitable that record companies will only retain recordings in their catalogues
if they sell in goodly quantities. It is therefore a sad fact that only one or two of the
CDs listed are currently available. This of course does not preclude the student or
collector from investigating the second-hand market which is now reaching a very
interesting phase when an early LP may have been unavailable from the manufacturer for
thirty years or more and be almost as rare as some of the original piano rolls
Only those discs which the writer has heard and/or knows to be of good reproductions of
the rolls have been recommended. Many of the discs were published a long time ago, and the
actual sound has not been taken into consideration in making a recommendation, although of
course if good copies of the discs can be found, they will be at least acceptable - and far
superior sonically to the gramophone's attempts to record the piano in the early years of
No attempt has been made to date the original piano roll recordings. Welte first
published rolls in 1905, and the best of even these early ones arc excellent. Duo-Art and
Ampico continued to issue rolls in a small way until the outbreak of the Second World
The discography is planned in four sections - Welte, Duo-Art, Ampico, and foot-operated
player pianos. As with any project of this nature, the writer will be pleased to receive
corrections and additions to the listings.