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Kyle Gann Interview

Posted on 04 July 2009. © Copyright 2004-2022 Composition:Today

C:T talks to composer, critic, musicologist, professor, writer on new music and coiner of the phrase 'post classical', Kyle Gann.

Kyle Gann, photo by Jorgen Krielen

Venus, from The Planets, by Kyle Gann
Tell us something about your background.

My one-sentence bio reads: I’m a classical musician named after a football player. I was named after Kyle Rote, the star quarterback for SMU in the ‘50s. I was supposed to become a football player (I’m 6’2”), but I’m remarkably slow on my feet. And anti-competitive. I think way too much. My mother was a piano teacher. In high school, composing and atonal music were my escapes from Texas high-school surreality. The world’s most obsessive classical music fans are the ones in Dallas trying to isolate themselves from the dreck around them, which vibrates between the poles of football and Christian fundamentalism. I also read hundreds of novels when I was young, nurturing a social ineptitude from which I’ve only partly recovered.
I attended an arts magnet high school in Dallas. Then, at Oberlin, I got a very midwestern composer’s education, but which I mean it was intellectual but not doctrinaire. At grad school at Northwestern, I met a lot of composers through my teacher, Peter Gena. I began gravitating toward the Downtown ones at Oberlin because they were nicer, less uptight, less judgmental people.

How did you start composing?

It's pretty mysterious. I have a piano piece I wrote when I was six, though the left hand drops out after the first couple of measures. At ten, I wrote the opening French horn solo to an opera. In August of 1969, at 13, I suddenly had an idea for a Bach-style invention that modulated to the tritone and back. After that, I just kept going. I was a pianist, practicing four hours a day, and I was tremendously into Gershwin, Roy Harris, Charles Ives, Bernstein, and Copland, and then at 15 I discovered John Cage.

What drives your work, what are you passions?

I used to have a musical philsophy. I could have spelled it out for you at the drop of a hat. But I quit. The philosophy was driving the music, and I wanted my ears to drive the music. I very, very much want to create musical continuities that are memorable, despite using elements and relationships that have never been used before. I try, in my microtonal music, to create catchy melodies that I'll go around humming, but that use intervals totally unfamiliar in conventional music. I try to seduce the right brain with intervals and rhythms that the left brain can't analyze or recognize. I aim for a frisson of weirdness that takes me many, many listenings to get used to. Eventually I get too used to all my tunings, and have to start trying to come up with something even weirder. But no matter how weird I get, I love being familiar with pieces, and though there are many pieces of music I love that are too complex to be memorized by the ear and hummed through in the mind, I can't get excited about writing pieces like that myself. It occurred to me recently that if I could write music with the profile of Phill Niblock's, but as memorizable as Mahler, I'd be a happy man.

Many of your influences and interests, from Nancarrow to Cage, have been of US origin. Do you see yourself as an American composer?

I wish I could say something rather than an emphatic yes. It's not through any nationalistic or patriotic feeling, nor any lack of love for European music. But I think that a slavish imitation of the social constructs of European music has crippled the art of composing. The idea of sitting around writing string quartets and concerti and feeling like, 'ooh, look at my powdered wig, I'm in the tradition of Mozart and Brahms,' is anathema to me. I want my music to relate to the environment around me, to the ideas we're all thinking about today, not the stuff I learned in music history classes. It was Nancarrow, Cage, Harold Budd, Morton Feldman, who helped me escape that sick fantasy of joining the sequence of famous European composers. That fantasy is a construct of 19th-century pedagogy. It was never real. Mozart was a real, living, environment-reacting musician who didn't give a shit about posterity or history, and I want to have the same attitude - which means Mozart's 200-year-old <i>music</i> couldn't be more irrelevant to me.

Do you have a routine? A place that's special

I have a long, long attention span, and I'm not a good multitasker. I like to get up in the morning, start on a project, and do nothing else (or as little else as I can get away with) for the next three weeks at least. I forget to eat lunch, and 7 PM can find me still in my pajamas. Having to tear myself away to run errands, write articles, answer the phone, is a bummer. Place, though, is almost immaterial. My favorite place to compose is in hotels, because the phone never rings, and there are few distractions. But I can compose on trains and planes, and of course in my home, which is way out in the country. My definition of hell is hearing someone else's vapid pop music playing on the radio next door.

Tell us something about your working method as a composer

'Method' and I don't exactly get along. And the relationship changes throughout a composer's life. When I was young I used to work out the whole structure of a piece before writing it. Once I got a Disklavier (in 1997), I started composing much more improvisatorially, because I felt that the concern for pre-composed structure was really holding me back. I learned on the Disklavier how to compose without looking ahead, just trusting to the moment to know where to go next.

But I am something of a postminimalist, which is to say, a 'gamut' composer. I tend to start with a limited amount of material, often a few harmonies - especially when I'm working in microtones, because otherwise the number of pitches per octave can quickly get out of hand. Often I'll imagine a kind of harmonic effect I want to work with, compose a chord progression to work within, and then I'll just start. Having been weaned at the teat of minimalism, so to speak, a common opening strategy for me is A, AB, ABC, ABCD, but at some point I turn loose and just fly.

Which non-musical influences have affected your music most?

Astrology. Zen. Jungian psychology. American Indian culture. Left brain/right brain research. The older I get, the less I draw from them.

How has the internet and technology affected your work as a composer?

As for the internet - I made the decision to upload as many of my scores and recordings to my web site, available for free. Because I worked all those years as a critic, no one knew my music, and it was far more important for me to be heard than to make money from my music.

As for technology in general - I tried in the late 1980s to start writing microtonal music under really primitive conditions, and didn't succeed in completing a piece until 1992. Starting in the late 1990s, several software programs made my work in microtonality tremendously easier: notably Kontakt, and, most of all, Lil Miss Scale Oven, which is a fantastically easy and supple program for retuning just about anything, both synthesizers and especially soft synths. In the ‘90s I would spend an hour retuning a keyboard, and now I can do it in a couple of minutes, trying out scale after scale after scale faster than I can think of them. Making microtonal MIDI music has almost become too easy in the last decade.

What's the strangest idea for a piece you've ever had?

I keep wanting to write ambient music for Disklaviers, just put them on nonsynchronous loops and let them run. Among pieces I've actually written, one of my favorite is a hysterical monodrama for soprano and CD, based on an S.J. Perelman parody of a film scenario. It hasn't been performed because the soprano I wrote it for disappeared, and I need a singer who can change style and character every few measures. I liked writing collages in high school, and returned to the style in this last decade.

Which work are you most proud of and why?

Transcendental Sonnets. It's a 35-minute work for chorus and orchestra, based on poems by Emerson's obscure poet friend Jones Very, who went mad and started writing ecstatic sonnets. Because it was written for the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, which is a very large semi-professional group, it had to be singable, and so in many ways it's the most conventional piece I've ever written. Even so, I packed in quite a few of my trademark rhythmic ideas without being too outrageous, and the piece fits the genre well. I think that, because of the way I grew up - a weirdo in a really conventional culture - I was proud of being able, for once, to really 'fit in' when I want to, at least musically if not socially.

What does the future hold for you?

Interest in any composer's work seems to come in waves. I had a tremendous wave in 2006-8. Right now everything's died down. Relache recorded my 72-minute work The Planets, and the Orkest de Volharding is going to bring out my piano concerto Sunken City. Aside from that nothing much is scheduled at the moment. I started a new 30-year astrological cycle last June, and I'm still sensing what my new direction will turn out to be.

Please list anywhere online where your work can be experienced

All my music that's not commercially available is up at my web site, You can keep up with my career at my blog, Postclassic at Arts Journal: .

Interview by Composition:Today © Copyright 2004-2022

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