LA JOLLA — "Around here they're calling me the father of electronic music," composer Conlon Nancarrow said with a bemused chuckle, "but the only thing is, I know nothing about electronic music or its technology."
As one of the luminaries imported for UC San Diego's Pacific Ring Festival, Nancarrow is overseeing the performance of several of his works as well as enduring that wheel-spinning conference ritual called the panel discussion. From a guest suite at UCSD's Tioga Hall, the 73-year-old composer savored the view of fog-shrouded La Jolla and enumerated the ironies he now has both the means and celebrity to enjoy.
Born in Texarkana, Ark., Nancarrow is usually described as an expatriate American because he moved to Mexico City and became a Mexican citizen after fighting Francisco Franco with the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. For most of his compositional career, his music was little-known even within sophisticated musical circles. But in 1982, when the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation awarded him a $300,000 grant, his visibility soared.
Most of Nancarrow's works are written for a specially rigged player piano, an instrument that could hardly be described as favored by other 20th-Century composers. He turned to the player piano in the 1940s "because musicians at that time couldn't play or didn't want to play the pieces I was writing," he explained. "If there had been electronic music then, I suppose I'd have gone into that."
Writing in the Pacific Ring Festival's glossy program book, Roger Reynolds, a UCSD music professor and a composer of electronic music, portrayed Nancarrow's player piano work as the dawn of the computer music era. "The player piano was, for Nancarrow, a kind of synthesizer, providing an automatic though highly inflected, sonic medium . . . to project and intensify his contradictory temporal streams," wrote Reynolds.
Although Nancarrow said he considered himself too old to take up composing electronic music, at UCSD's Center for Music Experiment he discovered a graduate research assistant, Bob Willey, busily transcribing his player piano music by computer for electronic sounds, a project that met with the composer's approval.
Although Nancarrow has been preoccupied with his dense, rhythmically complex player piano compositions--of which there are some 50 pieces, each one numbered and entitled "Study"--his recent fame has increased the demand for his earlier works scored for traditional instruments.
"Ironically, things I wrote many years ago and were never played, over the last two or three years all of them have been played--and beautifully," Nancarrow said with evident satisfaction. "Last year at a festival of American music in London, they played a piece I wrote 60 years ago, a trio for oboe, bassoon and piano, which I had never heard performed before."
Comparing the current generation of musicians to the recalcitrant performers who rejected his scores in the 1940s, Nancarrow praised both the musical facility and the sophistication of the younger performers. "I've seen it in London and New York, and I've seen it here. In the orchestra playing my new piece, most of these students have all my records!" he added with a sly smile.
Nancarrow's new piece was given its West Coast premiere Friday night at UCSD's Mandeville Auditorium. His "Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra," the composer's first composition in more than four decades for live performers playing traditional instruments, received a virile, convincing reading by UCSD graduate students under resident conductor Thomas Nee. Scored for 11 winds and strings with two pianists at a single keyboard, it crackled with multilayered, aggressive themes. Nancarrow's unique timbral identity came from the percussive, reiterative motives written for instruments more usually associated with suave and soaring melodies.
Since Nancarrow possesses the only player piano on which his Studies can be realized, public concerts of these pieces are limited to records and tapes.
"People are willing to sit at home and play a record and listen to it," said Nancarrow, "but they're not as willing to go to a concert hall to sit and listen, although the hall's sound equipment might be better than what they have at home. People want to see some activity on stage. As John Cage said long ago, 'You have to have some theater,' and of course, he's good at theater!"
Recordings of two of Nancarrow's player piano studies were played in the Friday night concert immediately following his "Piece No. 2 for Small Orchestra." Sounding at times like a frenzied ragtime piano played at demonic tempos, they were less engaging than his ensemble piece, and certainly much less fun than Cecil Lytle's stellar romp through Nancarrow's very early "Sonatina Para Piano." Lytle's commanding gallop through the finger-crunching finale brought down the house, and the assembly was even more generous in its applause for the composer after the final piece in his portion of the concert.