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AETN features local film Sept. 20 marking 100th anniversary of composer Conlon Nancarrow’s birth

“Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano,” a film exploring the extraordinary life and unique musical gifts of the eponymous Texarkana native, will air on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) Thursday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. 

Through decades of intensely focused labor in his isolated music studio, Conlon Nancarrow created some of the most rhythmically complex music ever heard. Audiences unfamiliar with the avant-garde composer will learn how exactly one becomes a “virtuoso” of an instrument that plays itself.  

An educational portrait of the musical genius, the film acquaints viewers with both Nancarrow himself and his unusual, groundbreaking compositions for the player piano. In Europe, Nancarrow, along with Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok, is highly regarded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. When his work came to prominence in the 1980s, Nancarrow – though little known in the United States – was declared to be among the first rank of 20th century composers and was awarded the prestigious Macarthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for his compositions. Several of Nancarrow’s most noteworthy compositions, as well as a recently discovered piece, are featured throughout the film. 

Equally impressive is the film’s well-researched documentation of Conlon Nancarrow’s fascinating personal life. Highlights include his conduction of a New Deal WPA orchestra in Boston during the 1930s, enrollment in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – a group of 2,600 American volunteers who fought against Franco’s fascist regime in the Spanish Civil War, and ostracism by the United States as a “premature anti-fascist.” Audiences also learn how, after moving to Mexico in 1940, Nancarrow began composing for the player piano – the only instrument then capable of performing his unbelievably fast and complex pieces. 

“Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano” repeats Sunday, Sept. 30, at 3:30 p.m. 

The documentary was supported in part by grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council, the Department of Arkansas Heritage, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the University of Arkansas. 

Filmmaker James Greeson is a professor of music at the University of Arkansas and composer of more than 15 documentary film scores, including the regional Emmy award-winning score for the film “The Buffalo Flows.” Greeson wrote and produced “Conlon Nancarrow: Virtuoso of the Player Piano,” his first documentary film, in 2011 as a centennial tribute to the Arkansas native. The film premiered in April 2012 at a “Nancarrow Weekend” festival in London, England, at the prestigious Southbank Centre. Professor Dale Carpenter, award-winning filmmaker and chairman of the University of Arkansas Lemke Department of Journalism, served as the film’s associate producer.

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