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A Photographer's Tribute
By John Fago
October 29, 1997

All photos ©John Fago. Click for larger view.

CONLON NANCARROW came to Telluride, Colorado in 1989 for the Telluride Institute's second Composer-to-Composer Festival. It was my good fortune to be the photographer for this event. The first time I saw him from across a room, I knew he was someone I was going to like. His infectious smile was quick to turn to laughter, and the genuine warmth and interest he brought to every conversation made one feel instantly at ease, respected, and valued. He was without doubt someone who had lived a very full life.

He had come from his home in Mexico City with his lovely and attentive wife, Yoko, and was joined by that mad genius Trimpin with his Macintosh Plus filled with digital renderings of Conlon's piano rolls which Trimpin had transcribed using a vacuum cleaner. Trimpin also brought the long box full of carefully mounted surplus gizmos and colorful wires which he bolted onto a piano keyboard to perform Conlon's transcribed player-piano rolls on a regular piano. It was a wonderful week, and at parting Conlon invited me to visit and photograph him in his home and studio in Mexico.

The following year (Sunday, October 28,1990), work took me to a remote part of Mexico. On my way, I had a five hour layover in Mexico City. When I called ahead from the states, Yoko told me that Conlon had been very ill, but he was better, and they would love to see me again.

Their home is a very special place. Yoko answered my ring at the gate and led me through the garden to the living room. Instantly, I felt myself to be in the home of an artist. Mentioning this feeling, Yoko told me that Conlon had done most of the building by himself during the 1940s. Conlon came down the stairs unassisted - but slowly - to greet me. We spent the next hours drinking peppermint tea and talking about a hundred things. I had brought them prints of photographs I had made during their visit to Telluride including a group portrait of the composers under a rainbow which seemed a special delight for Conlon.

I asked Conlon if we might visit his studio. He looked to Yoko and smiled. She frowned and said it was much too cold, but Conlon had that twinkle in his eye, and moments later we were headed down a corridor towards what had the look of a door to a bank vault. Indeed, it was like entering a windowless cavern; there was a stillness that seemed very unlikely to be found anywhere in Mexico City. With no day or night, I asked if he often worked through the night. Another smile to Yoko, and Conlon allowed as how that had often been his habit. Sitting down at the desk he used for composing, Conlon said it had been months since he had been in that chair. A work in progress was spread across the desk, waiting.

After half an hour, we left the studio and visited the library which included a vast collection of 78 recordings from all over the planet and much literature and poetry. Being myself a tinkerer, in passing Conlon's fine collection of well-used carpentry and mechanical tools I could not help complimenting him. With a sigh, he allowed as how though they'd been good friends, he hadn't much use for them anymore. On her insistence, Yoko kindly drove me back to airport just in time for my flight. I wondered if I would see Conlon again.

Conlon did finish the piece which had been spread across his desk and he brought it to the Other Minds gathering of composers in San Francisco in 1993. Happily, at Charles Amirkhanian's invitation, I was the photographer for this event as well. It was another memorable week.

Sometimes one has the good fortune of spending some moments in one's life with a special spirit one hopes to cross paths with again.

John Fago
Bethel, Vermont
October 18, 1997

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