London music fest gambles on little-known Nancarrow

Thu Apr 5, 2012 2:47pm EDT
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By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Avant garde rock star Frank Zappa said his music sounded like "bionic ragtime", the U.S. government considered him an unwelcome communist and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco's soldiers wanted to kill him.

So what else was Conlon Nancarrow, a native of Texarkana, Arkansas, to do but move to Mexico, give up his U.S. citizenship and write music mostly for the player piano, of all the instruments under the sun, that is now considered to be among the most influential produced in the 20th century?

Nancarrow, who died in 1997, often is described as "the greatest composer you've never heard of", but for Rex Lawson, who will be in charge of live performances of Nancarrow's player piano works at a weekend-long festival at London's Southbank Centre April 21-22, he is nothing less than a modern Bach.

"I've always felt in a sense that Bach is the center of the universe...and you get that sort of feeling with Conlon, mixed in with excitement and wit," Lawson, who is a specialist in player pianos and knew Nancarrow, told Reuters in an interview.

"Almost all his pieces have at the end something that makes an audience smile, a kind of sideways twinkle of the eye -- and he was like that."

Southbank is taking a gamble putting on a weekend of music and art celebrating the works of a composer so little known to the general public.

Organizers are hoping the wit, as well as the genius, of this iconoclast who joined the American Communist Party in the 1930s, fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to defend the Spanish republic, and felt the chill wind of anti-communism when he made it home alive, will shine through.

"My real aim for this is it should be entertaining," said Dominic Murcott, head of music composition at Trinity Laban Conservatory of Music and Dance, which is a partner in the weekend's activities, along with the London Sinfonietta.   Continued...