Latest Issue

Bionic ragtime

Conlon Nancarrow’s music was often so complex that only machines could play it. Louise Levene celebrates this composer’s eccentric oeuvre

By Louise Levene   April 2012

Conlon Nancarrow couldn’t actually play any of his legendary Piano Studies—but nor could anyone else. Demanding up to 100 notes a second, embroidered with multiple melodies in widely varying tempi, his polyphonic compositions were so complex that only a machine could come to grips with them: the pianola. Frank Zappa, who was a pushover for Nancarrow’s playful polyphony, neatly summed up the appeal of his music: “If you’ve never heard it, you’ve got to hear it—it’ll kill you. Some of it sounds like ragtime that’s totally bionic.”

On 21st and 22nd April, a century after Nancarrow’s birth, the Southbank Centre…

Register today to continue reading

You’ve hit your limit of three articles in the last 30 days. To get seven more, simply enter your email address below.

You’ll also receive our free e-book Prospect’s Top Thinkers 2020 and our newsletter with the best new writing on politics, economics, literature and the arts.

Prospect may process your personal information for our legitimate business purposes, to provide you with newsletters, subscription offers and other relevant information.

Click here to learn more about these purposes and how we use your data. You will be able to opt-out of further contact on the next page and in all our communications.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect