Kyle Gann: Snake Dance No. 3 (2009-10)

With apologies to the Hopi Indians, who actually dance while holding live snakes, the snake dance is a genre I invented for myself in 1991. The basic idea was inspired (like so many American rhythmic ideas) by Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, which suggests composing within a scale of tempos analogous to a pitch scale. Fusing that with the gear-shifting rhythm of Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo music, I came up with a conception of a percussion dance in which the tempo moves back and forth along a series of steps corresponding to notated durations: 8th-note, triplet quarter, dotted 8th, quarter, quarter-tied-to-a-16th, and so on. The motion reminds me of the back-and-forth movement of a snake. One of the formal rules is that the piece be made up of quasi-melodic modules, and that no two modules follow each other in the same succession twice, so that one module never implies another, and the listener, though growing familiar with the modules, is always surprised when each one arrives. I've written three Snake Dances for percussion ensemble (1991, 1995, 2010), plus my "Last Chance" Sonata for clarinet (1999) has a "Snake Dance" movement, and I think of Hovenweep (2000, at least its introduction), the "Sun Dance" from Custer and Sitting Bull (1999), and "Mars" (1994) from The Planets as essentially snake dances. So this is really my seventh in the genre. (In "Mars," I vary the modules themselves rather than their order, and in "Last Chance" the formal idea gets transferred to the slow movement instead.)

Snake Dance No. 3 is my second microtonal one (after "Sun Dance"), and the first to add synthesizers and bass to the core percussion ensemble. The 19-pitch, 11-limit scale is a peculiar one, based on B-flat minor, though there are actually no other chords from that key aside from B-flat minor, so the harmony is endlessly slithering around an unsupported tonic triad. In ratios, the scale runs as follows:

1/1, 33/32, 11/10, 8/7, 7/6, 6/5, 11/9, 4/3, 11/8, 7/5, 10/7, 22/15, 3/2, 8/5, 33/20, 12/7, 7/4, 11/6, 40/21

In cents, that's:

0, 53, 165, 231, 266, 315, 347, 498, 551, 583, 617, 663, 702, 814, 867, 933, 969, 1049, 1115

In addition, some of the modules start out monophonic (melody only), and accrue new harmony lines with each repetition. Some of the modules use pure triads, others employ out-of-tune approximations, still others have microtonal inflections, in order to increase the overall range of dissonance. As Harry Partch colorfully stated, purely-tuned dissonance is a "whole different serving of tapioca" from regular dissonance. In other words, there are no tone clusters or sevenths or ninths, just out-of-tune consonances.

Snake Dance No. 3 was written for the Sam Houston State University Percussion Group, who brought my music back to Texas for the first time in 34 years.

World premiere: April 16, 2010, at Sam Houston State University's annual New-Music Festival

Score (PDF) - in preparationMP3 - coming soon

- Kyle Gann

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