Luis Memories

List of Works English version
Partituren Autographen
English Texts
Briefe Conlon, Yoko, Helen
Luis Memories
E. Flores Autobiographie
Annette Margolis
Annette Fotogalerie
Das Player Piano
Das Ampico-Klavier
Konzerte mit Ampico-Flügel
Ligeti u. Nancarrow




Luis Memories -

Letter from Luis Stephens, Annette's Son and

 Stepson of Conlon Nancarrow

to Jürgen Hocker

Provided with Photos by Jürgen Hocker

See Annette's Photogalery


Annette with her sons Luis (left) and Charles

Mexico City, Jan 1, 2002

Dear Mr. Hocker:

It was a pleasure to hear from you. I apologize for not getting back to you sooner, but I have been working on this reply since you emailed me. I will try to answer your questions in the order in which you give them, more or less.

I first remember meeting Conlon when we were living in our house on Calzada de las Aguilas #50, probably around 1943/44. My father was away at war (he was stationed on an aircraft carrier, the USS Bon Homme Richard, in the Pacific Ocean.) My mother, Annette, my brother Charles and myself were living in the above-mentioned house. (Aguilas #50 was built by my father and mother with Arquitecto Manuel Parra on a large piece of land, about 7,500m2. On this same property, in 1948, my mother built another home, Aguilas #48. This is the house in which I now live. 

Annette and Conlon, Aguilas No. 48

Conlon built his sound proof studio in the rear of this property. Later, when he and my mother divorced, he built a small house next to his studio and this property became Guiles #46). My mother was a very gregarious person and always had many friends visiting. As a five or six year old boy, I never thought of Conlon as anything more than one of her many friends. (Years later my brother and I learned that my parents' marriage was really over before my father joined the war effort. They had decided not to let us know this in the event that my father might lose his life. This way, we would simply think that he died in action and never know that he and my mother had had a marriage that was in serious trouble.) In any case Conlon was a frequent visitor.

Before my father left for the war, my parents were involved in and formed part of a group of friends that included artists, dancers, people in the music and theater world and bullfighters. I think you know that my mother was an artist. Though my father was by profession a businessman, he loved the arts and preferred to be among what was then thought of as the "bohemian" crowd, than the business group. He and my mother knew and socialized with Diego Rivera and Freda Kilo, Jose Clemente Orozco and his wife Margarita, Juan O'Gorman and Helen, Wolfgang Paalen, Rufino and Olga Tamayo and many other artists. My mother was also friendly with David Alfaro Siqueiros and his wife Angelica. My father's portrait was painted by Diego Rivera in 1943, before he left for the service. I own this painting, and it hangs in my house today. Orozco painted my mother's portrait. She also had portraits painted by Jesus Guerrero Galvan, Federico Cantu and, later, by Pedro Friedeberg. When the well-known American Black singer, Marian Anderson, came to Mexico to perform in Bellas Artes, she was a guest in our house. My father taught her the words and notes to a popular Mexican song, "Las Golondrinas," that is traditionally sung as a farewell song. She sang this, in Spanish, at her last performance and received a tear-filled, standing ovation. There is a photograph that was taken in front of the main door of our house, of my brother and myself as small boys standing with our parents, and Orozco, Marian Anderson and the bullfighter Silverio Perez.

I give you this information not because it particularly pertains to Conlon but because it will give you some background as to the social scene he came into when he met my mother.

Some time after my father left to serve in the U.S. Navy, I recall my mother going out in the evenings. This certainly must have been the period of time that Conlon was visiting. She would tell my brother and I that she was going to a concert, which, she explained, was going to hear music being played. We had a "nana" that would take care of us. But one of my early memories, which had an irksome connotation for me, was that she was going out "to a concert." This meant that she would not be with us in the evenings.

This, however, did not color my feelings about Conlon. For me Conlon was always a pleasure. He was a nice and interesting person to be around, and as far as I can remember he was never hostile toward my brother or me. Quite the contrary, he was usually amused by what we said or did, would laugh easily, and was, in general, totally permissive. If my mother thought it was time for us to go to bed and we wanted to stay up, he would say," let them stay up." I liked going to a shooting gallery in San Angel at 20 centavos for 9 shots. My mother would only pay for one round. Conlon would pay for as many rounds as I wanted. I loved sweets and ice cream, which my mother was against and never seemed to have in the house. Conlon would allow this. On one occasion, driving alone with him in his car, he actually stopped the car at an ice cream store to buy me a Popsicle, called "kikoleta," a favorite item at that time. I was flabbergasted that he had done this for me!

My father survived WW II. During part of his time in the service my brother and I traveled with my mother to see him in Navy boot camp in Gulfport, Mississippi, and in Newport, Rhode Island. Later we travelled to Reno, Nevada, where we stayed in two separate "dude ranches," (essentially divorce residences) for six weeks. Charles and I had no idea why we were in Nevada, (the only state in the U.S. that, at that time, allowed for uncontested divorces). We were told about the divorce after the war, after it had become a fait accompli. This news was given to us in our parents' bedroom in the Aguilas #50 house right after my mother had nursed my father back from an almost fatal bout of true tomane poisoning. […] Needless to say their divorce was shocking for me. Though my brother was older and may have sensed something, I had no idea whatsoever that my parents' marriage was in trouble, and I was upset and confused by the break up.

After this my father remarried, in 1945, to Helen Hall. He resumed his businesses in Mexico and rented a house in San Angel, at General Aureliano Rivera #4. Here he lived with his new bride, a young woman my brother and I liked immediately and have cared about for years to come. My mother married Conlon about a year later. When my father and Helen moved out of the Aureliano Rivera house to live in a new house that my father had built on Calz. Taxqueña, my mother rented Aguilas #50, and she and Conlon moved into this very same Aureliano Rivera residence. This was the house that had walls that were about one meter thick. And this is where I got to know Conlon much better as a person and as a stepfather.

At Aureliano Rivera Conlon was always working on some project, usually something to do with music, or recordings. One of the first projects I distinctly remember was a mechanism he had acquired which looked like a turntable with an arm to play records. But in this case the arm, with a diamond stylus, would not play a record but would cut a record, that is, cut the grooves into a plastic record like disc. As it would cut the recorded grooves a thin filament of material would come peeling off the disc, like thread, and wind itself away into twisted balls. We would find these black filaments all around the living room. We could speak into a microphone and have this mechanism record our voices.


Nancarrow experimenting with a tape recorder

Another devise that Conlon used, at a somewhat later date, was a tape recorder with large reels and thin, light brown recording tape. As I remember one of his early experiments was to record percussive sounds of a variety of drums or other instruments on to this tape. He then would cut the tape into small sections, some as small as a centimeter or so. Subsequently, he would tape these sections together with some sort of scotch tape in a deliberate pattern that he hoped would form his composition. He would then play the composite tape back to hear what it would sound like. Eventually, he had to abandon this procedure as it was not only terribly time consuming but did not give him the precision he desired.

One of Conlon's closest friends at the time was an American man named Bob Allen. Allen's wife Angeles was Mexican, and my mother and Conlon and Bob and Angeles were frequently together. Bob was a technician of some sort and was helping Conlon to develop an instrument/mechanism that could use piano like hammers to strike any of a series of surfaces.



Piano hammers operating percussion devices.    Fotos: Jürgen Hocker

 I believe they would rely on an air pressure or vacuum device to activate the hammers, possibly via a perforated roll like the player piano. At that time Conlon purchased quite a number of drums, some rather well made and handsome ones which I think were Chinese, but also others that might have been Indian as well as Cuban and Mexican. These were later put into a large vertical wooden rack that went up about three to four meters and was about six meters wide. Included in this rack were a number of drums that Conlon himself made.

      Nancarrow and his percussion orchestrion, commanded by an Ampico player piano (approx. 1950).

Nancarrows Percussion "Instruments"


These were the most interesting to me since I had the experience of watching him make them. Conlon bought Mexican clay "ollas," or pots, of varying sizes; the largest were about 70 cm high and the smallest about 30cm high. He would take a hacksaw and saw off the bottoms of these pots about 5cm parallel to the bottom. He would then take kidskin that he had soaked in water overnight and stretch it over the hole that he had cut away and tie the skin to a thong he had strapped around the neck of the pot. This was done in a crisscross pattern so as to get the maximum tautness on the stretched skin. He would then place this pot upside down, i.e., skin side up, in the sun until the kidskin dried and shrank very tightly over the opening he had cut away. Viola! a beautiful drum! And one that had an unusual and melodic sound.

Percussion instruments Nancarrow built from Mexican clay "ollas"

or pots.   Foto: J. Hocker

These were the kind of activities that especially delighted me since they were manual and creative and I, myself, always took delight in working with my hands. When, a couple of years later we were to move into the Aguilas #48 house, where Conlon had built his studio, he had a carpenters workbench and all sorts of hand tools there. Tools fascinated me and Conlon would let me use them, or be with him while he was working, with no objection whatsoever. He was a perfectly agreeable and accommodating adult and didn't mind my childhood presence.

As you know Conlon's drum rack never came to be used as he had envisioned. I think he and Bob eventually gave up trying to construct the operative mechanism and Conlon finally worked out his punching machine for his Ampico player pianos. I know he would have wanted to have at his disposal a greater variety of sounds, but since that proved complicated, he settled on the piano keyboard as sufficiently diverse for his purposes. Years later when musicians and composers began using the synthesizer Conlon remarked to me that, had he been born into this current generation, he would certainly have composed music for the synthesizer. Didn't he think he could start now I asked. "No," he replied, "it's too late for me now, I already have my niche."

Nancarrow owned a huge library.  Foto: J. Hocker

Conlon was a tremendous reader and read books on all the subjects that fascinated him. In addition to books about music he was also interested in astronomy, language, physics, cooking, mathematical theory and political philosophy. He read at least three different newspapers every day. He smoked heavily; three to five packs a day, and drank small cups of thick, black Turkish coffee, which he would make himself. He had a whole system of whipping up the fine grounds in a little copper, crucible like pot to produce a frothy, foamy expresso result. Conlon might have smoked "Gauloises" occasionally, when he could get them, but his favorite cigarettes for years were "Soberbios." These were either Mexican or Cuban and were made with a very strong, dark tobacco, unfiltered, of course.

Conlon never worked at a regular job. When I became old enough to ask about this my mother explained to me that he had received an inheritance from a life insurance policy of his father's that allowed him to have some sort of steady income.

Conlon gave me my first introduction to things like atoms and explained what they were. He also told me about the solar system, stars, galaxies and the universe. These were subjects that I found very much to my interest and I continue to be interested in cosmology to this day. He also played chess quite well and we often paired off. Though he was usually the winner, he would compliment me on my "good game." One day my mother bought us a children's book on Mozart. This book showed how Mozart was playing advanced musical compositions on the piano when he was only four years old. I asked Conlon if Mozart was his favorite composer. Mozart was one of his favorites, he said, but his very favorite was Bach. Did Bach ever write any bad music, I inquired. Conlon replied that as far as he was concerned Bach never composed a single piece of inferior music. His favorite contemporary composer was Stravinsky. At a young age I became familiarized with these names.  

                                                               Annettes sons Charles (left) and Luis

I mentioned that he was permissive. I started smoking cigarettes, secretly of course, when I was quite young. Many of our lunches in the San Angel house we had outdoors in the garden at our table for four. Invariably, after lunch Conlon would pull out his pack of cigarettes for a smoke. He would tap the pack and first offer one to my mother. One day at lunch he did this. I had my pack hidden in my pocket. He reached across the table to my mother with his opened pack and said, "dear?" "Oh, thank you," she said, and took a cigarette. Conlon lit their cigarettes. I then took my pack out and tapped a few out and reached across to my brother Charles and said, "dear?" "Oh, thank you," Charles responded and took one, which I then lit. Conlon couldn't stop laughing! My mother, also, but she protested. Conlon said to her, "Don't be silly, let them smoke, what difference does it make!" I was seven, Charles was eight.

For the greater part of their marriage together Conlon and my mother lived in Aguilas #48, where Conlon had his studio at the rear of the property. My mother loved entertaining but, for Conlon, groups of more than six or seven people were uncomfortable for him. As long as the groups were small he would be cordial and affable and talkative. But with larger groups he could get painfully shy and timid and self-conscious. Whenever my mother had a large party he would invariably run off to his studio and lock himself away until the people had left. Some of my mother's friends thought this behavior was antisocial and in poor taste. But most of the good friends simply explained that this was the way Conlon was.

Conlon collected all kinds of recordings from all over the world. During those years these were of the breakable, 78rpm variety. He had established a contact in Africa, I'm sure, but perhaps also in other countries, India or China or the Middle East, who would mail him records. We used to listen to these in our living room. So at the age of 10 or so, I was exposed to ethnic music from strange and distant places and I became accustomed to hearing these sounds; a lot of chanting kind of music, a lot of drumming. 

Nancarrow collected ethnic music  Foto: J. Hocker

At the same time we would often take invited guests to his studio to listen to his own recent compositions. With a rather deadpan expression he would play us his latest rolls and then ask us if we liked this one or that one better. You can imagine how avant-garde this music sounded in the 40's and 50's! But I grew to like his music. There was one piece that sounded like bullfight music, like a piece commonly played during the "fiesta brava" called "La Virgen de la Macarena." Other pieces were also favorites of mine, especially those that had a boogey-woogey beat. Years later, when I was in my late 20's, I would frequently take a girlfriend to his studio to meet him. We would talk and then have him play his music for us and serve us a little coffee and odd cookies. His little house and kitchen was an attractive and artistic den, the music was outlandish; it all made for an eccentric, wonderful evening.

But perhaps the best part of his record collection was the jazz. Especially Louis Armstrong! This seemed to be his favorite interpreter and he would frequently play us many of Louie's recordings. He loved them and his enthusiasm for Armstrong was contagious so we learned to love them too. Armstrong would not only play his trumpet and sing with that unique, raspy voice of his, but he would also talk and joke which made Conlon laugh with uproarious delight! I remember one particular record that was in the collection called, "Laughing Louie." This was an especially amusing piece because it must have been recorded when Armstrong was high on liquor, and he was laughing and joking and singing all at once in the most hilarious way. We would ask Conlon to play this piece again and again and we would laugh throughout the hearing. I wonder where these 78's are now? I hope Yoko or Mako have retained this collection.

Conlon had somewhat of a macabre sense of humor. He, therefore, very much enjoyed the cartoonist Charles Adams. After Adams became well known, his cartoons were published in book form. My mother, or my sister, I don't quite remember whom, gave Conlon one of these books as a present. As he opened it and read it we would sit beside him on the couch, because, with his reading of each cartoon, he would laugh so heartily, and with such amazed surprise, that it became our pleasure to enjoy his! Conlon always enjoyed a good joke, or dirty story, and would laugh easily, and this was an endearing characteristic he had. There was one exception to this. He did not tolerate, nor would he laugh at jokes that had ethnic slurs. Almost without exception these were met by stone-faced disapproval and no laughter at all.

Conlon loved food and would try anything, virtually anything that was edible. He also liked to prepare food, as did my mother. They were both good cooks and would experiment with new tastes. As you know Mexicans eat every part of the animal including organs, skin, viscera, feet, ear, snout, etc. We frequently ate heart, liver, tongue or brains at our meals as well as more conventional fare. Concerning this subject there are two things that stand out in my young memory. One is that Conlon liked smelly cheeses. He would buy some sort of stinky cheese, then wrap it in what looked like old, dirty, damp rags and hide this bundle in a dark corner of the closet pantry in our kitchen for several days. When he would pull this bundle out and unwrap it, the cheese seemed to be covered with mold, which he would then scrape away to find a gooey, runny substance underneath. This he would spread on black bread or crackers and then eat with great delight. The smell used to make me ill; I could barely control my desire to wretch. Conlon would smile and eat away. The other memory is of eating "percebes." These are barnacles of some kind that have a shell-like head and a snake-like body covered with a cloth-like skin. They are about 6 inches long and are eaten cold and raw.

Conlon would break the head off and peel the skin back and then eat the reddish brown, worm-like body that remained. The more repulsive this looked to me the more he would smack his lips and exclaim how good it tasted. He was not fazed by the look or bizarreness of food. For him food was just food and had no psychological connotation. (You probably have knowledge of the fact that during his time in the Spanish Civil war, on the battlefield, one of his friends woke up early one morning only to see Conlon crawling around on his hands and knees eating grubs and snails that he dug out of the dirt. This is a well-repeated story.) But Conlon also enjoyed very conventional foods and I remember how much he loved a rich, chocolate ice cream Sunday, or fresh fruit. He would pick out and save the best mangos or papayas or pears and eat these with equal pleasure. He never grew fat and did not watch his diet from that point of view. One of his great delights was to pick ripe figs from our garden fig tree, slice them up into a bowl, douse them with heavy sweet cream, spread sugar on them and have them for dessert.

My brother and I frequently traveled with my mother and Conlon to Acapulco. But later in their marriage when my sister Cherry, or other friends of my mother's would join us during the summer, I think Conlon chose to stay in the city. Conlon liked the beach, liked to swim as I remember, or read under a thatch umbrella. We usually stayed at Hotel Mirador, which had cottages high along beautiful seaside cliffs; this was above the "quebrada" where the divers would perform their famous swan dives from about 42 meters up. The cottages usually had a hammock for after lunch relaxation and, as I recall, Conlon would shower quickly to insure that he got to the hammock before my brother and I did. These were little friendly competitions.

                                                                                In Acapulco

I would not be giving you a complete picture of Conlon if I didn't mention his commitment, especially during the 40's and 50's, to communism. Conlon's politics were always leftist but during the early years he actually declared himself a communist. My brother and I would have discussions with him about this and, as small boys we were unable to articulate a counter position. During college my brother majored in history and became particularly interested in political theory, and also became convinced that Soviet communism was as extreme and deplorable as fascism, though on the opposite pole. So after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Charles decided it was time to have another discussion with Conlon about this subject. He had me join him and we both went over to Conlon's house to talk communism. It was one of those occasions where the children face their parent, in this case ex stepparent, with a subject that was always an issue, but where the parent had always been dominant. My brother argued persuasively -- by this time he had acquired much more knowledge on the subject. Conlon was almost unable to defend his position. It was as if Conlon's political house of cards just crumbled away. I realized as time went by that Conlon was not really a political activist of any sort. Other than his experiences as a young man with the Lincoln Brigade in Spain, which you probably have much more information about than I have, Conlon was really a non-violent person who hated racial intolerance. His commitment to communism was a romantic desire to find a system that would provide social justice among men, but which he later realized was not the case. In his own words he says that he became "disillusioned" with communism. I suspect that my brother Charles still has issues about this subject vis-à-vis Conlon. You may wish to get his version on this.

After my mother and Conlon divorced and until he married Yoko, Conlon continued to live in Aguilas #46. At that time his compound was only a small bedroom and kitchen attached to his library and soundproof studio. Neither I nor my mother, nor any of his friends that stayed in Mexico lost contact with him. We remained on good terms and visited him with some regularity. He always received us well. He lived pretty much as a hermit, writing his music, drinking quite a lot, smoking, cooking his own meals. During these years I don't know what his love life was like. […] In general, I considered Conlon my friend, and as mentioned, would visit him either alone or with a girlfriend, and these visits were always pleasurable. I should mention that since 1964, we were next-door neighbors.

After he married Yoko and Mako David was born Conlon's life changed. I can only think that this was a very positive thing for him. I'm certain he adored Yoko and was enthralled that he had a son. Mako was about three years older than my oldest daughter, Phoebe, and four years older than my son, Luis Jose. They would often play together in our garden.


                             Stone mosaics by Juan O'Gorman  on Nancarrows new house. Fotos: J. Hocker


With his marriage Conlon expanded his house. The person involved with this new building project was his long-time close friend, artist and architect,

Juan O'Gorman. O'Gorman built Conlon and Yoko a nice two story house and covered many of the exterior walls with his famous colored stone mosaic

Conlon and O'Gorman shared a healthy leftist political viewpoint. They also shared ideas about suicide. I believe it was O'Gorman who introduced Conlon to a book called "Exit," that had been published in England, I think. It was a kind of "how-to" book for taking ones own life. Toward the end of his life O'Gorman talked frequently to Conlon about this subject to the point where Conlon became concerned, a concern he shared with me. You may know that some years later O'Gorman did take his own life in his house in San Angel. To insure that this act would not fail O'Gorman put a ladder against a tree, tied a sturdy electrical cord around the tree and then around his neck, then drank cyanide and shot himself through the temple.

After my third child, Dustin, was born, my wife and I separated. I moved into a small studio around the corner on Leones street. About a year later I met Karen and invited her to come to Mexico. Just at that time, and completely by coincidence, I received a phone call from, of all people, Helen O'Gorman. She was wondering if I might be interested in buying Juan's pre-Columbian collection. When I visited her she also explained her house was for sale, the same house where Juan had ended his life. This house was one of Juan's early functionalist structures one block away from, and in the same style as, Diego's [Rivera] and Frieda's [Kahlo] studio, which he had also built. The O' Gorman house included his painting studio. I should tell you that in addition to being a businessman, I am an artist; indeed this is my real love, my preferred vocation. I ended up buying this house. Helen included the collection with the purchase.

Karen and I began living together here in about 1983. In 1985 she and I were married; our daughter Caitlin was born in 1986, and our son Tommy was born in 1989. In 1991 we sold this house and moved back to Aguilas 48, in an exchange where my ex-wife moved into another residence nearby.

One final anecdote. Little by little Conlon's music was becoming more widely known. That is, it was always known in some limited circles, especially after Columbia, or Decca, I don't remember which [Columbia], produced his first recordings. But in the late 80's Conlon's music was getting more notoriety. He had several friends in San Francisco who were backing him. One was Charles Amirkhanian and another was a woman, Eva Soltes. Conlon confided to me that he was beginning to get too much mail and that it was hard for him to handle all this correspondence as well as a demand for his presence at concerts. After several conversations like this I asked him if he trusted Eva Soltes. To this he replied that he trusted her fully. So I suggested he consider making her his agent. This he did and then she began answering his mail and scheduling appearances. Later he said to me with some pride, "you know I have an agent." I reminded him that I was the person who had suggested this to him. He seemed to have forgotten this but then nodded his recollection. Though I know that he and Eva eventually broke company, I believe that she and Charles and perhaps others were instrumental in helping him get the McArthur Genius Fellowship. This was clearly the professional highlight of his life. Karen and I felt it couldn' t have happened to a nicer person. Conlon, for years and years had been composing his music, totally dedicated to this creative enterprise, with no widespread recognition, and then finally in his winter years and when finances were almost depleted, he became front-page news in the music world and received a three hundred thousand dollar prize! What a nice conclusion.

I hope that what I have written is of some interest to you. I'm sorry that Yoko did not give you my address sooner but perhaps some of this information could still be pertinent for your purposes.

My best wishes to you and your family as well for Christmas, and the best of success for you and your book in the New Year.

Muchos saludos, Luis Stephens  


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