Born in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1912, Nancarrow was active in his early years as a trumpeter, playing jazz and other types of popular music. He attended the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music from 1929-32, and later studied composition and counterpoint in Boston with Nicolas Slonimsky, Walter Piston, and Roger Sessions (1933-36). He values most his work with Sessions: "The only formal studies I did that were important were the studies I had in strict counterpoint with Roger Sessions. That was the only formal training I ever had. And they were rigid! I'd do this strict counterpoint exercise, and then I'd take a piece of my music and say to him, 'What do you think of this?' 'Very interesting; where's your counterpoint exercise?'" Nancarrow also cites Bach and Stravinsky as seminal influences.
In 1937 Nancarrow enlisted in the
Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against Franco in the Spanish Civil War.
On his return to the United States in 1939 he became involved in the New
York new music scene, contributing several reviews to Modern Music and
associating with other composers such as Elliot Carter and Aaron Copland.
Excerpt from Study for Player Piano 40b (from Studies for Player Piano, Vol. II)