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WWII Avant, Part 4/5: Conlon Nancarrow MP3s (1943)

No WWII-era composer’s work so closely mirrors the mechanization and industrialization inherent in the war effort as that of Conlon Nancarrow. It will always be a repertoire of virtually unplayable player piano roles (well, unplayable by human hands) for which he is best remembered. Not that some human performers haven’t risen to the challenge. Margarent Leng Tan transcribed his Three 2-Part Studies for toy piano. The work dates from 1942, two years after Nancarrow, who was born in Arkansas, chose for political reasons to live in self-exile in Mexico.

Tan summarizes her effort: “to render on a toy instrument the kind of virtuosity and precision that would lead Nancarrow to bypass the uncertainties of human excecution and invest his energies in the player piano’s unfettered possibilities.” The result is a chaotic work, full of plinky counterpoint, all of it leavened by the childhood sensibility of the toy piano’s sound (MP3). More info at

Tomorrow: Part 5/5, Olivier Messiaen at the end of time.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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