Sweeney Out West (1987-9)
Sweeney Out West: Vacation Mishaps for piano is a torso of a peculiar programmatic tone poem that occupied me in the late 1980s: a parodic set of pieces depicting the western sight-seeing USA vacation of an Everyman (Sweeney). Thirteen movements were planned and begun; no more than six were completed, and of those, only four seem worth keeping today. Two were performed in 1989. The various movements quoted each others' main motives in an orgy of narrative cross-reference. There was a seminal pitch set  (C-D-F-Gb), and an 11-tone row. The first piece, with its desert surroundings, took its title from T.S. Eliot's Sweeney poems:
The lengthened shadow of a man
Is history, said Emerson,
Who had not seen the silhouette
Of Sweeney straddled in the sun.
The Ocotillo's Message suggests zen mysticism; the tango Questionable Company, a crisis brought on by public indiscretion; Satori Canyon, enlightenment. There were others. My new and very public job at the Village Voice was an immense distraction. I was obsessively studying just intonation. The atonality-flirting pitch language didn't really suit me, the satirical agenda was odd, and the piece remains a detour and an outlier on the path from Long Night to The Planets. Still, Straddled in the Sun, with its links to the Ives First Sonata, is the first instance of a texture-type that occurs in later works of mine (Implausible Sketches, for instance), and I retain some fondness for the other movements. Internally, it was evident my music was already headed in another direction. I couldn't possibly finish the piece now. Perhaps it is folly to make the surviving remnants public. Sweeney's advice in the matter would not have been reliable.
Copyright 2014 Kyle Gann
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