Conlon Nancarrow: A Chronology

By Kyle Gann

Conlon Nancarrow died August 10, 1997, at 7:10 PM at his home in Mexico City, surrounded by his wife and son. Though bedridden for the previous year and a half, he remained conscious to the end, if able to converse only in monosyllabic answers. The morning of the day he died, he seemed to rally, and was strong enough to walk with support. The music world mourns his passing.

1912: Samuel Conlon Nancarrow born October 27 in Texarkana, Arkansas

1925: Nancarrow's father, to help protect local business interests, runs for mayor of Texarkana and wins

1930: Studying at Cincinnati College Conservatory, Nancarrow hears the Cincinnati Orchestra play Le Sacre du Printemps; confirms his desire to become a composer; Nancarrow's father dies

1932: Marries his first wife, Helen Rigby, a singer and contrabass player

1934: Moves to Boston, where he studies with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Nicolas Slonimsky; here he also (according to Helen Rigby) meets Schoenberg, who has fled to Boston following the Nazi takeover; Nancarrow joins the Communist Party

1936: Works his way to Europe by playing jazz trumpet on a ship - visits London, Paris, and Germany

1937: Enlists in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and goes to fight in Spain; while he's there, his first wife divorces him by proclamation

1938: Slonimsky publishes Nancarrow's first works, the Toccata for Violin and Piano, and the Prelude and Blues for piano

1939: Defeated by Franco, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade dissolves and Nancarrow makes his escape from Valencia in the hold of a freighter carrying olive oil; returns to Texarkana; then moves to New York and meets Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Wallingford Riegger, and Minna Lederman; the last elicits four articles from him for the journal Modern Music; reads Henry Cowell's groundbreaking book New Musical Resources, in which Cowell outlines an advanced rhythmic theory of simultaneous conflicting tempos and suggests that such rhythms, though humanly impossible, could be achieved on the player piano

1940: Finds that his colleagues in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade are being denied visas because of their Communist Party memberships; flees to Mexico City to avoid harassment by the U.S. Government during the McCarthy era

1947: Money left by his father becomes available to Nancarrow; he uses it to return to New York City and buy a player piano; in New York, has a punching machine made to punch player-piano rolls; hears John Cage perform Sonatas and Interludes

1948: Returns to Mexico and marries Annette Margolis, painter and assistant to Diego Rivera; they move to land she owns on the outskirts of Mexico City and build a house (land that Nancarrow lives on to this day); Nancarrow begins writing his Studies for Player Piano, beginning with what will become No. 3

1951: Elliott Carter has Nancarrow's Rhythm Study No. 1 for Player Piano published in New Music

1953: Nancarrow and Annette divorce, divide their land

1955: Elliott Carter publishes an article in The Score, "The Rhythmic Basis of American Music," mentioning Nancarrow; Nancarrow becomes a Mexican citizen.

1960: After John Edmunds requests tapes from Nancarrow and brings them to the attention of John Cage, Merce Cunningham choreographs Nancarrow's Studies Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7

1961: Nancarrow enters a five-year depression and begins making readable copies of his scores

1962: Composer Rudolfo Halffter persuades Nancarrow to bring his player pianos to Bellas Artes for the only live performance he will give until the 1990s

1964: Cunningham's ensemble takes their dances based on Nancarrow's Studies on a world tour

1969: Columbia issues first recording of Nancarrow's Player Piano Studies

1970: Marries his third wife, Yoko Segiura, a Japanese archeologist working in Mexico

1971: Their son David Makoto is born; Yoko is temporarily paralyzed on one side for several months by the delivery and Nancarrow - a first-time father at 58 - takes over child-caring duties

1972: Composer and editor of Soundings Peter Garland begins corresponding with Nancarrow

1973: Columbia deletes their recording of Nancarrow Studies

1975: Garland publishes Nancarrow's Study No. 25 in Soundings

1976: New World Records releases a recording of avant-garde piano music including Nancarrow's Studies Nos. 1, 27, and 36; Garland publishes Volume 1 of the Selected Studies for Player Piano

1976-1984: 1750 Arch Records releases four volumes of the Player Piano Studies, up through No. 41

1981: Eva Soltes becomes Nancarrow's manager and convinces him to tour; he visits San Francisco for New Music America '81, his emotional first return to America since 1948

1982: Nancarrow receives MacArthur "Genius" Award of $300,000 paid over five years; Composer-in-residence for the Cabrillo Festival

1985: Featured on the Almeida Festival

1986: Continuum plays his non-player-piano music at Lincoln Center

1987: Travels to Holland Festival for performances of his music

1988: Kyle Gann visits Nancarrow in Mexico City for the first time, and begins work on his The Music of Conlon Nancarrow

1989: Jurgen Hocker sends his piano technician Jorg Borchardt to repair Nancarrow's disabled player pianos; Nancarrow appears at Composer-to-Composer in Telluride, Colorado

1990: The University of Mexico presents a two-day festival of Nancarrow's music; he has a stroke, and his health problems begin

1995: Gann's The Music of Conlon Nancarrow published

1997: Nancarrow dies, August 10, of apparent heart failure at his home in Mexico City

Copyright 1997 by Kyle Gann

Read an excerpt of Nancarrow's biography from The Music of Conlon Nancarrow

See an annotated List of Nancarrow's Complete Works

Return to the Conlon Nancarrow Web Page

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