New York Times, December 12, 2000

Sound and Images Exploring the Elusiveness of Truth


Kyle Gann's "Custer and Sitting Bull" and Phil Kline's "Into the Fire," the works that shared the bill at the Kitchen on Thursday evening, are stylistically worlds apart. But at heart, they are both about the ambiguity of perception and the fragility of truth.

Mr. Gann's work, which uses quotations from its title characters as its text (as well as a fanciful speech by Custer's ghost), locates truth as a quality that hovers between two forcefully stated positions. In three of the four movements, Mr. Gann recited the Custer and Sitting Bull texts to the accompaniment of an electronic soundtrack. Photographs of the principals and scenes of their battlefield were projected on a screen behind him. Included as well was an instrumental movement, "Sun Dance/Battle of the Greasy-Grass River," which Mr. Gann played on a synthesizer.

Consciously or not, his recitations evoked contemporary figures entirely unrelated to the historical ones, except, in a peculiar way, in spirit. Parts of the opening Custer section, "If I Were an Indian," called to mind the dramatic, shamanesque baritone of the rock singer Jim Morrison (think of the opening of the Doors' "Soft Parade"). In the Sitting Bull section, "Do You Know Who I Am?," Mr. Gann's voice had the timbre and the sense of defiance one hears in some of Frank Zappa's soliloquies.

Mr. Gann's evocative score is microtonal and uses scales with from 20 to 31 notes in an octave. For the most part, the music strikes the ear as conventionally tonal with tinges of exoticism conveyed as much by the electronic timbres as by the often subtle between-the-notes pitches. In a way, the tuning system is beside the point: more crucially, the music expresses something elemental about Custer and Sitting Bull, both of whom are granted a measure of dignity.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

Phase Contrast

Operadio is a curious umbrella title for the Kitchen's December 6 double bill of Kyle Gann's Custer and Sitting Bull and Phil Kline's Into the Fire. Intended for future broadcasts on NPR, both music-theater pieces gain impact from contrast between live and electronic sounds‹contrasts that get wiped out by radio transmission. That said, both works' messages‹musical and verbal‹dominate their media.

Gann draws on Custer's writings, statements by Sitting Bull, and even what one spiritualist attributed to the general's ghost in a post-Little Big Horn appearance to the victorious Sioux chieftain. The focus is on both warriors' pride, their sense of their own nobility, and the obscene violence that ensued‹and ensues in all wars. At the Kitchen, the composer spoke and sang the words against an electronic score built on just intonation. Gann's relatively simple melodies flourished in microtonal scales containing 20 or 30 (or more) pitches per octave, scales with which composers like Harry Partch and Jean Eaton proved that dissonance on paper could hit the ear with a fresh, natural consonance. Gann's delivery of rhythmic speech refrains also suggested a counterpoint with a hidden, or at least unheard, other rhythm.

Kline's Into the Fire was billed as a work-in-progress based on Luc Sante's recent writings. Multiple video speeches slipping out of phase, live and lyrical music from a mezzo-soprano (the wonderful Alexandra Montano) and an instrumental trio, and readings by Sante, Kline, Eve Beglarian, and others‹it all gave proof that Kline is more than the boom-box boy his publicity spotlights, although boom boxes resonated under 24 of the audience seats. ‹Leighton Kerner

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