Conlon Nancarrow: Trio Of Beasts

Welcome back to the Blog of Funny Names! I can’t believe we’re headed into the holiday season already, but we’re keeping the Funny Names train chugging. Today’s delicious dish is Conlon Nancarrow, an expat American composer who said adios to the U.S. of A. and headed south to tickle the ivories. He is best remembered for his studies for player piano, and one of the first composers to use auto-playing musical instruments.

Conlon is an Irish family name, the gaelic spelling being Ó Connalláin. Per our friends at Wikipedia, the name may be derived from two Irish Gaelic words “Con” (meaning hound) and “Lón” (meaning lion), thereby implying a person who has the “characteristics of a lion born of a hound–strength and speed.” Have you ever even said that phrase? A lion born of a hound? And get this: Nancarrow is a Cornish surname meaning the “valley of the deer.” Hence, this man is a trio of beasts: part lion, part hound, part deer. Or at least a lion-hound cavorting about amongst the deer.

Nancarrow was born in the bordertown of Texarkana, Arkansas (the city that’s twice as nice!) the year the Titanic sank into icy waters. He played trumpet as a youth and then studied in Cincinnati and Boston, where he fell in with some Communists. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he jetted to Spain to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in fighting against Francisco Franco. But he was not victorious, and Franco tasted sweet, sweet victory. Nancarrow was briefly interned in 1939 by the French at the Gurs internment camp. Upon return to his glorious country of origin, he discovered that his Abe Lincoln Brigade cohorts were having issues renewing their U.S. passports. Go figure. In order to escape potential harassment, Nancarrow crossed the second largest border in the world to take up residency in Mexico in 1940 (only the U.S.-Canadian border is longer).

While in Mexico, he did complicated music stuff. In 1947, Señor Nancarrow bought a custom-built manual punching machine to enable him to punch the piano rolls. He also adapted player pianos, increasing their dynamic range by covering the hammers with leather (in one player piano) and metal (in the other) so as to produce a more percussive sound. Right-o.

Here he is, looking super complicated.

By the 1980s, he had escaped obscurity and was given his propers by many, including György Ligeti, and hailed as one of the most significant composers of the century.

But all these propers did not soothe his homesick heart. In 1985, Nancarrow consulted a lawyer to determine if he could return to the U.S. Indeed, he could but he would have to sign a statement swearing that he had been “young and foolish” when he decided to become a Communist sympathizer. Nancarrow said he could not go for that and chose to stick it out in Mexico till he died in 1997, the year the movie, Titanic, was released, since that seemed only fitting.



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32 Responses to Conlon Nancarrow: Trio Of Beasts

  1. What a fascinating tale. I confess I had never heard of this chap but his life is as eventful as something with such a name should have.

  2. wdydfae says:

    I’m going to have to check out his music on the T’Oobs! Sounds interesting! I really started to get into the music of his pal Ligeti in my blog related musical explorations (Ligeti’s music was used in the movie 2001).

    Uh . . . Wait, what I meant to say was . . .

    “. . . South of the border, down musical way . . . Kerbey serves up one roaring lion of a BoFN post . . .”

    “. . . Oh deer, Kerbey certainly breaks new ground with her Conlon Nancarrow post . . .”

    “. . . Doggone it, there she goes again! Kerbey’s hounded up some great new info in her latest at BoFN . . .”

  3. Dave says:

    Queen Kerbey? Conductor Kerbey of the BoFN train? There’s some name out there, just waiting to be be bestowed upon you!

  4. ksbeth says:

    his name origin rivals the ever popular ‘tur-duck-en’ served each year at the nfl football game on thanksgiving. a trio of birds seems to be a pattern.

  5. Benson says:

    May the dude’s name means a deer hunting hound with the heart of a lion?

  6. That’s an impressive resume. His name even evoke a musical sound. Conlon Nancarrow.

    It’s funny I was expecting a completely different post, so while I read this all I could hear was “Happy birthday, to Tu You You you. It is still running in the back of my brain. lol.

  7. Minerva says:

    This is the first I have ever heard of Mr. Trio of Beasts, but everyone here in the States thinks I have a weird name. If my coworkers start teasing me about my weird (but totally normal in the UK) name again, I will send them to this blog.

  8. malletteblog says:

    As Executive Director of the Regional Music Heritage Center in Texarkana it’s always good to see Conlon Nancarrow being talked about. His recognition as being one of the most original composers since J.S.Bach continues to spread. In November, we had “A Nancaorrow Homecoming” in Texarkana and his works were performed for the first time here on a vintage 1928 Marshall & Wendell AMPICO player piano owned by the RMHC. I am in touch with his widow and son, both great people. His father, Mayor S.J. Nancarrow, was in office when the Arkansas Municipal Auditorium was dedicated. That building would later gain fame and veneration as the place Elvis Presley performed before he went viral (and was introduced to the Colonel that would take him to fame), Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and many more. Of course, Scott Joplin was a native son. As to funny names, Texarkana is good for a giggle from some….:-).

    • kerbey says:

      How interesting. It was hard for my brain to process what he did musically. Do his widow and son live in the states? I actually lived in Texarkana in 1995 (where I first heard the term ARK-LA-TEX) and never even heard of the auditorium. I do remember the Joplin mural, though. I sure miss the pines and fall foliage! 🙂

      • malletteblog says:

        Indeed, kerbey. Nancarrow isn’t dinner music and a bit hard to whistle! But each and every study he did is unique and explores areas no other composer ever thought of. Ligeti said of him that “If Bach were alive today, this is the music he would be composing.” That’s a reference to Bach’s taking the canon form where it had never been before…and also what Nancarrow did with it. As to “ArkLaTex,” it’s mainly a Shreveport term. We prefer “Four States Area” here as Oklahoma is part of our trade area. The Four States Fair has been around for many decades. At the time you were here, the AMA was shuttered, though the Eastside City Hall offices and Fire Department remained in the rest of the building as always. AMA is a wonderful facility with a grand history. RMHC will be holding an event there the first week of April with the “Texarkana Trio” from Holland and rockabilly legends Pat Cupp and James Allen, both who shared the stage with Elvis there when THEY were more popular than him. They will be honored that day.

  9. malletteblog says:

    Neglected you answer your question. Dra. Suguira Nancarrow and her son both live in Mexico City. Dra. Nancarrow is to visit Texarkana this spring about donating some of his effects to the RMHC.

  10. malletteblog says:

    Just reviewed the original post. While Nancarrow likely made the comment about not signing the “young and foolish” document, he DID in fact, visit Texarkana in the 1980s one last time. I know several folks who met him then and there are photos of the visit.

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