Insanely frenetic music composed for player piano

Greg Ross of Futility Closet wrote about composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote piano music unplayable by humans.

Born in Texarkana in 1912, Conlon Nancarrow had no access to technology that could realize the music in his head. He studied music briefly and played trumpet in venues ranging from beer halls to cruise ships, but he found himself frustrated working with human musicians. In 1940 he withdrew to Mexico City, where, working in almost complete isolation, he began composing pieces for player piano.

This expedient was “a tremendous amount of work, punching all those holes by hand, one by one, hundreds and thousands of them,” but it enabled him finally to hear his music. “I’d never heard it played. Some composers are pianists and can at least play their music on piano, but I couldn’t do even that, because I am not a pianist.”

Music of MacArthur Fellow Conlon Nancarrow


  1. There’s some neat sounding ideas in there, but it seems to me this guy never learned the lesson that the notes you don’t play are just as important as the ones you do. The ending in particular is a horrible attack on the ears.

    1. I loved the ending – the way the parts kept stacking and stacking in a crazy-quilt sort of fugue. Chaotic and funny.

      I think most good music over the years has been called “a horrible attack on the ears” or something similar at some point.

  2. I imagine the guy playing piano in that scene in Reefer Madness, but instead of pot, he’s on 20 hits of LSD. 

  3. Nancarrow is one of the greats. I recommend that the curious track down some of his early pieces written in the style of Ragtime and the Blues (The Boogie-Woogie Suite!) those are a good gateway to his work.

    Now that mechanically generated music is common, it is interesting to see his “multiple meters overlaid on top of each other” technique cropping up all over the place.

    1.  Frank Zappa did that with some pieces such as “Rubber Shirt”, which was two completely different recordings of different solos, glued together.

    2. Much of that piece could have been written in the same time signature.  He was changing time sig for each note in many cases.  It only really has an effect when you carry it out for extended periods, i.e. 3 or more bars.

      1. True enough. But he has another signature move: An accelerando layered over an decelerando. In essence, the BPM remains inert while the individual melodies expand or contract exponentially. At least that’s how I would describe what I’m hearing.

  4. If you like Nancarrow, I recommend the CD “Ligeti: Mechanical Music”, which includes some Ligeti pieces of ludicrous speed performed by player pianos.

  5. Particularly interesting to me is how my ear starts to interpret some of more frenetic bits as digital or computer-generated music.

    There may even be a kind of aural uncanny valley, as my brain tries to reconcile the analog input of the piano with the impossible pace and phrasing.

  6. I can’t listen to the music here at work, but the description and some of the comments remind me of Frank Zappa, who struggled for many years, trying to get orchestras to play his (technically challenging) compositions.  Then, in the late 80’s he discovered the Synclavier, at which point he stopped needing human players to play his more complex compositions. 

    To get a feel for the kind of music he made using the Synclavier, you can listen to the Grammy-winning “Jazz from Hell”, as well as his final opus, “Civilization Phase III”.  Check out “G-Spot Tornado” on “Jazz from Hell”, and then compare it with the live orchestral performance on the “Yellow Shark” album.

  7. I’m just trying to imagine hearing this in your head! And I think mine is noisy…

    but it’s crazy interesting.

  8. Nancarrow moved to Mexico City after coming back to the U.S. from Spain with the Lincoln Brigade and finding himself blacklisted.

    I rather doubt that Ligeti discovered Nancarrow in 1980 and became an “early” champion – even Columbia records released an album of some of Nancarrow’s pieces around 1968.

  9. Kyle Gann has written a book on Nancarrow, and wrote this short profile. Gann himself uses some of these practices (polymeter and changing meters in particular) in his own music, but in a gentler and more lyrical, sounds like it could almost be humanly playable way.   BTW he echoes the Ligeti as early supporter assertion (or more likely the echoing is coming from the other direction. ) Apparently the Columbia record was a bit of a fluke due to Merce Cunningham’s use of some music, not any widespread appreciation by audiences or composers.
    Ligeti’s piano etudes are really on the edge of human playability – I believe youtube will hook you up.

    Some of Kyle Gann’s work, including diskclavier pieces, can be heard on

    1. Techno of the undanceable sort. I am used very fast edm such as speedcore but I couldn’t find any beat in there anyone could dance to. Maybe I need drugs.

  10. Shortly after Zappa’s death, I went to a concert by Ensemble Moderne (a European consortium that performed Zappa’s Yellow Shark album). In this concert they played pieces by Zappa and Nancarrow. FZ’s pieces had been composed for SynClavier and Nancarrow’s for player piano because neither thought they could be played by human musicians.

  11. Nancarrow excelled at making the piano sound like a completely different instrument, not only with inhuman speed, but with chords that used the whole width of the keyboard and rhythms no human hands could mark.

    Volume One of his etudes is a good place to start — at least it was for me, when I found them at the campus radio station I was at in the early 80s. Many of his trademark sounds show up in the selections, like one voice that speeds up while another slows down, or nigh-incomprehensible chords rapidly strummed from the bottom of the keyboard to the top (which always make me think of the “terror chords” described in a short story in one of the “Dangerous Visions” collections).

    I always wished that somebody would use his techniques to make a kick-ass piano roll version of “Rite of Spring.” There is a Pianola setting of the piece that sounds great, but one that used Nancarrow as a model would be transcendent.

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