Some Composers Are Not Islands

July 11, 2009

By Kyle Gann

I have to say, this has become one of the most richly fulfilling summers I've ever had. On one hand I've done all this work on piano recordings by Harold Budd and Dennis Johnson, plus a long John Luther Adams analysis I'm finishing and my Robert Ashley biography (3000 words written today, after hours of composing); on the other, recording my piece The Planets with Relache, and then a slew of music rushing out of me lately, with a ten-minute microtonal piece written this week (of which more soon), and two other new pieces begun in the same span.

Cage wrote a mesostic for Nancarrow that reads, "oNce you / sAid / wheN you thought of / musiC, / you Always / thought of youR own / neveR / Of anybody else's. / that's hoW it happens." I think I probably could have been as reclusive as Nancarrow, had not economic necessity forced me into the public life of music criticism. But I certainly am not like Nancarrow in this other respect. A life exclusively focused on my own music seems unimaginable. My musicological work feeds my composition, and vice versa. When I've been doing too much critical work and not composing, I get cranky; and when I've been composing continuously, I dry up a little, and I start to need the interaction with the music of others. It's not that I steal so many ideas from other composers, though of course I never scruple to do that. Nothing about the other people's music I'm working on went into the piece I just finished, though I do absorb inspiration from the brilliant things Ashley says, and Budd always reconfirms my love for the major seventh chord. I just need that rejuvenation from other artist's ideas, the mere presence of simpatico music I didn't write.

I seem not to be unique in this respect among my close contemporaries. Larry Polansky, a far more prolific composer than myself, has done loads of important musicological work on Ruth Crawford, Johanna Beyer, and Harry Partch, not to mention running Frog Peak Music for the publishing of other composers' music. Peter Garland, in between writing his own wonderful pieces, published the crucial Soundings journal for many years, and made available the music of many who didn't seem so obviously important at the time as they do now. Some of us need this close interaction with the music of our contemporaries. Nor does it seem like just an American thing. Schumann certainly spent a lot of his career inside other composers' heads, and seems to have enjoyed having a trunkload of Schubert's manuscripts in his apartment, from which to draw for the occasional world premiere whenever he fancied. Liszt played the piano music of every significant contemporary except Brahms (who offended him by falling asleep at the premiere of Liszt's B minor Sonata).

Part of it is what I think Henry Cowell sensed: that there's no such thing as a famous composer in a musical genre no one's heard of, and so one's personal survival depends on a rising tide raising all boats. But Morton Feldman also tells a story of an artist in the '50s who, after seeing Jackson Pollock's first astounding exhibition of drip paintings, remarked, "I'm so glad he did it. Now I don't have to." And Feldman adds, for thoughtful emphasis, "That was not an extraordinary thing to say at the time." Some of us do have this feeling that art is a collective activity, that it's not all about ourselves. I hear an exquisite piece like John Luther Adams's The Light Within, and I do think, somehow, "I'm so glad he did it, now I don't have to" - partly because I want to hear that kind of ecstatic wall-of-sound genre, and he can so it much better than I could. Mikel Rouse's music is so much more sophisticated than my intentionally naive fare, but listening to him gets me back on track. I listen to Eve Beglarian's music, and I hear things I might have been tempted to do, but she's got them covered. These aesthetically close colleagues free me up to pursue what I do best, but I somehow need to participate in their achievements by analyzing them and writing about them.

We Americans are taught to worship individuality, in art above all, but there is a strong collective aspect to creativity that many composers strenuously ignore or deny. I have no idea why I'm so attuned to it, especially being as anti-social as I am by temperament. But I do know that if anyone ever regrets that I had to write all these books and articles instead of working non-stop on my own music, they will have missed the point. It's all the same thing.


Dean Rosenthal says: It's so refreshing to read this kind of comment on our musical life - I get that this is a personal thing to you - but I think you explain a genuinely "important" aspect of musical life in this country best.

Jeffrey Sultanof says: What a wonderful thing to read the first thing in the morning. I spend a great deal of time editing, preserving and writing about big band materials from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century, and these are certainly different activities that use similar sets of chops - certainly very different than when I pick up a pencil (yes, I still use one) and write a setting of a song or an original piece for symphony orchestra. I have no doubt that one influences the other, but if I stop to think of it, something suffers. Thanks for writing about this.

Frank J. Oteri says: Kyle, this is the most touching post I've read here in quite some time. The public vs. private personae one must equally maintain in being a composer-plus is something I am very aware of as well. Reading you wax so eloquently about it is, for me, the equivalent of your hearing all those pieces of simpatico music, which is to say: I'm glad you're able to so effectively balance the worlds you navigate and it gives me encouragement to continue to do the same. Thank you.
KG replies: Thanks, Frank - I should have listed you as a prime example as well.

Robert Davidson says: I heartily concur. I really like Brian Eno's coining (according to him) of "scenius" being preferable to genius - ie the genius of a musical scene is what counts.

Jon Szanto says: Kyle, I can only concur with the others. I'm up in the middle of the night, sleepless, and I come across this. It affected me on a level and magnitude far above your past writings, so I guess that speaks to the personal nature. While I compose some, I'm still primarily a performer, and as much as I work on my own 'thing', I'm enriched and sustained by not only my fellow performers, but by my other musical activities.
And, selfishly, I am so very glad you have led the fractured life you have, because we have a variety of ways to enjoy Mr. Kyle Gann.
KG replies: Thanks very much, Jon, good to hear from you.

Copyright 2009 by Kyle Gann

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