Kyle Gann: The Unnameable (2012)

for keyboard sampler and soundfile

The Unnameable is a paradigmatic piece for me, a distilled essence of what I've tried to do in some of my other music. I have sometimes said that I want my music to be a cross between Mahler and Phill Niblock. What I miss in Niblock's slowly glissandoing drone music (or rather, what I have to include to feel satisfied composing) is a melodic element, a human, conventionally musical thread that the listener can identify with - hum along with, in fact. What I miss in Mahler is a kind of tranquil immobility. The Unnameable (of the two allowable spellings, I use this one to distinguish it from the English edition of Beckett's great novel of the same name) has a melodic form, though it is submerged in a layer of undulating overtone series'. The subjective element, represented by the keyboard solo, disappears into the wall of overtones, somewhat like a person walking into a lake, exploring the bottom of it, and then emerging again. Microtonal and in just intonation, the piece shuffles among six harmonic series', on the 1st, 7th, 9th, 11th, and 13th harmonics of B-flat, plus one on a fake but more exotic 17th harmonic on the 15/14 ratio - a set of chords I've used before in Charing Cross and Nonexistent Landscape. I couldn't tell you how many pitches there are, but something over thirty. The voice-leading (the way lines in the texture move to the next chord) approaches immobility. A single motive embodies the subjective element, that of a major second - although the major second can variably be 231, 204, 183, 165, or 151 cents in size. It comes to seem like a leap compared to the tiny increments of the contrapuntal background, and yet at every point the motive clarifies the melody's position in the harmonic series of the moment. I'm trying to create a kind of musical ecstasy, but I would be uncomfortable with a music that left the human element, and even a playful element, behind.

MP3 recording

World premiere: March 29, 2012, at the Open Space Festival, University of Northern Colorado, played by the composer

- Kyle Gann

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