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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…

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