The Kennedy Center

Conlon Nancarrow


American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997) wrote most of his music for an instrument no one can play: the player piano. Why didn’t he write regular piano compositions? Because most humans are not capable of playing at the speed Nancarrow wanted his pieces played. Nancarrow’s interest in extremely complex tempos and multi-layering of different tempos in the same piece meant that almost no satisfactory performances of his music occurred anywhere.  Nancarrow found his answer, however, in the player piano, which could produce complex rhythmic patterns at an inhumanly fast speed
Nancarrow was always interested in tempo, beginning with his early interest in, and study of, jazz. He played jazz trumpet when he was young and later studied music at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, which he entered in 1929. He later relocated to Boston for private trumpet study. (He did not play the piano.) 
Nancarrow moved to Mexico in 1940 to avoid what he feared would be continued harassment in the U.S. for his early membership in the Communist Party. He lived in Mexico for the rest of his life, with only occasional visits to the U.S.
He was virtually unknown until several of his scores were published in the 1970s. Interest in his music increased in the 1980s after he visited the U.S. in 1981 to participate in a San Francisco music festival. He later toured Europe. His greater exposure led some musicians to transcribe his player piano rolls into regular musical notation, enabling some pieces to be played.
Today he is considered one of the most original and unusual 20th century composers, with a body of work that includes more than 50 pieces for player piano.
Conlon Nancarrow


  • String Quartet
  • Canon