A Musico-Autobiographical Essay
By Kyle Gann
I make my living by writing about other people's music. To write about my own for a moment will be one of those luxurious indulgences that the Web affords us all. I trust that curiosity brought the reader here, and that the "Back" button will rescue the reader whose curiosity is sated before the essay ends. As the only person consistently covering the "Downtown" music scene in print, I often feel invisible as a composer. Still, I wouldn't trade my position for anyone's, for I inevitably feel that when anyone else tries to sum up new musical trends, they always get it wrong. Not being written about at all is hardly worse than being written about inaccurately and without sympathy.
I was born November 21, 1955, in Dallas, Texas. I may be Manhattan's only Downtown composer who grew up in a classical-music family; my mother was a piano teacher, my father sang classical music in choruses and loved Handel's Messiah and Beethoven's Ninth above all other works. My earliest memories, from the age of four or younger, are of specific classical works: Schubert's Symphony No. 5 in B-flat, Mozart's Sonata K. 576 in D Major, Mozart's Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466. My mother taught me piano from the age of six, though I didn't become serious about being a musician until the age of 12. At six I tried my hand at composing; at 10, I got maybe a dozen measures into an opera; in 1969, at the age of 13, I completed my first piano piece, a dissonant two-part invention in a neo-Bach idiom. From that moment on, I never wanted to be anything other than a composer - though, as it turned out, I became several other things as well.
In Dallas I attended Skyline High School, an arts magnet school, and studied composition with the band director, Howard Dunn. I went on to Oberlin Music Conservatory, studying with Randolph Coleman; for one year, I also studied with Greg Proctor at the University of Texas, and in the summer of 1975 I had two lessons with Morton Feldman at June in Buffalo. Graduating in 1977, I attended Northwestern University for my masters (1981) and doctoral (1983) degrees. Here I studied with a Feldman student, Peter Gena: an excellent postminimalist composer isolated in the ne'er-do-well Chicago music scene. It was a happy match, for Peter was one of the few people teaching in academia prepared to encourage my tendencies toward experimental and Downtown music.
Studying with Peter was advantageous in another way, for just as I finished my doctoral coursework in 1981, he became co-director (with Alene Valkanas) of that year's New Music America festival in Chicago, run by the Museum of Contemporary Art, and hired me as administrative assistant. This marked the beginning of my immersion in the bicoastal new-music scene. New Music America '82 was widely considered one of the best years the festival ever had, marked by an orchestral concert with works by Reich, Rzewski, and Lucier, and a controversy surrounding Cage's reaction to a Glenn Branca Symphony. It was an exciting way to spend my first year out of school.
One advantage of working for the festival was that I met several of the Chicago critics. One of the jazz critics, Neil Tesser, told me how to go about submitting a review to the Chicago Reader. Thus began a four-year period of free-lancing, for not only the Reader, but the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times as well. In addition, by working for the MCA I had become involved with Chicago's visual art scene, much healthier and more active than the music scene, and for one year (1984) I directed N.A.M.E. Gallery. I revived N.A.M.E.'s latent status as a music presenter, bringing in Linda Fisher, the Rova Saxophone Quartet, and the String Trio of New York.
As composer, I became fascinated in my early 'teens with the music of Charles Ives. By 15, I had discovered John Cage's Silence and Variations IV, and used to proselytize for Cage among my skeptical classmates. In college, my catholic sensibilities embraced both Uptown and Downtown musics; my favorite composers were Babbitt and Cage, between whom I saw no contradiction. A visit from Mario Davidovsky at Oberlin, though, was my first hint that, while experimental composers welcomed the 12-tone school, the 12-tone composers had no use for American experimentalism; Davidovsky would talk at length about students' 12-tone pieces, but any composition in another idiom would simply be handed back with a look of scorn. Inevitably, in the face of negativity and paranoia on the part of the 12-tone composers I met and studied, my sympathies began to slide toward Downtown music, especially while working with Peter Gena.
One of my earliest musical delights was the friction of Ivesian tempo clashes, the feel of different tempos used at the same time, that I found in Ives's works such as Three Places in New England. I started using such tempo clashes in high school, though I had no real idea how to realize them. The summer of 1974, however, changed my musical orientation forever: I discovered minimalism, via the Chatham Square recordings of Philip Glass and the DGG recordings of Steve Reich. For awhile I put the tempo clashes aside to write process pieces after the manner of Philip Glass. In fact, while most young composers of the era took Reich's Come Out and Riley's In C as their starting points, I was more fascinated by the rhythmic implications of Glass's Music in Fifths and the voice-leading in the "Bed" scene from Einstein on the Beach. Though I've been disappointed in Glass's music after Koyaanisqatsi, these early Glassian phenomena became the groundwork for my rhythmic and contrapuntal conceptions of music. Years later I told Glass that I was still trying to recompose the "Bed" scene from Einstein. He replied, "So am I."
In grad school at Northwestern, I returned to the idea of different tempos at the same time, but now in a postminimal context. My most successful use of the idea was Long Night (1980-81) for three pianos, in which the three pianists played independently, one at a tempo of 90 beats per minute, one at 100, and one at 110. At the same time, I took up an interest in improvisation, and experimented working with local musicians from rock and jazz backgrounds; the most successful result from this venture was Oil Man (1981), a jazzy process piece with some harmonic improvisation. However, despite some minor successes I was ultimately displeased with the vagueness of both the multi-tempo and improvisatory works; sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't, and I didn't feel I had much control. The rock and jazz musicians didn't speak the same language or have the same kind of intentions I did, and the multi-tempo pieces had been achieved by having the performers watch silent (blinking-light) metronomes, which restricted their expressivity to an extent that bothered me.
The solution to my multi-tempo problem came slowly and from a distant source. In 1977, I had found, in the excellent and now out-of-print book Sonic Design by Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot, an analysis of a Zuni Buffalo Dance. The Zunis, in that dance as in most of their dances, switched back and forth between different tempos, from a quarter-note beat to a dotted-quarter to a triplet quarter. I had always felt at home in the Southwest anyway - it's where Texans routinely vacation - and loved the austere landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico. Now I began to explore the native music of that region, and found in Zuni, Hopi, and other Pueblo music the answer I had been seeking. If musicians had trouble playing different tempos at the same time expressively, perhaps they could find a new, liberating ensemble energy in switching back and forth between different tempos as the Pueblo Indians did.
It took seven years for me to acclimatize myself to this new idea to the extent of incorporating it into a piece. The first attempt was Hesapa ki Lakhota ki Thawapi ("The Black Hills Belong to the Sioux" in Lakota, a language I studied for a year) of 1984, for flute, saxophone (or trumpet), synthesizer (or accordion), and drum. Performed frequently by Relache and Essential Music, it has become my most widely-played work, though with its steady and simple drumbeat I consider it rhythmically tame compared to the works that followed.
At the same time, in 1984 I began studying privately with microtonal composer Ben Johnston, who taught at the time at the University of Illinois. Though I went to him with no prior interest in microtonality, and he never pressed microtones on his students, he made a simple comment about tuning during the first lesson that made me immediately realize that I would have to take a microtonal route. With him I began studying just intonation - a system of tuning in which pitch intervals form pure mathematical ratios, often resulting in many more than 12 pitches per octave. Again, it took me seven years before I felt comfortable enough with just intonation to write a piece using it. The first attempt was a small one: Superparticular Woman (Tuning Study No. 1) of 1991. To this day, only my electronic works are in just intonation; I feel that attempts to play altered tunings with conventional instruments do more harm to the rhythmic energy than they do good to the purity of harmony.
Life as a Composer-Critic
By 1986 I thought I was through with reviewing. I had exhausted the slim possibilities of Chicago's music-writing scene, and the people who would have had to die before I could move upward were young and in vigorous health. Just as I was looking around for other types of work, a call came from out of the blue; Doug Simmons of the Village Voice asked me to apply for the job as new-music critic, recently vacated by Greg Sandow and earlier held by Tom Johnson. I started in November of 1986, and for more than two years commuted by plane from Chicago. At last, my wife Nancy found a job at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and we moved to the East Coast.
One reason I didn't move to New York right away is that I didn't expect to find the New York scene very congenial. Downtown in the mid-80s was in the midst of a massive reaction against the minimalism that had been so important to me, and was wrapped up instead in the free improvisation I had tried and found wanting. In fact, the new-music scene I had become involved with working for New Music America had been pretty much banished; "No more Cage! Zorn is the rage!," chanted Tony Conrad with heavy irony at one festival, and that expressed the New York mood pretty accurately. Composers who came from the classical avant-garde were pushed out of New York's alternative spaces through the late '80s, and they were filled instead with musicians whose primary backgrounds had been in rock and especially jazz.
Had this situation continued, I would no longer be at the Voice today. But around 1990 everything began to change. The Bang on a Can festival had started in 1987, giving the first major exposure to composers whose backgrounds had been very similar to mine. Younger composers like Mikel Rouse, Michael Gordon, Evan Ziporyn, Ben Neill, and others began coming out of the woodwork, and I found their music very similar to mine - or rather, similar in what it was reacting to, not so much in the solutions it found. I wrote an article called "Downtown Beats for the 1990s" for an academic journal, Contemporary Music Review, showing the similarities in rhythmic structure among the musics of Rouse, Gordon, Neill, Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, and Larry Polansky; my own music would have fit in perfectly, though I wasn't allowed to include it. Out of that article came a new perception that the new generation had a lot in common in terms of compositional ideas. And out of that perception came a new term that I didn't coin, but was the first to use in print: Totalism.
Musicians outside the scene today claim that nobody knows what totalism means, but that's only because no one but a few composers have examined the music involved. Totalist music is based in rhythmic structures that came from minimalism: usually cyclic loops of different lengths going on at the same time, or different tempos out of phase with each other, or the repetition of complex numerical patterns. In order to make these complex but feelable rhythmic patterns clear, the harmony is usually kept fairly simple and static, though it may be dissonant (as in Michael Gordon's music) or consonant (Mikel Rouse's and my own). Totalism, I feel, began in works written around 1983-84: Rouse's Quick Thrust, Gordon's Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!, and my own Mountain Spirit, a set of variations on an Apache Indian theme in which each instrument - two flutes, two drums, synthesizer - played variations of different lengths.
As you can see, my instincts as a critic are so strong that, even when I set out to write about my own music, I get sidetracked into the rut of writing about other people's music. But to resume: two chamber pieces, Mountain Spirit (1982-83) and Baptism (1983) were the works with which I declared what I still consider my mature style. These were followed by I'itoi Variations (1985), an ambitious set of two-piano variations on a Papago Indian theme in which I tried to encompass all the compositional techniques I had worked with, including multi-tempo structures, minimalist textures, and even quasi-serial transformations of the simple five-pitch theme.
You might think that, as interested as I was in the idea of different tempos played simultaneously, I had been a devotee of Conlon Nancarrow all along. In fact, by the '80s I had barely discovered Nancarrow. The idea for me to write a book about Nancarrow came from composer Stuart Smith, who was editing a series of books on American composers. Once I began analyzing Nancarrow's 51 Studies for Player Piano, I quickly realized that he had solved amazing compositional problems that no other composer had even posed before. I traveled to Mexico City three times to visit him, to sift through his manuscripts and examine his player piano rolls. As the first person to examine his entire output in great detail I was the first to learn some of his canonic techniques, and as a result I have written several canons that re-use his devices in new contexts. The first was a tempo canon, The Convent at Tepoztlan (1989), named after a 16th-century convent that Nancarrow had taken me to. This was an explicit homage to Nancarrow, a canon at tempo ratios of 23 against 24 for piano and tape, or else two pianos.
My next major-length canon was Chicago Spiral (1991) for eight instruments, a nine-part triple canon at the major second in 14/8 meter. I played a tape of it for Nancarrow, and pointed out a section where I had stolen from him a technique of having scales run quasi-continuously from one instrument to another. I called it a "Nancarrow moment." He sort of snorted and said, "You should have made it longer."
Meanwhile, the ideas I was taking from American Indian music didn't gel completely until 1991, when the Essential Music ensemble in New York commissioned me to write my first percussion ensemble piece, Snake Dance No. 1. In this piece for the first time I used tempo as the melodic element in a work, shifting back and forth between various faster and slower beats. I further explored this rhythmic language in Snake Dance No. 2 (1995) and my Astrological Studies (1994), which I wrote on commission from the Relache ensemble in Philadelphia. Astrological Studies also provided an outlet for my interest in the magical uses of music in the Renaissance. It was inspired by accounts of the magical healing music of Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who not only began the Renaissance by translating Plato and the Hermetic writings for Cosimo de Medici, but also instituted the modern, psychological approach to astrology wherein we are not fated by the planets, but are free to deal with them on a level of inner transformation.
I am currently combining my microtonal interests and my love of Hopi and Zuni rhythms in a one-man opera, Custer and Sitting Bull. Only one section has been performed so far: "Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull", based on a speech allegedly handed down among the Lakota that Custer's ghost made to Sitting Bull after the battle of the Little Bighorn. Except for this recent example, though - and my Desert Sonata of 1995, which I based on a Hopi Elk Dance because pianist Lois Svard was interested in my Indian sources - I have moved away from explicit Indian references. They don't sit well in the current climate, which (short-sightedly and small-mindedly in my opinion) discourages artists, especially white artists, from borrowing outside their own traditions. But those rhythms I learned from the Pueblos are part of my own language now, and I use them in ways that the Hopis and Zunis would never recognize. I feel that they, along with the other ideas I've taken from Ives, Henry Cowell, Nancarrow, Glass, and Johnston, make my music truly indigenously American. And I spend my life trying to prove that there is such a thing as an American classical music.
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