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.