Conlon Nancarrow:

Annotated List of Works

By Kyle Gann

--------Note: Numbers after a Canon name indicate the ratios among the tempos of the lines of that canon; i.e., in a Canon 3/4, one of the lines moves 4/3 as fast as the other

Early Works

Sarabande and Scherzo for oboe, bassoon, and piano (1930)

Blues for piano (1935)

Prelude for piano (1935)

Toccata for violin and piano (1935)

Septet (1940) - given one disastrous premiere in Mexico, this work was presumed lost until Carlos Sandoval rediscovered the score in 1990

Sonatina for piano (1941) - terribly difficult to play, this also exists as a player-piano roll, and Nancarrow claims to prefer it in that form

Three Two-Part Studies for piano (early 1940s) - manuscript discovered in 1990 by Jurgen Hocker

Trio No. 1 for clarinet, bassoon, and piano (1942)

Piece No. 1 for Small Orchestra (1943) - four movements

Piece No. 1 for Large Orchestra (mid-1940s) - an adaptation of the Piece for Small Orchestra, with a first movement added and other minor alterations; presumably, this is the score Nancarrow sent to Chavez, who never performed it, and the work still awaits its world premiere

String Quartet (1945) - three movements; a String Quartet No. 2 from the 1940s exists in fragmentary sketches

Untitled Musique Concrete Piece (1950s) - at one point Nancarrow experimented with a tape recorder to see if he could get the rhythms he wanted by tape manipulation; he was unhappy with the result, a tape of tempo-shifting drum beats, but Roger Reynolds has a copy of the tape

Player Piano Studies

----------Note: Nancarrow has never dated his Player Piano Studies, and approximate ranges have been given according to best evidence. Originally, each of the pieces was titled Rhythm Study No. 1 and so on, but after No. 35 Nancarrow dropped the word "Rhythm" in the titles. All of the Player Piano Studies are recorded on Wergo CDs except the three latest: For Yoko, Study No. 51, and Contraption No. 1.

Study No. 1 (by 1951; published 1952 in New Music) - an arch-form study over ostinatos at a tempo ratio of 4:7

Study No. 2a (late 1940s) - a blues study over ostinatos at a 3-against-5 tempo

Study No. 2b (ca. 1950) - a player piano arrangement of the last movement of Piece for Small Orchestra No. 1, inserted into the Study sequence decades later as an afterthought

Study No. 3 (1948) - the "Boogie-Woogie Suite" in five movements; these were apparently Nancarrow's first works for player piano, later grouped together as one piece

----------Note: Studies Nos. 4 through 30 were apparently written between 1948 and 1960

Study No. 4 - a canon in pitch only, not in rhythm, on a whimsical 53-note row

Study No. 5 - a study in repeated patterns over two ostinatos at tempos of 5-against-7

Study No. 6 - a "cowboy" tune over a quasi-ostinato that shifts back and forth between two different tempos every four notes

Study No. 7 - the longest of the early studies, a whirlwind tour-de-force and Nancarrow's only essay in anything approaching sonata form

Study No. 8 - the first acceleration study

Study No. 9 - a collage piece made by intercutting three repeating loops at different tempos

Study No. 10 - a problematic blues work, originally in an ABA form of which Nancarrow later decided to delete the opening A section

Study No. 11 - a jaunty, isorhythmic blues study on a repeating sequence of 120 chords

Study No. 12, "Spanish" - a study in chantlike lines with arpeggios that suggest Flamenco guitars

Study No. 13 - a study for the "Seven Canonic Studies," Nos. 13-19; Nancarrow wasn't pleased with this one and has never published it, though he has let it appear on recording

Study No. 14 - Canon 4/5

Study No. 15 - Canon 3/4

Study No. 16 - another sketch for canonic structure; there are two sections, the second 5/3 as fast as the first, and then the two are played simultaneously as a third section

Study No. 17 - Canon 12/15/20

Study No. 18 - Canon 3/4

Study No. 19 - Canon 12/15/20

Study No. 20, "Cloud" - a pointillist study of repeating notes within small ranges, similar to later works by Ligeti and Xenakis

Study No. 21 - Canon X; an acceleration canon in which one voice slows down, the other speeds up, and they cross in the middle

Study No. 22 - Canon 1%/1.5%/2.25%; an acceleration canon in which one voice speeds up at 1% per note, another at 1.5%, and so on; a near-palindrome

Study No. 23 - a complexly structured study based on acceleration

Study No. 24 - Canon 14/15/16; one of Nancarrow's masterpieces, a delicate solution to the problems of canonic perception

Study No. 25 - the work in which Nancarrow realized what was idiomatic for the player piano: glissandos, arpeggios, lightning-fast zagged patterns, and a finale of 1028 notes in 12 seconds with the sustain pedal held down

Study No. 26 - Canon 1/1; the only canon in which all voices are at the same tempo

Study No. 27 - Canon 5%/6%/8%/11%; Nancarrow's acceleration tour-de-force

Study No. 28 - an experimental piece in which correlations are drawn between pitch register and tempo, as scales sweep up and down the keyboard, one staying the same tempo and the other speeding up

Study No. 29 - an ABABABABABABAB form in which two acceleration processes are intercut with each other

Study No. 30 - This is the only study written for prepared player piano until the Contraption of 1992-93; Nancarrow abandoned the piece because the screws, washers, and so on would not stay in the strings of an upright piano; an early tape of the piece apparently exists; Like No. 29 only more complicated, it intercuts among five different textures in an accelerative process

---------Note: Studies Nos. 31, 32, and 33 were all completed sometime between 1965 and 1969.

Study No. 31 - Canon 21/24/25

Study No. 32 - Canon 5/6/7/8

Study No. 33 - Canon 2 against the square root of 2

---------Note: Studies Nos. 34, 35, and 36 were all begun between 1965 and '69 and completed between 1969 and 1977.

Study No. 34 - Canon 9/10/11; actually, within these three tempos are other tempo relationships at tempos of 4/5/6

Study No. 35 - a jazzy piece of evolving melodies

Study No. 36 - Canon 17/18/19/20; another Nancarrow masterpiece, an easily audible canonic process with a thrilling climax of glissandos

Study No. 37 (completed sometime between 1965 and 1969) - a 12-voice canon in which the 12 tempos are proportional to the pitches of the notes of a chromatic scale

---------Note: There are no Studies Nos. 38 and 39 because they were renumbered as 43 and 48 to fulfill commissions. Studies Nos. 40 and 41 were completed between 1969 and 1977.

Study No. 40, "Transcendental" - Canon e/pi; Nancarrow's first use of irrational tempo relationships

Study No. 41 - a jazzy canon with even more irrational tempo relationships based on the cube root of 13/16, the square root of 2/3, and so on

Study No. 42 - a wild music box of five competing tempos, 12/8/9/10/7

Study No. 43 - Canon 24/25; a simple, elegant canon of two-voices with a growling middle section

Study No. 44 - Aleatory Canon; the voices in this canon can be played back (on two pianos) at any tempo relationship

Study No. 45 - a "Second Boogie-Woogie Suite" in three movements, with lots of blues allusions; actually, Studies Nos. 45, 46, and 47 were originally written as one six-movement piece to fulfill a major commission, unified by using in all six movements a weird, irrational rhythm over and over; Nancarrow later decided to split the piece up into three, and the sixth movement (kind of charming) isn't included in the list of studies

Study No. 46 - a collage of melodies over three ostinatos at tempos of 3/4/5

Study No. 47 - a rip-roaring showpiece reminiscent of No. 25, with internal tempo canons and lots of fast arpeggios

Study No. 48 - Canon 60/61; possibly Nancarrow's magnum opus, a magnificently structured work in which the third movement is the first two movements both played at once

Study No. 49 - Three Canons, 4/5/6

Study No. 50 - Canon 5/7, with a third voice at the 6 tempo; this is a player-piano version of the second movement of Piece for Small Orchestra No. 2

For Yoko for player piano (1992-93) - this charming little piece dedicated to Nancarrow's wife sounds like a canon at ratios of 4/5/6, but it isn't a strict canon

Study No. 51 - Nancarrow jokingly titled this little study No. 3750, but I call it No. 51; it's a pseudo-canon with tempos of 12/16/20

Contraption No. 1 (1992-93) - written for Trimpin's IPP "Instant Prepared Piano," a mechanical, computer-run prepared piano

Late Works for Live Performers

Tango? (1983) - a "tango" for piano written for Yvar Mikhashoff

Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra

String Quartet No. 3 (1987) - Canons 3/4/5/6; written for the Arditti Quartet; the second movement is entirely in harmonics; the third is an acceleration canon, 3%/4%/5%/6%

Two Canons for Ursula (1988) - for piano; the first canon is 5/7, the second 2/3; Nancarrow originally abandoned a third movement, but apparently it has been resuscitated and performed

Trio No. 2 for oboe, bassoon, and piano

Concerto for Player Piano and Orchestra - an orchestration of movements 1 and 3 of Study No. 49

Quintet - an arragement of an abandoned player piano study for the Parnassus ensemble; not yet performed


Studies Nos. 1, 2, 3c, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 18, and 19 have been arranged for chamber ensemble by Yvar Mikhashoff

68 player-piano rolls were discovered in Nancarrow's studio by Carlos Sandoval, ranging from tiny sketches (one simply has the word "Hello" punched) to major, well-worked-out studies. Many of them are extremely restricted as to pitch, and were apparently written for Nancarrow's player-percussion machine that he abandoned in the '50s.

Copyright 1997 by Kyle Gann

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

See a Nancarrow Chronology

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