Location: Floor Three, Susan and John Hess Family Theater
Conlon Nancarrow had perhaps the most single-minded career of any great American composer, devoting his life to exploring the rhythmic possibilities of juxtaposing multiple simultaneous tempos. Built often out of simple jazz and blues riffs, Nancarrow’s rhythmic experiments whip familiar ingredients into wildly original concoctions that were beyond the abilities of musicians in 1940s New York. Giving up on humans to perform his music, Nancarrow turned to the player piano and toiled in isolation and obscurity in a self-imposed musical and political exile in Mexico. But when the legendary Romanian composer György Ligeti encountered Nancarrow’s music in 1980 and declared it “the best music of any composer living today,” it changed everything for both men: Ligeti’s enthusiasm ushered in a surge of attention to Nancarrow’s work, helping him get a MacArthur “genius” award and his first commissions for humans; and Nancarrow’s ideas transformed Ligeti’s music, ushering in a new period of dancing rhythms in contradictory meters, exemplified by his 1985–88 Piano Concerto.
Most of us in Alarm Will Sound grew up during this very period, and Nancarrow’s wild ideas became part of the musical DNA of our generation, offering a way to take the propulsive rhythms of minimalism and rock music to exciting and complex new places. Nancarrow’s music has been a major influence on many of the composers we collaborate with, and it’s been a staple of Alarm Will Sound’s repertoire since the group’s founding in 2001. The combination of Nancarrow’s catchy materials and the complex way he deals with them puts his work in a sweet spot of immediacy and complexity occupied by much of music we love. And the challenge of performing music not meant to be played by human beings is a stimulating one.
Alarm Will Sound is thrilled to be involved in Anywhere in Time at the new Whitney Museum. The centerpiece of the festival is, appropriately, a genuine Nancarrow player piano, outfitted according to the composer’s exacting specifications to perform his seminal player-piano studies. Alarm Will Sound brings its own perspective to these studies, presenting arrangements of them for live musicians in a range of settings: not only performing them onstage but also delving into their construction in a demonstration, and using the Museum’s beautiful new multilevel veranda as a canvas on which to open up the many layers of this music for a unique experience. We juxtapose this wide selection of Nancarrow’s groundbreaking work with Ligeti’s Piano Concerto, which Nancarrow deeply influenced.
― Alan Pierson, conductor and Artistic Director
Alarm Will Sound’s participation is supported by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Part of Anywhere in Time: A Conlon Nancarrow Festival, co-curated by Dominic Murcott and Jay Sanders, Curator and Curator of Performance.
Free with Museum admission.