Cal Performances Presents Nancarrow at 100: A Centennial Celebration

Though all Cal Performances press releases pass through the hands of many contributors prior to release, much of what follows is my own writing.

Other Minds, the UC Berkeley Art Museum, Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) along with Cal Performances salute the visionary yet oft-overlooked American composer Conlon Nancarrow with a weekend of events titled Nancarrow at 100: A Centennial Celebration. Cal Performances presents three concerts in Hertz Hall that will display his diverse body of work, much of it composed while Nancarrow was an expatriate in Mexico. Best known for his pianola (a.k.a. player piano) studies, “Conlon’s music has such an outrageous, original character,” said John Cage. In addition to concerts, there will be a number of events taking place at BAM/PFA, including an art installation, film screenings, panel discussions and interviews. Some of these events are free and open to the public and will feature performances of selected works.

 The first concert on Saturday, November 3, at 2:00 p.m. in Hertz Hall will feature musical instrument maker and composer Trimpin, performing various Nancarrow studies on a mechanical piano-playing device known as the vorsetzer. The Seattle-based Trimpin, who goes by a single name, was an apprentice of Nancarrow’s for many years. Pianola player Rex Lawson will also perform a Nancarrow work alongside those of Percy Grainger and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The concert will conclude with a performance of the pianola score to the French silent film Un tour au large — Voyage to the Open Sea, originally composed and directed by Jean Grémillon in 1926. Though the film was lost, the pianola score survived. Despite the seemingly automatic nature of the pianola, the human operator is responsible for controlling dynamics, articulation and pedaling and can be likened to an orchestra conductor.

At 8:00 p.m. also on Saturday, November 3, the Calder Quartet, consisting of Benjamin Jacobson and Andrew Bulbrook, violins, Jonathan Moerschel, viola and Eric Byers, cello, takes the Hertz Hall stage with a program consisting of two of Nancarrow’s string quartets and a pianola study arranged by Paul Usher. Nancarrow’s works will be interspersed with movements from Thomas Adès’s The Four Quarters. After intermission, the quartet will perform Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5. The chamber ensemble is known for its eclectic programming that spans genres and centuries and has been “garnering notoriety as a group that can do anything from tackle the pillars of the string quartet repertoire…to perform with the indie band Airborne Toxic Event” (WQXR-FM).

The festival’s closing concert on Sunday, November 4 at 7:00 p.m. features percussionist Chris Froh performing Nancarrow’s Piece for Tape. Rex Lawson returns as pianist with violinist Graeme Jennings to perform Toccata for piano and violin. Lawson will also perform Igor Stravinsky’s masterwork Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring). The Bugallo-Williams Piano Duo, consisting of Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams, closes the festivities with Nancarrow’s Sonatina for Piano, Nine Early Pieces and several pianola studies transcribed for two pianos.

The festival’s opening event on Friday, November 2 at 5:30 p.m. features BAM/PFA Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections Lucinda Barnes in conversation with Trimpin. This event is free and open to the public. There will also be two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive Theater: Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano on Friday, November 2 at 7:00 p.m. and Music for 1,000 Fingers: Conlon Nancarrow on Sunday, November 4 at 4:00 p.m. The screenings will be bookended by short films and remarks by special guests. Lastly, there will be two free and open to the public panel discussions at Hertz Hall: The Expanding Universe of Conlon Nancarrow on Saturday, November 3 at 11:00 a.m. and Eyeballs Out! How Performers Learned to “Play” Nancarrow on Sunday, November 4 at 12:00 p.m. Guests at these discussions will include Yoko Sugiura-Nancarrow, widow of the composer, Other Minds Artistic Director Charles Amikhanian, music archivist Felix Meyer, music publisher Peter Garland, biographer Kyle Gann, as well as a number of musicians from the festival. These discussions will also feature performances of selected works by Nancarrow. BAM/PFA’s exhibition Trimpin: Nancarrow Percussion Orchestra / MATRIX 244, will be on view from November 2 through December 23. The exhibition, commissioned by Other Minds, introduces a new sculptural sound installation by Trimpin that incorporates percussive elements designed by Nancarrow. Further details can be found at

Born on October 27, 1912, in Texarkana, Arkansas, Conlon Nancarrow left to fight against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. Because of his membership in the Communist Party, he was harassed by the American government, prompting him to immigrate to Mexico where he focused on his highly sophisticated and viscerally exciting musical creations. He is best known for his series Studies for the Player Piano, an exploration of a musical instrument as a machine. The pianola’s ability to perform notes with infinite speed and complexity allowed Nancarrow to experiment with writing music beyond the human ability to perform. Were it not for his discovery by famed Hungarian composer György Ligeti in the 1980s, Nancarrow and his works would surely have been lost in obscurity.

San Francisco-based Other Minds initiated the Nancarrow at 100 project as part of its ongoing portrait concerts of American experimental composers. Previous festivals have been devoted to Henry Cowell, Dane Rudhyar, Ruth Crawford and Alan Hovhaness. Charles Amirkhanian, Executive & Artistic Director, and longtime champion of Conlon Nancarrow's music, conceived and programmed the event. Other Minds also produces an annual avant-garde music festival, curates a large archive of radio programs online (, produces a weekly radio program on KALW FM, and operates a CD label that has released the complete studies of Nancarrow.

 Copyright Cal Performances, U.C. Regents, 2012