Kyle GANN (b. 1955)
Custer and Sitting Bull (1995-99) [35:14]
So Many Little Dyings (1994) [6:55]
Scenario (2003-4) [17:05]
Kyle Gann (voice and electronics)
Kenneth Patchen (voice)
Martha Herr (voice)
rec. 2007/12, Toronto, Canada; Lewisburg & Bard College, USA
NEW WORLD 80801 [59:27]
Kyle Gann was born in Dallas, Texas but has made his careers in New York City and its catchment. Composer, critic and analyst, he is an informed voice when it comes to progressive music. Greatly associated with The Village Voice, Gann last wrote for it in 2005. His composition teachers included Ben Johnston (1984–86) and Morton Feldman (1975). Quite apart from confrontational and often very effective music he has a way with titles. These include a piece called Nude Rolling Down an Escalator.
I have not heard Gann's The Black Hills Belong to the Sioux (1984) but chances are that Custer and Sitting Bull is related to that work. Apart from being influenced by Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Henry Cowell and Dane Rudhyar, Gann has felt the hand and conscience of Native American music on his shoulder. Custer and Sitting Bull, essentially a piece for virtuoso athletic speaker (Gann), with minimal but very potent electronics, bears this out. In four scenes (Custer: "If I Were an Indian ….; Sitting Bull: "Do You Know Who I am?; Sun Dance/Battle of the Greasy-Grass River; Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull), this piece has the surface impression of one of BBC Radio 3's gloriously extravagant adaptations with orchestral music. Examples include the 1972 Shakespeare Tempest (music: David Cain), Gulliver's Travels (1981 - music: Humphrey Searle) and the Brecht/Eisler Svejk in World War II (1982 with Richard Rodney Bennett and Susan Bradshaw pianos and BBC Scottish Symphony conducted by Lionel Friend). The third part of the piece lightly adds a Celtic overlay but soon comes to resemble an aural echo of the souring apocalyptic music of the Far East. Gann's often toweringly dominant voice is immanent - well, almost. The music and the voice accelerate, decelerate, orate and move from one perspective to another. Words are fully formed and not artificially broken down into syllables. Along the way the music picks up the sound of cavalry fanfares, the shade of popular songs of the Custer/Sitting Bull period, gamelan and humming voices all in an Ives-like collage. The work is said to be a "pocket opera" - "a kind of one-person opera that blossomed in the unfunded spaces of Downtown Manhattan". We are assured by New World's liner-notes that "From 1999 to 2007 Gann performed it live himself, narrating the drama using various historical texts set to a MIDI keyboard accompaniment tuned to just intonation."
So Many Little Dyings is based on Kenneth Patchen's poem ‘And What with the Blunders’. This seven-minute piece "originates from the pitch and rhythm of Patchen's spoken voice, which Gann sampled and transcribed from a recorded recitation of the poem." There's fore-grounded birdsong, the surge and receding of the surf and a plangent repeated keyboard figure above Patchen speaking - a phrase repeated. This is a lulling and calming work and may well be Gann at his most moving and approachable. The poet's words also drew a setting from David Bedford.
Martha Herr's soprano bestrides the narrative of Scenario with a virtual orchestra played by Gann. The words - and there are plenty of them - are from a 1932 story by humourist S. J. Perelman. The text comes in one solid slab of words into which Herr and Gann inject considerable and diverting variety. Gann calls it "a surrealist collage opera, the musical analogue of an animated cartoon, for theatrical soprano and virtual orchestra". In part it comes across as a homily from a sampler and in part as a sequence of Hollywood clichés. Herr's voice, when she is dealing with homespun nostalgia, occasionally has me thinking of Barber's Knoxville. It's that sort of piece.
The lengthy and useful liner notes are by Kerry O'Brien and the booklet also gives all the spoken words together with the usual profiles, as well as credits and a selected discography.
New World, once again, point the way to how these things should be done.