Kyle Gann: Tuned to Sound Out of Tune

By Paul Griffiths

February 21, 1998

Kyle Gann's reputation as a composer is beginning to equal his renown as a writer on new music. A couple of recent recordings have included pieces by him, and on Thursday he was at Merkin Concert Hall to perform, as keyboardist and vocalist, several of his compositions.

He is as thoughtful, independent and inventive a musician as might be expected from his writings. All the music he presented at Merkin Hall is in some form of just intonation, using scales in which the notes are tuned as harmonics of one another, and in which there are many more steps than 12. Harry Partch was the pioneer of this sort of music, and Mr. Gann's pieces often move near or into a Partch-like territory of strange intervals and odd harmonies, a territory where the musical system we know -- that of equal temperament -- seems to be reflected in a distorting mirror.

There is a paradox here. Just intonation is more natural than equal temperament, in that it reproduces the harmonies of pure vibration: if you blow overtones on a pipe or a bottle, the notes you get will be perfectly tuned. But equal temperament is so much the norm that it has come to seem more natural, which makes music like Mr. Gann's sound out of tune.

This provides him with excellent means to explore notions of the natural and to dramatize conflicts between nature andhuman will, as he does in the two parts he performed of "Custer and Sitting Bull," written for his own speaking voice and computer music on tape. The first part uses quotations from Custer's memoirs and trial testimony that are a verbal affront: the spectacle of a gentle musician mouthing these sentiments is shocking, and takes away the trust one generally has in words spoken from the stage.

But this world of absent trust -- where we have to consider every particle of what is said, try to place it in some coherent system, and cannot do so -- is beautifully suited to the bent, ambiguous progressions, harmonies and melodic shapes of Mr. Gann's computer music, which moves with and around his voice in this first part in kaleidoscopic counterpoint. The second part, where the text is supposedly delivered by Custer's ghost (again straining trust), music and voice are together, the fine, weird electronic harmonies coloring the words.

The pieces Mr. Gann played at the electronic keyboard -- "Fractured Paradise," "So Many Little Dyings" and "How Miraculous Things Happen" -- were, respectively, a pure-tuned take on a country and western song, a kind of chorale prelude on a recorded fragment of Kenneth Patchen speaking his own poetry, and a hymnlike movement through an enriched harmonic spectrum where major and minor can be simultaneous.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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