Excerpt from
The Music of Conlon Nancarrow
by Kyle Gann

Samuel Conlon Nancarrow was born on the Arkansas side of Texarkana on 27 October 1912. John Cage had been born fifty-two days earlier in Los Angeles, Elliott Carter four years earlier in New York City; by the end of the century the three would have become the most influential American composers of their generation. Nancarrow's importance would manifest itself later than that of the other two, both of whom would figure in his career.

Nancarrow's father, Samuel Charles Nancarrow, came from New York state, and worked in Philadelphia for Standard Oil. When Standard transferred him to Arkansas to manage a barrel factory, he relocated to Texarkana. The composer's mother, Myra nee Brady, was an Arkansas native. To avoid confusion between the Samuels, the first-born child was called Conlon - a last name from his mother's side of the family - from an early age. A younger brother, Charles, was born three years after Conlon. As one of the community's leading businessmen, the elder Nancarrow entered politics to protect the town's business interests, and served as mayor of Texarkana, Arkansas, from 1925 to 1930, resigning from his third two-year term for health reasons.

The Nancarrows lived in the same home throughout Conlon's youth, on the southeast corner of 20th and Beech Streets, a few blocks east of State Line Avenue. The oak trees that abundantly shade the length of the brick-paved street were planted, according to Charles Nancarrow, by his and the composer's father; oak was barrel-stave material. The house burned down in 1988, and the site is now a vacant lot. Charles occupied the house until it burned, and owned the land until his death in 1993. A few blocks away, in a little park at 9th and County Streets, grows a magnolia tree with a small monument stating that it was planted on 21 February 1932, by the May Dale Garden Club "in memory of Samuel Charles Nancarrow," who died in 1931. The neighborhood, full of beautiful old homes with luxurious verandas, is being rezoned as a historical district in connection with Scott Joplin's supposed birthplace several blocks south. Texarkana, Arkansas, has produced its share of groundbreaking composers.

Musical influences were not absent from the Nancarrow home. The house held a player piano (whose significance for Conlon would not emerge for many years), stocked with rolls of Chopin and light classical fare by composers such as Edward MacDowell. Nancarrow claims his family was uniformly tone deaf, although his father enjoyed singing "corny John McCormack songs" such as "Mother Machree." Charles adds, though, that the parents made sure the boys were exposed to Brahms and Beethoven. At the age of six, Conlon studied piano with some "horrible old spinster," who, in the hallowed tradition of such teachers, destroyed any enthusiasm he might have had. To escape her, he switched to trumpet, studied that instrument with a "nice old drunk," and began playing in the town band. Charles, whose musicality was expressed on the clarinet, remembers that his brother was a fantastic trumpet player with superb lip technique.

Conlon's defiant individualism emerged early. At ten or eleven, he discovered the Little Blue Books, a series of mail-order instructional pamphlets published by Haldeman Julius, an old Wobbly. Coasting five cents each, these were written on every subject (many by Julius himself) including such taboos as anarchy and sex. Conlon studied them avidly and stashed them away so as not to alarm his parents. Years later, when Nancarrow was grown and his mother found them in the attic, she supposedly said, "Now I understand what happened to him." Nancarrow has mentioned the Little Blue Books in several interviews, and a librarian at the University of Arkansas, reading one, once wrote to him, "If you'd like to continue your education, we have a complete set of the Little Blue Books."

Conlon's lack of interest in formal education was a continuing problem. When one of his friends was packed away to Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois, Nancarrow's father decided it might encourage discipline to send Conlon along as well. The plan backfired, for here he "got the music bug," as Charles puts it. Conlon attended the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Michigan, the following summer. He discovered jazz, with Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Earl Hines becoming his favorite performers. He began composing, he remembers, around age fifteen, and became determined to go into music. His father, however, had no patience for such an effeminate, penurious pursuit and wanted him to study engineering. With outward obedience, Conlon went to Vanderbilt at fifteen to do so. Charles later attended Vanderbilt as well, and remembered getting strange reactions from teachers who asked if he was Conlon's brother. The reactions were explained to Charles by an upper classman. Among the stories: Conlon once walked into an 8:00 AM English class, taught by the distinguished Eddie Mims, at 8:05. Professor Mims stiffly informed Conlon that no one entered his class late. Conlon quietly said "Sorry," took his books, and walked out again. Conlon seems to have made attendance a low priority, and the Vanderbilt experience ended after a semester.

These and the following years paint a picture of an impulsive young man, not fond of authority. Nancarrow went to Cincinnati College Conservatory, studied there for a semester (he now insists, though other accounts differ), and played in the school orchestra and in jazz groups at German beer halls. Here he heard Le Sacre around 1930, and found the score's rhythmic complexity "a revelation." He also became impressed about this time by the music of Bela Bartok. In Cincinnati, Nancarrow met his first wife, Helen Rigby, a singer and contrabass player. When they married in 1932, Helen was sixteen, still a senior in high school. Her parents tried to persuade them to annul the marriage, but they refused, and for a summer Nancarrow lived in his in-laws' home. The marriage was apparently less than blissful, but Helen accompanied him to Boston where he moved to study composition.

In 1934-35, Nancarrow studied privately in Boston with Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, and Nicolas Slonimsky. (Composer Alan Hovhaness was a nearby neighbor.) At Malkin Conservatory, Nancarrow's path briefly crossed that of Arnold Schoenberg. TheAustrian master had come to America soon after the German government announced that it would remove Jews from academic positions, and, after a year in Boston's wintry climate, would move to Los Angeles and UCLA for health reasons. Nancarrow, no fan of twelve-tone music (though he later used a twelve-tone row in Study No. 25), says only, "I don't remember meeting him. I should have, I knew he was there." (In a 1990 interview, however, Nancarrow's first wife, now named Helen Zimbler, told me she remembered accompanying Nancarrow to a party at Schoenberg's apartment in Brookline, and claimed that Nancarrow had studied briefly with Schoenberg.) Twelve-tone music, Nancarrow comments, "is a dead duck.... It's a dead end, there's nowhere to go." Further, he has said,

"Of all the 12-tone composers, Webern's one of the few I rather like. Schoenberg bores me to death, doesn't reach me at all. The early music is just the German romanticism I don't like, and even the later things are, for me, just an extension of chromaticism."

See a Nancarrow Chronology

See an annotated List of Nancarrow's Complete Works

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