Of all the famous Arkansas musicians you can name, it's all right if you're not familiar with avant garde composer Conlon Nancarrow. Dr. James Greeson, writer and director of the new documentary "Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano," didn't know Nancarrow was from Arkansas until after he started professing music up in Fayetteville. Greeson grew fascinated with Nancarrow's strange and groundbreaking compositions, and embarked on an extensively researched documentary detailing Nancarrow's life. The result is a largely educational but over all fascinating portrait of a musical genius who grew up in Texarkana.
Okay, so the title is a little unwieldy. But it requires a double-take: How does one exactly become a "virtuoso" of an instrument that plays itself? Greeson's film begins with a reminder of how prevalent the player piano was in family living rooms in the days before radio and television. Nancarrow himself grew up with one but its prominence wouldn't feature in his life until much later.
In a pretty thrilling turn of events, Nancarrow, one of those mustachioed bohemian intelligentsia Communists of the 1930s, actually left to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, where, after the defeat of the Spanish Republican Army, he was retained in a concentration camp, and permitted to leave only because he was American. He also lived in New York and befriended avant garde titans of composition like John Cage and Aaron Copland. In 1949, one of his pieces was choreographed by the legendary Merce Cunningham. Frustrated with trying to stage his experimental pieces with unreliable musicians, Nancarrow eventually turned to the player piano, in essence, as a mechanical orchestra.
It's this realization that comes across brilliantly in the documentary: Nancarrow's gift was for using a piano not as one but several instruments. One music scholar and biographer admits that the composer's player pianos had shellac or tin on the hammers, so their sound was crisp, jarring, decisive. In what feels like a bold move for the non-avant garde friendly, Greeson features several long clips of Nancarrow's most noteworthy compositions, including the entrancing and maniacal-sounding "Canon X."
Nancarrow eventually spent much of his life in Mexico City, where he emigrated after passport complications in the McCarthy era. He continued to compose there, punching those little holes in the rolls of paper for his pieces. It wasn't until he was in his seventies that he eventually earned a MacArthur genius grant and toured the world holding performances of his work.
The documentary does have a little structural trouble, jumping around achronologically at times in a fairly befuddling way, but the expert interviews, archival footage, and deconstruction of Nancarrow's pieces are all very informative and user-friendly. It was somewhat impressive how a music professor managed to break down, through a series of accessible visuals, how complex and significant Nancarrow's innovations were. Also, what makes a subject like Nancarrow worthy of a documentary is the sheer visual impact of seeing his pieces performed on the player pianos—there are times when the keys are compressing so quickly they look exactly like rippling water. If you're an appreciator of old-school New York avant garde, a music theory nut, or simply interested in an obscure and provocative Arkansan, "Conlon Nancarrow" is a thorough and engaging filmic biography.