Perfect Sound Forever

Kyle Gann

photo by Nicole Reisnour, October 30, 2001

interview by Daniel Varela
(April 2004)

In the preface of the book Arcana (Granary Books) John Zorn has written: "it is a source of great surprise and disappointment to me that after more than twenty years of music-making on the New York scene, except for the occasional review in trade magazines/periodicals (which because of the context in which they appear and the speed with which they are written donīt really count anyway), not one single writer has ever come forward the champion or even to intelligently analyze exactly what it is that we have been doing. Indeed, they hardly seem able to describe it." Undoubtedly, this is a wrong concept despite my interest and appreciation of many Zornīs works. Anyway, John Zorn is well known for his loud mercurial statements and in the same introduction he asks for justice against "the incredible lack of insightful critical writing" but the proposal of this piece is to offer a different opinion. Since 1986, composer/author Kyle Gann has been one of the few people dealing with a complex labour from his columns in The Village Voice continuing the tradition of another composer/writer, Tom Johnson. Gann has been capable of writing about most experimental and new music formats in a simple but authoritative style.

In addition, he has also written the definitive book on Conlon Nancarrow music as well as the main study on tunings of LaMonte Youngīs Well Tuned Piano and the remarkable book American Music in the 20th Century (Schirmer Books, 1997). One of his most recent activities is his work on the impressive radio series American Mavericks, on Minnesota Public Radio.

Maybe the other, less well=known side of Gannīs work is his own work as a composer. His pieces are a very challenging experience, linked to the long experimental American tradition of one-of-a-kind composers. Regularly, Gann takes resources from unorthodox tuning systems, complex time signatures, and multiple layers of music sometimes based in Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo Indian traditions. As told by composer John Luther Adams, Kyle Gannīs music and ideas have "simplicity and complexity, passion and intellect, style and substance. Yet there's one quality he values above all others: sincerity."

This interview was done during July 2003.

PSF: You've written an impressive body of work about music by other people, but few pieces on your own compositions. How did you start your career as a composer and your musicologist/critic activities?

KG: I literally don't remember the time before I was into classical music - my earliest memories are of hearing recordings of Schubert's Fifth and the Mozart D minor Concerto, and my mother practicing Mozart's Sonata in D, K. 576 (NOTE: Mozart's music is identified with K. numbers, standing for Kochel, the first scholar who figured out what order his compositions were written in). I have a page of music, a piece called "Go Walking with Me," that I must have written when I was five or six. At 10 I started an opera, and got as far as an opening solo for French horn. In August of 1969, at 13, I sat down and completed a little piano piece one day, and from that moment on I wanted to be a composer. I wrote loads of music in high school - I just found it all recently and was shocked by the amount. It was an escape for me. I went into college knowing I was going to be a composer, and never considered anything else.

Music criticism came by accident. The summer I finished my doctoral work, my composition teacher happened to become co-director of the New Music America festival, and he hired me to be his assistant - an extremely lucky break for me. I got to know a lot of the Chicago critics, and when the festival ended, I was out of a job. I noticed that the Chicago Reader weekly newspaper had been running some very bad music criticism, and I thought I could do better. I asked a jazz critic friend, Neil Tesser, how to send in an article, and he told me. My first two articles were turned down as too esoteric, but I was persistent, and the editor, Pat Clinton, was very kind. He told me exactly what was wrong, and he published my third review. (This was February, 1983.) It didn't occur to me for a long time that I would end up doing it for a living; I had never even realized that I am sort of a natural-born writer (at least very fast and analytical, if not always colorful) until my other boss at New Music America, Alene Valkanas, priased the press releases I wrote for her. After four years at the Reader, someone in the record business (Yale Evelev) recommended me to Doug Simmons at the Village Voice, and Doug called me up out of the blue and asked me to apply - my second lucky break. I think those were my two lucky breaks - everything else I've worked my butt off for.

Musicology was similarly accidental. Stuart Smith was asked to edit a series of books about American composers, and he asked me to write one. I made up a list of composers I would have written about - Virgil Thomson, Dane Rudhyar, George Perle, Christian Wolff, Ralph Shapey, Conlon Nancarrow - and he (wanting someone still alive) picked Nancarrow. It was the best possible choice in terms of my career and reputation - perhaps another lucky break. I knew that as a music critic I would have a reputation as a lightweight, and so I had to be extremely analytical and scholarly in my first book. I wonder if anyone's actually ever gotten through the whole thing.

(I'll even give you the inside information. The only thing I knew besides music was astrology, and I was starting to try to set myself up as an astrologer (like Dane Rudhyar) when Doug called from the Village Voice. And when Stuart asked me for the book, I took the birthdates of all the composers on the list to the astrologer I studied with, and she picked Perle, Shapey, and Nancarrow. Then, after Stuart chose Nancarrow, it turned out that I had the wrong birthday for him, one that Gordon Mumma had published mistakenly. So it was fate.)

PSF: I've been shocked by your varied musical analysis regarding your capabiblities to write formal hypothesis/problems to cover lesser formal musics (Downtown, improvised, etc). You are one of the few people with this approach (Dean Suzuki, David Toop, Tom Johnson, some people in german magazines like MusikTexte and Positionen) and most journalists cover new and experimental musics only with a "fan"/collector attitude. What can you say about this problem? To me this is one of the central questions about problems related to experimental music: how to deal with a myriad of "maverick" expressions without writing an "impressionist"/anecdotal chronicle?

KG: Shocked favorably, I hope. Well, that's an interesting question, and a flattering one. I will say that I minored in philosophy all through college and grad school, and I believe it taught me how to think, and how to look at an issue from all possible sides. I strongly recommend philosophy to all my students. I always had a very good ear, and did very well in a course at Oberlin which forced us to analyze pieces by ear, without the score. I do not flatter myself that I understand all musics equally well. Jazz harmony is largely a mystery to me, and I never really caught on to what most of the free improvisers were trying to achieve. One trick I can tell you: early on I got in the habit of sneaking a tape recorder into concerts, and I would analyze the piece at home at my leisure, and got a great reputation in Chicago for "remembering" every detail of a piece. But I soon stopped doing that in New York, because the articles were so short that I didn't need all that information. And as for the postminimalist and totalist pieces I wrote about, my own music was so similar that it was pretty simple to guess what was on composers' minds and what they were trying to achieve.

PSF: Regarding your own heterogeneous approach to composition, how do you see yourself in the American maverick tradition?

KG: First, let me give my usual complaint about the stupid word "maverick." It suggests that all those great American composers are loners, and that their musics all have nothing to do with each other. It's the exact opposite of the truth. The reason I fit into the """"""""maverick""""""" tradition is that I stole all my ideas from Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, John Cage, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, Virgil Thomson, Ben Johnston, Carl Ruggles - also, in the early days, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, William Schuman. And all these people also got ideas from each other, they were very closely connected. Whereas, when I looked into what the modern Europeans were doing, I just wasn't as interested. I couldn't internalize it. I tried many times to write 12-tone pieces, and never finished one. There was something too "dialectical," by which I mean "creepy," about Boulez, Nono, Berio. The music seemed to constantly give and take away, always negating itself, every effect qualified and qualified until the point got lost in an absurb subtlety and preciosity. I was listening to Nono just today, whose late music I like, but it seems to creep out of silence and back in as though afraid to exist, like someone sneaking hors d'ouevres at a party they weren't invited to. I think perhaps we Americans aren't very subtle. Of course, Beethoven wasn't subtle either, and there's a lot of Beethoven, Bruckner, and especially Mahler in my blood - no Bach, however. It's been pointed out that the climax of the last movement of my Custer and Sitting Bull was stolen from the last movement of the Mahler Sixth, which is absolutely correct, though I didn't recognize it until someone said it.

Let me qualify my own point. I was excellent in math in high school, and it was natural for me to look to number systems as a way to structure music. And it seemed much more "natural" to use relationships between integers for that structuring, the way Cowell does in New Musical Resources, rather than set up a permutational group like the 12-toners. I may have been hard-wired to approach music the way Cowell did (and subsequently Nancarrow, Cage, and others). When I say I stole from Cowell & co., I also mean that when I found their music, I recognized my own basic impulses. I was always interested in the idea of competing tempos and beats, from the moment I heard my first Charles Ives piece - I grabbed that idea as if it had been my own all along. I think American music, like American painting, went back to nature for inspiration, and for music nature means numbers and pulsations.

PSF: How did you get started with the "tuning" question and what do you expect/offer using alternative tunings in your compositions?

KG: When I finished my doctorate, I hadn't yet studied with any famous composer (except for two lessons with Morton Feldman, and even those were group lessons). I heard a concert of Ben Johnston in Chicago, and it was fantastic, so I asked if I could study with him privately. I said to myself, "I love Ben's music, but I'm not going to get involved in that microtonality stuff, it's a lot of work for nothing." Well, Ben never, ever tried to convince anyone to compose microtonally. But at my first lesson, he made a passing comment - I wish I could remember what it was - about how nice some chord I had written would sound in just intonation, and he referred to it with a couple of fractions. And suddenly I realized that the "tuning question" was all about fractions, and I had been extremely good with fractions and logarithms - in fact the gods gave me abundant talent in exactly the mathematics I would need to do music, and didn't waste a drop more - calculus is completely beyond me. So I suddenly realized that an iron door had just slammed shut behind me, and I was in the world of tuning, and I could only go forward. There was no choice. It slowed down my career for eight years. I started studying tuning and notation with Ben, at my insistence, and for seven years I filled notebooks with fractions, composing very little music (you'll see on my list of works there's hardly anything for the period 1986-90), and I didn't complete my first alternate tuning piece until summer of 1991 - Superparticular Woman.

Microtonality is a lot of work, but perhaps not exactly for nothing. I use it for many reasons. Best of all, it cured my phobia about harmony - I could write perfectly logical chord progressions and know that they had never been used before, not by Beethoven, not by Schoenberg, not by anybody. (I eventually learned that some of mine had been used by Harry Partch, but I had no way of knowing that until his scores were published.) I love intense chromaticism, and to be able to inflect a melody with something less than a half-step, and really drive the effect home with the harmony, is a great luxury. The alleged "purity" of just-tuned harmonies was never too important to me, but I do like the logic of the harmonic series, so much more exact than the shaky, historically compromised logic of conventional music theory. I also feel, as many microtonal composers feel, that extending harmony to the seventh and eleventh harmonics is the "correct" direction - the one that makes theoretical sense - to continue the development of European music up through the Baroque era, and that 12-tone music and atonality (though I do write some atonal music) were an infertile detour that came to a quick and predictable dead end.

It is worth mentioning, I think, that even in the last 12 years, only half my music has been microtonal. Any time I get a commission or non-self-generated performance opportunity, it's always for a 12-pitch piece, and I feel like I have to be bilingual, to switch back and forth between the two.

PSF: In which manner, have these tunings influenced harmonies/vertical aspects in your music?

KG: Well, this discussion could grow very technical, and it's really different for each piece I write - I think up a technical problem involving a progression of fractions, and I work it out. My early pieces would take every harmony from some harmonic series or other, often with a pivot or drone pitch anchoring all the harmonic series. Superparticular Woman, "Sun Dance/Battle of the Greasy-Grass River," and "Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull" are examples. That method is too limited eventually, since it requires a drone, real or implied. Most of my harmonies start with triads or seventh chords, adding in 11th harmonics where desired and melodically feasible. Cinderella's Bad Magic works all by pivot tones, without the drone. I don't know where I'll go next, but I've been getting interested in working entirely within the upper octaves of a single harmonic series. I have a short string quartet, Love Scene, written entirely in overtones of C, up to at least the 77th harmonic. Since I'm a minimalist, I usually start with a chord, go to a second chord, then repeat the first two chords and add a third, and so on in a A AB ABC ABCD ABDCE... pattern. Another pattern for me is:


and so on. I sometimes have large-scale extensions of such patterns governing a whole piece. When I don't use that, more and more lately I'm tending toward stream-of-consciousness.

PSF: Could you comment your interest in complex time structures? It's posssible to think of a direct influence that Antheil, Nancarrow and/or Ligeti had on your work? Also, I'm very interested to know the evolution from your early piano music to the current period exploring Disklavier. Can you tell me about the process?

KG: As I say, for me, everything most exciting in the American rhythmic tradition began from the three-against-four tempo clash of the two simultaneous marches in the second movement of Ives's Three Places in New England. Once I heard that - at the age of 13 - I wanted to hear it again for the rest of my life, and I connected it with Thoreau's famous comment about marching to a different drummer. Everything else could have come from that one example. (My high school composition teacher said to my parents, in bewilderment, "Most young composers start out writing like Mozart, but Kyle started out writing like Charles Ives.") Antheil's music I had never seen in score except for the solo piano pieces, and I never took him very seriously until recently. You'd be surprised how late I discovered Nancarrow: around 1982 I had still only heard a couple of pieces, and I didn't start listening until Charles Amirkhanian's 1750 Arch recordings came out. I didn't start examining his scores until 1988 when I was asked to write the book, and suddenly realized what a genius of rhythmic structure he was. By then I had been writing multitempo pieces for more than a decade. I learned a tremendous amount from Nancarrow's music, but my interest in simultaneous tempos came from long before. The only rhythmic aspects of Ligeti that interest me are the things he too learned from Nancarrow.

The much bigger influence, very important for hundreds of American composers and often overlooked, was Henry Cowell's book New Musical Resources, which outlines a whole universe of new rhythmic possibilities, many of which still wait to be explored. I checked the book out of the library in college (it's mostly been out of print), read it, and consciously forgot about it - but years later when I looked at it again, I realized how many techniques I had tried from that book, that must have subconsciously stuck in my brain. Several other composers I've talked to have had the same experience, like Mikel Rouse and John Luther Adams.

As for the Disklavier development, that was easy. I never write a piece whose performance I can't bring about (well, the string quartet was an exception, because I had an idea). After studying Nancarrow, I didn't write for player piano only because I didn't have one. When I came to Bard College, Joan Tower was getting a piano for my office, and offered me either a grand piano or a Disklavier (computer-operated acoustic piano). I jumped at the chance to have a Disklavier, and immediately started writing for it - I began my job in September 1997 and wrote Despotic Waltz in October. Now I'm writing my 10th Disklavier study. Although I was a fairly decent pianist when I was young, I find conventional piano music very difficult to write, because there is so much tradition to define yourself against; but having been a pianist, and loving piano music, I still find it important to write. I refuse to write rhythms I can't confidently play myself, so my music for live pianist is much more limited, rhythmically.

PSF: How do you use a "multimedia" or totalist profile in your work? I'm thinking more in your work using texts with some kind of "script."

KG: Since multimedia and totalism are two different things, I'm not sure how to answer the question. Taking the easy one first, I'm really kind of an amateur in multimedia. I launched into Custer and Sitting Bull without really knowing how I was going to realize it, and when it came time, I got a theatrical director, my friend Jeffrey Sichel, to handle all the visual and theatrical aspects, and he brilliantly found a simple vocabulary of gestures that I could handle with my limited acting skills, and without looking too ridiculous. I went into multimedia because I had to to produce the piece I heard in my head. Now I'm writing chamber operas, and I write the music and let Jeff and the choregrapher, Jean Churchill, figure out how to stage it.

The totalism question is more complex. Totalism was not an idea that someone thought of, and then everyone tried to write it. Around 1991 I started analyzing scores by Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, Michael Gordon, Mikel Rouse, Larry Polansky, Diana Meckley, and Ben Neill, for an article I wanted to write. I was quite surprised to find all these composers using very similar types of rhythmic structure, with nonsynchronous loops and complexes of different tempos going at the same time - and very much like my own music. From that perception and that article sprang the word "totalism," so instead of totalism being a predefined idea, it was the totality of what I found all those composers already doing that they had in common. Totalism, to put it as simply as possible, is a style of beat-related tempo complexity in a relatively simple or static harmonic idiom. I divide my own music between postminimalist and totalist. The postminimalist pieces are mostly ensemble pieces based on a steady pulse and not too difficult to play, while the totalist pieces have differing layers of tempo activity, like 9-against-11-against-13 - my Disklavier pieces, Custer and Sitting Bull, most of the computer-generated pieces. Also certain ensemble pieces like "Venus" from The Planets, which goes throughout with two tempos at a 5:4 ratio, like some of Mikel Rouse's music.

PSF: In some of your works there are many references/resources on American Indian music and cultures. Could you talk about this interest? Have you personal/ political views regarding questions on American Indian history? What is the role of these topics in your work?

KG: Specifically, in 1977, I discovered an analysis of a Zuni Buffalo Dance in a great book, Sonic Design, by Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot. The dance moved back and forth between different tempos, transcribed in notation as quarter-notes, triplet quarter-notes and, maybe, dotted eighths, or dotted quarters. Following up on the Ives ideas I loved so well, I had been writing pieces in which musicians played at different tempos at the same time, sometimes while watching silent (blinking-light) metronomes. These were sometimes a mess; one for three pianos, called Long Night, worked quite well, but another one for large ensemble was pure chaos. The idea of jumping back and forth among different tempos gave me a way to use the different-tempo idea, but coordinate it in a way that kept an ensemble together and made the music more transparent and clearer to follow. I started collecting recordings of American Indian songs, transcribing and studying them. I'm supposedly 1/8th Cherokee (though nearly every Texan claims this, and I can't vouch for the exact fraction), and I had grown up visiting New Mexico and Arizona as a kid, so this influence seemed connected to my early life.

As with tuning, it took years to really incorporate this technique into my own musical style. I wrote several pieces quoting American Indian songs (Mountain Spirit, Baptism, Cherokee Songs, I'itoi Variations, Hesapa ki Lakota ki Thawapi, Desert Sonata), but in the late '80s/early '90s the political atmosphere was such that liberals condemned artists who "appropriated" the influences of people of color. I kind of thought that was bullshit - after all, Henry Cowell believed in everyone drawing from all musics of the world, and it certainly wasn't like I was getting rich off the music I was "stealing" - but eventually I quit using actual quotations and simply internalized the tempo shifting idea into a musical language based in notation with no recognizable references. An exception was Custer and Sitting Bull - I wrote the piece partly because I could ethnically lay claim to Custer, and I had as much right to write about the interface between the white man and the red man as any red man would. So this piece uses quotations of Custer's military music as well as of songs attributed to and sung by Sitting Bull. In a way it was my own "identity politics" piece about being a white man, defined in the context of another race.

During all this time, I made many trips to Indian reservations, watched dances, learned about the culture, and took some interest in the politics. I wrote letters to the editor defending the Indian point of view in disputes, and Hesapa ki is a political protest against yet another forced sale (in 1984) of the sacred Black Hills to U.S. corporations for the sake of uranium. I mainly gave all that up because I moved to New York in 1986, and it was too far to go out west. I could no longer study the music and keep abreast of the politics. We're all victims of the increasing U.S. corporate fascism, and with my very tangential involvement, there was no reason for me to continue particularly focusing on the Indian situation.

PSF: Reading your web pages including political opinions and thinking about experimental music as a kind of "art of opposition" (at least for some people like Rzewski, Cardew and more subtle with Cage, Garland or Wolff), what do you think about the chance of a social role for experimental music?

KG: This is about the most painful question you could ask, and it's been a crisis for me at several points in my career, and is a crisis again at the moment. I'm very sympathetic to the political point of view that wants to reach the widest masses possible, and quit playing to the bourgeoisie. At the same time, the primary way of doing that these days is to tap into pop and vernacular musics, whereas my background is totally classical, from birth. Rock was never my music - I was never close to it, didn't listen to it as a teenager, never liked it because of its volume level and noisy timbres, and could no more go that direction than I could suddenly start singing Indian ragas. I've tapped into Country and Western music a little, because at least I grew up with that around me. But I'm not the kind of musician who can have a stage persona. I'm not much of a performer. I write notes on paper, for other people and machines to play. On the other hand, pop music is the music that corporate America has foisted on the public as America's narrowly limited musical culture, and I'm not convinced that going with that particular flow is the politically correct solution.

What I do believe in is simplicity - and as someone who loves to use rhythms like 13-against-19-against-29, I always feel funny saying that. But I do use simple melodic structures and clear harmonies, and more and more in the last few years my music begins with some familiar historical style as a point of departure, like ragtime or Sacred Harp singing. I do believe that you have to give the listener some point of access into the music, something they can hold onto from the beginning - and that that can be either something very simple or something based in a commonly familiar style. In Texarkana, for example, I start from stride piano and ragtime, and take the listener through a stream-of-consciousness collage with a wide variety of rhythmic techniques. I have to believe that if you can engage the listener and then seduce him though an experience he's never had before, you can begin to pry him away from the commercial oversimplification and standardization that is the basis of fascism. A direct political message (though I've used that too) isn't always necessary, and may even be off-putting; the change in consciousness needed is more visceral than that. As Mao Tse-tung said, you have to start where the audience is and lead them upward, raising their standards only after you've established empathic communication. Corporate-peddled pop music and academic elistist music are two sides of the same bourgeois fascist coin, and new music has always represented a third way. Its social role remains limited not because people aren't attracted to it when they hear it, but because the corporate distribution world makes sure no one ever hears it. That's the problem we can't figure out how to get around.

PSF: Experimental music circles don't know certain interesting aspects of rock culture (one of the few exceptions is the classic book by John Schaffer New Sounds). What do you think about rock musics from the fringe like German "Kraut & Kosmische" rock; french Zeuhl musique (Magma & derived bands), Belgian chamber rock ensembles, the Rock In Opposition movement, the Japancore scene? Is it possible to think about a "real" experimental sense in these expressions and can the same be asked about European free improvisation movements in Germany or Holland?

KG: As a card-carrying member of experimental music circles, I, true to stereotype, don't know many interesting aspects of rock culture myself. Through my son I hear a lot of Beck, Tool, and Radiohead. That, along with Faust, Nine Inch Nails, Band of Susans, and the good old Residents, is about as far as my experience extends. Much of it is attractive, some of it I find interesting, but the inflexibility of the song format (except in the Residents' hands) is always a turn-off for me, and I'm not much interested in the kind of guitar virtuosity involved. Occasionally I'll hear a song with intriguing 5/8 or 11/16 meters, but will be disappointed that the rhythmic pattern isn't varied, or that the song will inevitably lapse back into 4/4. I don't mean to put any of it down, it just doesn't accomplish what I want to hear music accomplish, and it's not trying to. The music devices central to American experimental music since Cowell are used in rock as exoticisms. It's particularly disappointing when a song has an intro of really inventive sampling, just to get your attention, and then goes into a normal rhythm and harmony. But I don't even know enough to generalize. It makes me feel like I was born an old fogey, but to change I would have to start from scratch to learn a vast repertoire whose values don't, on the surface, attract me. But I'm comfortable being who I am, and can't apologize for it.

More Kyle Gann writings:

In the 3rd Person : November 2003 Issue 55 - Vol.5, No.7
Making Marx in the Music: A HyperHistory of New Music and Politics

In the 3rd Person : Back to Nature Issue 36 - Vol.3, No.12
Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition
By Kyle Gann
© 2002 NewMusicBox

In the 3rd Person : Minimal Music, Maximal Impact Issue 31 - Vol.3, No.7
Minimal Music, Maximal Impact
By Kyle Gann
© 2001 NewMusicBox

In the 3rd Person : BETWEEN U S Issue 17 - Vol.2, No.5
BETWEEN U S: A HyperHistory of American Microtonalists
By Kyle Gann
© 2001 NewMusicBox

American Mavericks series in Minnesota Public Radio
Click "Features” and "Read”

Anyone who wants to learn more about the music, articles or even political comments by
KG will find more in the comprehensive Kyle Gann Home Page

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER