“I was just composing the music I wanted to do”

 Interviews with Conlon Nancarrow (1980-1993)

by Monika Fürst-Heidtmann




    [The greater part of these interviews was done in Amsterdam, June 1987 (published in ”MusikTexte 21”, Cologne/Germany, Oct. 1987). Excerpts from interviews in Mexico-City (Jan. 1980, May 1984, Nov. 1993) and in Paris (Oct. 1991) as well as from letters between 1980 and 1993 were added. ]


Conlon, your life changed radically in the last few years. When I met you for a second time in your house in Mexico City in 1980 (after my first visit in 1976) you had already given up your former reclusiveness and isolation. After your first public appearance in the USA (at the “New Music America Festival” in San Francisco, 1981) and your first trip to Europe (1982) for concerts featuring your music (in Graz/Austria, Cologne/Germany, Paris/France) you became one of the most highly regarded composers of the musical avant-garde, presented and recommended by György Ligeti. Now there are festivals in the USA and in Europe focussed on your music – such as the Almeida Festival in London (1985) and the Holland Festival in Amsterdam (1987). How do you cope with that change?

Well, the main thing is that this kind of what I am doing now I only do that about once a year. And then I go back to the peace and quiet in Mexico. I don’t encourage any activity about me in Mexico. Maybe they think I am a sort of a snob that I don’t want to do it. But I want to avoid that there may happen anything for me.

Do you think it was an advantage to have lived in isolation for so many years?

I don’t think of an advantage or disadvantage. It was just the way I worked.

What do the interest of the public and the great resonance you now receive mean to you?

I don’t think it has any impact on the kind of music I write. It’s only that I will now be doing more pieces for live performers, mainly for economic reasons, because the MacArthur Grant has ended and I have to get the money from somewhere. (The “Genius”Award, Nancarrow received 1982, was paid over five years until 1987.) But I am going to take commissions for pieces I am already working on. I can’t work under pressure.

Could you give an example?

Yes, the String Quartet (No. 3, 1987). I was about half way through and could see how long it still would take me. It was a commission by Dr. Becker (WDR-Radio/Cologne) to be played by the Arditti-Quartet (at the WDR Festival “Musik und Maschine” in Cologne/Germany, 1988). The Arditti-Quartet fascinated me, they are absolutely efficient, and the fact that they can do anything was a very strong attraction. The piece is a strict canon with tempo relations of 3/4/5/6. It is extremely difficult and I don’t know of any other than the Arditti-Quartet that might be able to play it.

Do you now have more confidence in the abilities of the performing musicians than you had before? I was thinking of your bad experience with your first string quartet (composed before 1945) …

The Lener Quartet in Mexico which was in the possession of the score, did not only not perform it but did not even read it as they had promised. I think it is ironical that many people now want to play the piece.

There had been several performances of that string quartet (No. 1), before it was played by the Arditti-Quartet at the Nancarrow Hommage of the ISCM “World Music Days” in Mexico-City (Nov. 1993). They also played your String Quartet No. 3. In addition, some “Studies for Player Piano” could be heard on your original mechanical piano. The concert was a great success and a kind of late compensation for the years of disregard before and after your first concert in Mexico-City in 1962. Now that there is such a great demand for your music, haven’t you written a String Quartet No. 2?

Although the string quartet is not my favourite medium, there was after the first a second one I never finished. In case I do, I leave it as the second. It will be much simpler than the third quartet.

After a first period in which you composed for different instruments you started working with the player piano in the late 1940s. Since then it has been your main instrument for which you have been writing the Studies for Player Piano. As you never dated your pieces there are many uncertainties about the chronology of your works, especially regarding your early compositions.

I don’t remember any dates, but the sequence of the numbered pieces (Studies for Player Piano) is more or less regular, except that occasionally I would go on to a new number before finishing a previous one, and later return to it. Also there was a period of about five years when I didn’t do any pieces (1960-1965?).

Until recently your music had a touch of exclusivity, since it could only be played on your player pianos in your studio in Mexico-City. Now copies have been made of your piano rolls into which you punch your Studies for Player Piano, and even your instrument, the automatically playing piano, was rebuilt by Jürgen Hocker (who presented it for the first time in Amsterdam, 1987). Thus, live performances have become possible also outside of your studio. Aren’t you afraid that your music is losing it’s authenticity?

Oh, no, what an idea! It sounds like I don’t want people to hear my music.

Does it make a difference for you to hear your music on tape or disc or in a “live” version with your player piano?

No difference, provided that the reproduction is of good quality.

Did you ever think of working with electronic sounds? That might enrich your possibilities.

I am not much attracted so far by electronic sounds, because I think it is not the same as live instruments. And it is developing. Some day we’ll have sophisticated electronic sounds. They still are not. But it is not so much that I am not interested in electronic sounds as the fact that, at my age, I don’t feel like starting to learn a completely new technology.

At the Holland Festival (1987) a concert featured works of your favourite composers: Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, Strawinsky’s “Octet” and Ligeti’s “String Quartet”. Why was there no piece of Henry Cowell?

Actually, Cowell’s influence on me was his book “New Musical Resources”. Some of his music I like very much. But he is not my favourite composer.

But Bach and Strawinsky are. Did they influence your musical thinking?

I think my main influences have been Strawinsky and to a certain extent Bartók and, of course, Bach with his music, and Cowell, mainly with his theory. Obviously, Bach was the composer all my ideas of canon came from, including the contrapuntal development. And Strawinsky – it’s hard to say. I probably am more influenced by Strawinsky’s mind than by his music, possibly. I am mainly self-taught.

But didn’t you study composition in Boston in the mid-1930s with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston and Roger Sessions?

Yes, it is true that I studied with Slonimsky and Piston, but it was very little and consisted mainly of showing them a piece of music, from time to time, and getting their comments. My work with Sessions was much more extensive and consisted entirely of studies in strict counterpoint.

Is music for you more an intellectual game or an emotional necessity or both?

Both. In fact, I don’t think it can be separated.

Would you say you are an “experimental composer”? You call your works for player piano “Studies” which might suggest such an idea.

The term “experimental” is very vague and I am not really sure what it means.

Your musical thinking shows certain similarities with Charles Ives, especially regarding the polyrhythmic and polymetric texture of your music and your distance to the musical community….

Probably you are right in thinking that my name has been linked with Ives mainly because of a similar “life-style”. I guess there has been a slight influence, but it could not have been very much, because I know very little of his music.

In our conversation in 1980 you said: “time is the last frontier in music” which seems to be a kind of “leitmotif” for your compositional work. (This quotation was also used for the titles of the Nancarrow Hommages in Paris, 1991 and in Mexico-City, 1993.) Do you mean to say that ”time” in music, i. e. rhythm, metre and tempo, has to be “emancipated” from its inferior, supporting role in music?

Yes, rhythm and tempo are the main subjects in my compositions, two subject matters for my whole life.

How do you explain your life-long interest in musical time?

In early days I was only interested in rhythmical things, I mean rhythms of all sorts, and, as a matter of fact, quite a few of my early pieces for player piano had more or less complex rhythms, but no complex tempo relationships. Little by little I developed them.

You mostly use the term of “time” in a physical sense of measured time: as “objective time”. But isn’t there another aspect of time: time as it is experienced, “subjective time”, which varies with the number of events within the “objective time”?

In my music there are areas of “objective time” and other areas of “subjective time”, and many where they are combined. Probably the best example of the latter is Study No. 27. I think of the ostinato which goes through the whole piece, as “the ticking of the ontological clock”, and all the things which go on around it as more or less subjective.

What Schönberg achieved with respect to pitch, Strawinsky with respect to rhythm and Varèse with respect to timbre, you did with respect to tempo: using the tempo as an independent compositional factor. Were you aware that you opened a new path in the history of musical composition by your work with the player piano?

Oh no, what a question! I am not the one to judge what I have done. I wasn’t thinking of that. I was just composing the music I wanted to do.

Which are the peculiar advantages and disadvantages of the player piano?

The main disadvantage is that it is limited to the sound of the piano, that means to one timbre. The advantage of it is enormous, because you can do with it whatever you want, especially rhythmically and temporarily.

Do you have a limit of maximum speed on the player piano?

It is difficult to speak of maximum speed. To give you an example: If you start slowly arpeggiating a chord and increase the rate of speed there comes a moment when it all sounds as one sound only, even though it is still being arpeggiated.

Could you describe your compositional process in the Studies for Player Piano?

In the early process I simply wrote a piece as if it were for performance and then punched it from the score. The pieces were done on a machine, which could only punch relations of sixteenth notes (for example), but nothing in between. My pieces at that time were in standard notation, and there was no drawing on the roll.

After Study No. 21 you changed your punching machine?

As you know there are quite a few combinations possible in standard notation. Finally, when I felt more and more the limitations, I had my machine modified so that I could move it to any point, and of course I had to draw the points on the roll. And, naturally, it opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

And that also changed your compositional method?

Years ago I did it slightly different, but for many years until now I first get an idea of the kind of piece I want to do, that means of its tempo relation. Let’s say I decided to write a piece with the tempo relations of 3/4. Then I take the blank piano roll und draw out on it these temporal relation, all the smallest values, not notes, just simply temporal values. After that I transfer it to music-paper and write the piece, the notes. And then I go back and punch it on the roll.

In most of your pieces you use the technique of the canon. What are your reasons for that?

Well, basically, the canon is the easiest way to point out a relation of tempo. When it is the same melody you can better recognize the difference of tempos between the voices.

In 1984 you composed a Tango for conventional piano – after nearly 40 years of work with the mechanical piano. How did you get involved in this tango project?

Originally, I was not interested to write for live performers. But this project appealed to me, because Yvar Mikhashoff told me he had composers from all over the world writing a tango. I liked that international aspect. That’s why I did it.

The piece has a question mark in its title…

…because it is not a tango. In fact, it has nothing to do with the atmosphere of the tango. I am not a tango-fan and I don’t even remember what a tango sounds like.

After the Tango you wrote several other pieces for traditional instruments.

Yes, there was Betty Freeman’s commission of an orchestral piece (No. 2, 1986, premiered in 1991) for the Continuum Ensemble of the Juilliard School of New York. The group had asked me several times for a piece. I have been working like crazy to finish it in time. The piece is very difficult. But my real interest is the player piano.

When you compose for traditional instruments, do you use the same musical approach as for the player piano?

No, I think of the instruments. I used to play in an orchestra, trumpet, in the 1930s. I am experienced with instruments.

Composing for live performers also means that you have to take into account the limitations of human players, all the problems you wanted to escape from by working with the player piano. Don’t you feel restricted again?

Well, of course, certain boundaries …with the mechanical piano the only boundary is the range of keys, I mean the number of sounds. Apart from that you could do anything with it.

But when you wrote Canons for Ursula (1988) for traditional piano, some of your ideas could not be realized….

Originally, there were three canons. But Ursula Oppens realized that the second canon was too complicated – we both realized it – it was too awkward, too clumsy. So we just dropped it. In New York (Nov. 1989) she played the Two Canons for Ursula perfectly. Needless to say that they were on the border of being impossible to be played.

Of some of the pieces originally written for conventional instruments you made transcriptions for the player piano. I was thinking of the Sonatina para Piano.

I am sorry that I did. One of the reasons was that I had never heard it, and I wanted to hear. So I punched it out. I have heard it played live; it has to be for four hands because it is impossible by two hands. But I have heard wonderful performances of four hands and it is so much better than the version for player piano.

In Paris (1991) the Sonatina was played with two hands….

I did not think that anyone could play it with just two hands. Some years ago I heard that in New York the Sonatina had been played by a single person (del Mar) and it is supposed to have been very good. Also the Sonatina played by Michel Maurer (in Paris) was perfect.

What do you think of the reverse idea: transcriptions of Studies for Player Piano to traditional instruments?

I just don’t either like or dislike it. I am rather ambivalent about arrangements of my music for live performance. Of course there is more colour, and for most people the idea of “live” is a big attraction. (I don’t even know why a player piano is considered more “live” then a tape of the same music.) Usually I prefer the original. The thing is, however, that after maybe the first 20 Studies they get impossible to be transcribed. It is not a question of the number of notes, but of coordination of various tempos and rhythms. You just cannot play it.

Yvar Mikhashoff did a lot of transcriptions of your Studies for conventional piano.

He did one transcription which is very good but sounds much better on a player piano. So I told him it is better just to throw it away. But most of the time his transcriptions are very good, and besides, most people don’t like to sit and hear a player piano just rolling and rolling. They want some activity. That’s why they prefer live performances.

At the “Musikprotokoll” of the festival “Steirischer Herbst” (in Graz/Austria, 1989) the Ensemble Modern will play Yvar Mikhashoff’s transcriptions of Studies No. 1, 3c, 5, 6, 7 and 8 for different instruments. Studies No. 1 and 8 as premieres, 3c in a revised version.

I did not know that No. 3c had been revised nor have I heard of No. 1 and 8. Years ago, it was agreed that everything he did I would approve or not. For some time now, I have no idea what Mikhashoff is doing. He travels all over the world playing my music and collecting money of which I do not get a cent.

Study No. 15 has been transcribed four times by Yvar Mikhashoff: for two pianos, for one piano, for string trio and for string quartet. Transcriptions change the timbre

Naturally, completely. Sometimes it is an advantage. I mean, you can hear things better and in a more differentiated way. I remember Study No. 37, the canon in 12 voices. Very seldom all 12 voices are going together, but frequently quite a number. And on a piano, because of the same tone colour, you just simply cannot hear these individual voices, there is just too much in my texture. In fact, someone in California, San Diego University (Robert Willey, 1986), arranged it for electronic instruments putting different voices into different tone colours. So you could hear them better.

Doesn’t it matter to you when people change the timbre of your pieces?

Well, no, I don’t mind, once they keep the temporal aspects accurate, no.

That is the main point for you?


What was the reason for your preparing the hammers of the piano? To change the timbre?

No, to make the attack more precise. For the same reason that Bach sounds so much better on harpsichord than on piano. The piano is basically a homophonic instrument.

You prepared the hammers of your two player pianos slightly differently. When composing your Studies for Player Piano, do you have a particular piano in mind? After listening to the Arch-Records I got the impression that you mostly use the piano with the less aggressive sound - like a harpsichord.

Yes, when I compose I have in mind a specific piano. However, many of the pieces are more or less interchangeable, without suffering too much. A few, no.

In your catalogue of Studies there is one piece, Study No. 30 for prepared player piano. Prepared in the sense of John Cage, that means with objects of metal or rubber between the strings to change the timbre of the piano. How did you manage this?

No, what happened years ago, was that I got a very small grand player piano, also Ampico, with the whole mechanism under the piano, very difficult to repair and I didn’t know how to handle all these things. Quite a project to do!

And what about your Studies for 2 Player Piano? ….

Well, actually, at one time I was thinking of having both pianos and a normal piano combined. But I already had so many problems trying to get two pianos synchronized. That’s why I don’t want to have the Studies for 2 Player Pianos (No. 40a, 41c) recorded. Sometimes we had spent several days recording over and over again without getting them synchronized. If you want to play one roll of a certain speed the paper slips a little and is never exact.

You once said that Study No. 44, the so called Aleatory Round (1981), was a reaction to your experience with the Studies for Two Player Pianos, No. 40 and No. 41. Could you explain that?

In spite of the fact that the whole idea of aleatory does not appeal to me, I decided to do one piece, because I was so disappointed by the lack of synchronization with two pianos. The aleatory angle is that it can be played with the two pianos at any relation of speed. Study No. 44 is a fairly simple piece, about one minute long, that is repeated ten times by one piano. The other piano has the same piece in a closely related key. So they can go through ten versions of the piece, each time in slightly different relation between the two pianos. The whole is carefully worked out. It works with any combination, according to my criteria, not to Cage’s, because to him anything goes.

When I visited you in 1980 I heard your Study No. 39 (1977/78), a commission of the European Broadcasting Union, recently finished to be played at the Festival “Pro Musica Nova” by Radio Bremen/Germany (May 1980). It was your first piece in different parts played on one piano, wasn’t it?

Study No. 39 exists of two separate pieces for one piano. A is one piece, b another piece based on the same tempo relation, and c is a + b. But c has to be combined in a recording studio.

Why did you renumber Studies No. 38 and No. 39 into Studies No. 43 and No. 48?

The festival in Graz (IGNM 1982) wanted a piece, so I took No. 38 (1975) that had never been played, although I had written it before, and renamed it Study No. 43. It is a canon with the proportion of 24/25. Study No. 39 is a much more sophisticated development of the same idea. There is one piece (canon 60/61) and another piece (also canon 60/61) and finally they are both played together on one piano, separately. So the two pieces have to be synchronized in the recording. And since, after renaming Study 38 into 43, I wanted to prevent the piece with the tempo relation 60/61 to be in front of 24/25, I made Study No. 39 into Study No. 48. Otherwise it would have seemed going down in advancement, in technique and whatever. In these pieces (Study No. 43 and 48), it is important to remember that they are not like earlier pieces that emphasized contrasts or clashes of different tempi. Both of them also have different tempi, but they are mainly to underline the speed at which certain events occur.

You once said that Study No. 48 is one of your favourite studies.

I really don’t have any favourite pieces… Oh yes, one, I guess. It’s for two pianos: Study No. 40b.

At times you ordered your pieces anew. I was thinking of Study No. 45 (1983) which, originally, had five movements.

Study No. 45 I changed because a critic in California said he could not see the point for five movements, they seemed to be one piece. So I took three of them and rewrote another one. I think he was right.

Which of the original five movements were retained?

I don’t remember exactly, but I discarded some of it and did a completely new part. I think it now has the original a and b with the new c added.

Study No. 49 (1986/78) also has three movements…

Study No. 49 was included in a suite I put together to compete for the famous Grawemeyer Grant with the amazing amount of 150.000 $. Since I didn’t get the award, the suite has been taken apart back to the original studies, and now I use Study No. 49 as the central part for the Concerto for Pianola and Orchestra intended for the phantastic pianola virtuoso Rex Lawson in London. The piece is in three movements, each of which is a strict canon with the tempo relation of 4/5/6. Of course, the concerto will be much more extensive and the rest will not be canonic, but naturally with plenty of polytempi. (The Concerto was not realized.)

What is the difference between a player piano and a pianola?

The pianola uses a punched roll with all the notes, but has a fairly extensive control of how they are to be played. In other words, it is able to follow a conductor. (The pianola operator can vary the tempo and dynamics to merge with the orchestra.)

Several performances of your Toccata for Violin and Piano (1935) show that it is possible to combine the mechanical piano with live players. Do you think of other pieces of that kind?

No, but that’s just one musician who has to go along with the player piano. And if he gets lost, he gets lost. But a whole orchestra is quite another question.

Your last pieces for player piano don’t have a number, but are dedicated to persons very close to you: “For Ligeti” which was performed on occasion of György Ligeti’s 65th birthday (Hamburg/Germany, Oct. 1988), and “Para Yoko” (Paris, Okt. 1991), dedicated to your wife, the first piece after your sickness.

I was just thinking to write a long, slow personal movement. It has the tempo relation of 4/5/6 and is not a rigid canon, but canonic. I am planning another movement for the same piece, but longer. (This plan was not realized.)


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