Everywhere At Once: John Luther Adams On Kyle Gann

Everywhere At Once: John Luther Adams On Kyle Gann

At the AMC awards ceremony, Mikel Rouse presented Kyle Gann with a Letter of Distinction
Photo by R.J Capak

Kyle Gann is a force of nature. Composer, performer, author, critic, scholar, educator… Like the weather, he seems to be everywhere at once—a commanding presence in the landscape of American music.

First and foremost, Gann is a composer. Like the man himself, his music is passionate, fiercely intelligent and one of a kind. Gann’s music embraces a broad range of influences but sounds like no other.

His fascination with complex tempo structures and microtonal tunings places Gann in the experimentalist tradition of Henry Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow, and La Monte Young. Yet the directness and accessibility of his music reveal his affinity with American populists such as Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson. In this highly personal blend of experimentalism and populism, Gann’s closest musical forebears are Charles Ives and Harry Partch.

Like Partch, Gann works in acoustically perfect tunings, utilizing as many as 37 tones to the octave. His innate melodic gift is matched by an equivalent suppleness of rhythm, grounded in his deep knowledge of Hopi, Zuñi, and Pueblo music. This influence is not simply programmatic or atmospheric. It is profoundly musical. Gann has made the reiterations and syncopations of these original American musics his own, transforming and fully integrating them into his unique rhythmic idiom of successive and simultaneous tempos.

From his authoritative and incredibly detailed analyses of the complete works of Conlon Nancarrow, Gann has developed his own personal methods of working with multiple layers of counterpoint in complex tempo relationships. Where Partch employed carpentry to support his explorations of non-tempered tuning, and Nancarrow used the player piano to achieve tempo relationships beyond the capability of human performers, Gann uses electronic technology as effectively as anyone working today to realize precise relationships of pitch and rhythm.

His works for the Disklavier mechanical piano pick up where Nancarrow left off, weaving elements of popular music into vivid tapestries rhythmic and tonal complexity. Titled after Nancarrow’s birthplace, Texarkana is a breathtaking ragtime vamp (incorporating a musical quotation from James P. Johnson) that traverses tempos of all the odd numbers from 3 to 29 against a constant “tonic” tempo of 13, and races through all twelve major keys in its first 48 measures.

Gann’s music often grows out of the nuances of the spoken word. His one-man opera, Custer and Sitting Bull comes as close as any recent work to realizing Partch’s ideal of “corporeality”: the holistic fusion of language and tone. In setting the words of these two archetypal American characters, Gann uses the nuances of microtonality to heighten the rhythms and inflections of speech into music. More than just a vehicle for the theatrical narrative, this music is deeply informed by the flow, the texture, the feeling of language.

His theatrical work has continued in Cinderella’s Bad Magic (2002), the first of a trilogy of chamber operas with librettist Jeffrey Sichel—a deconstruction of literary sources from Medea to A Streetcar Named Desire, set to microtonal music for an ensemble of vocal soloists and electronic/amplified instruments.

Gann grew up in Texas. But he has a New England Yankee soul. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his Transcendental Sonnets (2001-2002) a work for soprano, tenor, chorus, and orchestra on six poems by Jones Very. (A friend of Emerson and Alcott, Very was gripped for several years by a series of ecstatic visions, which resulted in his commitment to an asylum and the writing of his best verses.)

Gann has joked that his orchestral music is advertising for his “real” music. But Transcendental Sonnets may well be his most singular work to date. And it is inherently orchestral in conception and in sound. As in his theatre works, the musical lines grow directly from the prosody of the text. The counterpoint is intricate, but the musical textures and the orchestration are always transparent. And this music is faithful not only to the letter, but to the transcendental spirit of the text. The final section, The Word, is especially haunting and uplifting.

It’s immediately clear that this is post-minimalist music. Yet it also evokes the atmosphere of an earlier time. Somehow Gann manages to combine stylistic elements from William Billings to Philip Glass into a sound that is fresh and coherent. This is not a post-modernist pastiche. It is not stylized Americana. Like the symphonies of Ives, like the hymns and fuguing tunes of Cowell, this music is authentically American, with deep roots in the soil, the history and the cultures of this continent.

A critic once referred to his Gann’s music as “naïvely pictorial”. This is an aesthetic position the composer fully embraces. As he says: “All the microtonal complexities and humanly unplayable rhythms are a lot of fun, and they keep my brain entertained while my ear is busy composing. But the most important part, the part that empowers music to resonate through society and enables one to ‘speak truth to power,’ that part that will make your work dangerous and threatening to bureaucrats and academics, the part that will make you despised by keepers of the status quo and loved by generations yet to come, is the hardest part to achieve: the part that is naïve.”

Gann’s music alone would be enough to give him a significant place in the landscape of new music. But his writings have had a major influence on the course of recent musical history. As new music critic for The Village Voice since 1986, Gann has documented and shaped the emergence of significant new voices and currents. His composer’s insights into the inner workings of music have made him the most penetrating critic since Virgil Thomson. His commitment and passion have made him even more influential.

What Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg did for earlier generations of American painters, Gann is doing for current generations of American composers. His advocacy for the music of Meredith Monk, Mikel Rouse, Janice Giteck, Peter Garland, Eve Beglarian, Larry Polansky, and many other composers has been prescient and essential. Almost alone, Gann has defined and articulated the premises of an American classical music distinct from the European tradition. He has written major articles for NewMusicBox, and he recently completed a 13-part series, American Mavericks, for Minnesota Public Radio.

In 1998 Gann began writing the “American Composer” column for Chamber Music Magazine. Until that time there had been 70 columns in this series—67 about men and 3 about women. Since then, he has written 19 columns—12 about women and 7 about men. He’s also significantly lowered the average age of composers covered.

Reading Gann one invariably learns something new, even about subjects we know well. This is a hallmark of true critical thought, and all-too-rare a commodity these days. The scholarship behind his writings is always sound. His essays about just intonation and the history of tuning are among the most complete and intelligible resources available. His book on the music of Conlon Nancarrow is the definitive source. His in-depth analyses of the harmonic worlds of La Monte Young’s installation works and The Well-Tuned Piano are equally seminal. And his book American Music in the 20th Century is the first comprehensive and scholarly history of American classical music written from a non-academic point of view.

Gann’s knowledge of earlier European music is equally broad. He was a panelist for a recent musicology conference on the music of Muzio Clementi and he’s become something of a specialist in other lesser-known Classical era composers such as Hummel, Dussek, C.P.E. Bach, Wanhal, and Wagenseil. He has a special passion for Liszt and Bruckner.

One evening at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, I mentioned in passing my admiration for Bruckner’s harmonic architecture, and my own aspiration to a similar large-scale continuity. Kyle pulled out a pen and began writing out a passage from Bruckner on the paper napkin, illustrating how Bruckner’s harmony is suspended from the melody, while my own rises up from the bass. I simply listened and learned.

Gann is a natural teacher. As associate professor of music history and theory at Bard College, and in previous positions at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago he has inspired many young musicians. A single Gann essay—”Sounding the Image” (originally published in The Village Voice in February 1992, Vol. XXXVII No. 5, p. 86)—inspired an entire course that I taught at the Oberlin Conservatory. And it remains a touchstone for my own thinking about music.

Gann wants music to have it all: simplicity and complexity, passion and intellect, style and substance. Yet there’s one quality he values above all others: sincerity. He might scoff at this word. (He once quipped to me: “You have high ideals, John…But I like you anyway.”) Still, in spite of his wry skepticism it’s clear that Gann fervently believes in the power of music to make a difference in this world. And he expects musicians to be true to that power.

He has little patience for academicism or trendy post-modernism. And he doesn’t mince words when he detects counterfeit. He’d rather risk being wrong than being timid. He expects music and musicians to be real. In this sense, Kyle Gann is the conscience of new music. And because he holds himself to the same uncompromising standards, the man, his music, his writings, and his thought are thoroughly and undeniably real.

His formidable talent and intellect lead him all over musical map. But he doesn’t settle for what comes easily. His work always has that sense of depth and wholeness that we call integrity.

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