Kyle Gann: On Both Sides of the Fence
In conversation with
Frank J. Oteri
at Gann’s home in
Germantown, New York
March 1, 2010—12:45 p.m.
Transcribed and edited by
Frank J. Oteri and John Lydon
Video edited by Molly Sheridan
As one of our era’s most articulate writers about new music, Kyle Gann has been an extremely influential critical voice. Through his provocative weekly columns for The Village Voice and his subsequent Postclassic blog on ArtsJournal, Gann largely defined the new music scene for a generation. And his books—The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, American Music in the Twentieth Century, Music Downtown, and the just published No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33″—should be required reading for anyone who cares about what music has been and could be.
The reason Kyle Gann has been able to write so effectively and authoritatively about the composers of our time is that he is also a composer himself. Yet despite how well known his opinions on the music of other composers have been, his own unique sonic contributions, which are just as well crafted and thought-provoking, have for too long been known only to a few connoisseurs. But there is arguably even more to be mined in Gann’s own music than in his writings. Works like his early Native American-inspired Snake Dances for percussion ensemble and the monodrama Custer and Sitting Bull offer a viable path to develop ideas beyond Western classical traditions based on musical traditions developed over centuries in our own country. Gann’s wild microtonal studies for keyboard sampler and rhythmic studies for Disklavier offer tantalizing new ways to carve up scales and meters that despite their obvious complexities are instantly accessible from a listener’s perspective. In fact, the sumptuously gorgeous music he has created for pianists Lois Svard and Sarah Cahill, as well as a totally schizophrenic concerto written for the Amsterdam-based Orkest de Volharding, might deceptively lull listeners into not realizing how amazingly difficult these works are for the players who have performed them. The same is true for The Planets, which is arguably his most significant work to date, a ten-movement, 75-minute tour de force created for the Philadelphia-based ensemble Relâche.
What is perhaps most extraordinary about Gann’s music is that he has composed so much of it over the years, years in which he has also been extremely prolific in prose. However, as much as his prose has benefitted from his music, his music has suffered from his prose, which is something he acknowledges:
People fall in the habit of thinking of you as somebody who can do something for them and not somebody they should do something for. And so it’s really tricky to turn that around. In fact, I feel really lucky that twelve years ago I think there was still a question as to whether I was ever going to have any career as a composer at all, and now I’ve had this spate of high visibility performances lately that twelve years ago would have thrilled me to death. So I feel like I’ve managed to turn that around.
Now that the inevitable polemical debates his critical writings about music sometimes used to engender have begun to subside, Gann is finally beginning to get the recognition he deserves for his most important activity—his own composing. There have been so many articles and interviews by Gann over the years about countless composers, it was a particular treat to turn the tables and create a presentation that focuses on him. And it seems a particularly apt time to focus on Kyle Gann both as a composer and music writer—this month Gann’s long awaited book about John Cage’s 4’33″—No Such Thing as Silence—has just been published by Yale University Press and his own The Planets, performed by Relâche, has finally been released on CD.
FJO: You are an extremely articulate person and your opinions about music are pretty well known and are easy to find in articles and books as well as online. But I think there’s very rarely been an opportunity where someone else is asking you pointedly about your own music and your writings and the relationship between the two.
KG: I appreciate you putting it that way, because everybody thinks: Why interview Kyle Gann since everybody already knows what he thinks? The problem with that is no one ever asks me the things that I wouldn’t think to mention, so it’s whatever I come up with myself, which tends to get pretty repetitive after a while, and frankly I’m kind of sick of it.
FJO: Here we are in upstate New York on one of America’s two coasts, but as a composer you really are a product of neither one. Some people use uptown/downtown to differentiate compositional polarities, others use East Coast/West Coast, with the East Coast looking more to Europe and the West Coast looking more toward Asia for inspiration. You grew up in the middle, in Texas, and also studied in the middle of the country, which might have something to do with your music looking more internally for inspiration, like the influence that Native American music has had on many of your works.
KG: Rumors that I’ve grown up are overstated. And I don’t like to overstate the American Indian stuff. It was really helpful to me, but it had nothing to do with my growing up in Texas. I have no idea what growing up in Texas had to do with anything. Actually I think what was much more influential was the fact that I was educated in the Midwest and I think I absorbed the Ben Johnston-Sal Martirano Midwestern kind of complexity that was really very much oriented towards European serialism and not American serialism, which is one of the things I had mentioned to Boulez in a 1987 interview I found the other day and put on my blog.
American Indian music solved a rhythmic problem for me, because I was really interested in music with different tempos. I was doing different tempos at the same time. I had a big disastrous piece called Sweeney Adrift which was for three or four ensembles playing at different tempos unsynchronized. Sometimes I still get out the tape and listen to it; it’s a God awful mess. But then I found in Robert Cogan and Pozzi Escot’s Sonic Design book this wonderful analysis of a Zuni buffalo dance. It was going back and forth between different tempos: triplet, quarter, dotted quarter, and quarters. So I started collecting American Indian music. You could get great stuff on vinyl back then which you can’t get now. That really gave my music a direction all through the ’80s.
But in the ’90s, when I came to New York, there was kind of a bad taste to white people using music that wasn’t from white people. I remember being on a Rockefeller panel once in which there was a really good, old, august, white gamelan group that they wouldn’t fund because it was all white people playing gamelan. They said, “Why don’t they have any Indonesians?” In the same group there was a play about a Native American and black lesbian couple that they didn’t want to fund because the director wasn’t lesbian. There was this intense identity politics, and so I backed away from the American Indian stuff. I did Custer and Sitting Bull because Custer was as much mine as anybody’s. In fact, Custer was my identity politics piece because it was about the white man and self-loathing and self-justification.
FJO: I want to go back to the piece of yours you mentioned that’s in four tempos and predates your hearing Native American music. I imagine it probably doesn’t predate your first hearing Conlon Nancarrow, whom you wrote a book about many years later. But what made you gravitate toward that stuff in the first place.
KG: Oh, that was very simple, that was [Charles Ives's] Three Places in New England. That was the two bands going three against four in the middle movement of that piece. I heard that and I wanted to do that for the rest of my life.
FJO: But how did you even come to that?
KG: My mother was a piano teacher. I was the oddball who was listening to Mozart and Schubert at age six. In seventh-grade music class, there was one day a week where you could bring recordings in and play them. I brought in Mozart’s D minor concerto, and the teacher wouldn’t play it because he thought the other students would rebel. Mom had her master’s in music ed, and one day I asked her why there were no living American composers. And she said, “Well, I think there are.” So I asked who, and she said Charles Ives and Roy Harris. So I ran to the record store and got the Concord Sonata and just sat there thinking—what the hell is this?—until I got it.
FJO: How long did it take?
KG: Probably fifty listenings over three weeks. I just sat there ’til I got it. Then I got The Rite of Spring. The Harris Third must have come around the same time. That was a little easier. And I had read a biography of Gershwin. I remember being so absorbed in his biography that a teacher tried to get my attention and couldn’t. I may have even known about Gershwin first, but Gershwin was half-in classical, half-out.
FJO: But this other kind of music definitely became something that once you got, you internalized and it became your music.
KG: Oh yeah.
FJO: So then this desire to write your own music, to actually be an American composer yourself, when did that happen?
KG: I’ve got a little piece I wrote for piano when I was six. And I kept trying it. I liked listening to the music so much that I felt naturally that I wanted it to be my music we were listening to. When I was thirteen, I had a really strong identification with Gershwin. It was August of 1969, and I just sat down at the piano one day, because I was playing piano, and wrote a piano piece. And then I wrote scads of music in high school, more than I do now. But I was kind of embarrassed to look through all that stuff one day and realize that it looked like somebody who didn’t have any talent. I wanted it to look good so I would tend to continue composing to the end of the page. After it should have been over, I would think, “Well, it needs to end there.”
FJO: So your immersion into classical music does make sense given that your mother was a piano teacher. Most people growing up in America don’t find classical music on their own, but they often find lots of other kinds of music. What else were you exposed to besides classical music?
FJO: No jazz? No rock? No blues?
KG: Nope. Nope. Nope. You don’t hear jazz in Dallas. I discovered jazz in grad school and really got into it. I was a really introverted kid. I must have read fifty books a year when I was junior high school. I was aware of the Beatles, but in Dallas particularly, the classical music community gets really fanatical because that’s their buffer against the football and fundamentalist religion society.
FJO: Van Cliburn at that time was still really active so he must have really been a very visible local hero.
KG: Yeah. I heard him play the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto when I was twelve at SMU. I was astonished at how many wrong notes he hit. I didn’t think you were allowed to do that if you were Van Cliburn!
FJO: What about the whole marching band scene?
KG: I knew a little bit about it. I went to the magnet arts high school and the band director there was a composer and my first composition teacher. But the only thing I ever did with the band was play the inside of the piano in a Karel Husa piece. So even in high school I was not getting much pop music. And there was a lot of avant-garde music around.
FJO: So the environment you grew up in was pretty hermetic. And then you get to college and all of a sudden you’re in another hermetic world, albeit a somewhat different one. You mentioned European serialism having a huge impact on you.
KG: And that was before college. I was buying Stockhausen records the moment they came out back in the early ’70s, and Nono, and Maderna.
FJO: But something turned you away from that music.
KG: Well, I was totally into it until minimalism. I first heard Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the summer of 1974, and Frederic Rzewski’s Attica and Coming Together. My favorite of the [European] composers was Bruno Maderna. But I didn’t see how to achieve any individuality for myself in that style. It was too complicated. You build up to something like Maderna’s Aura or Grande Aulodia—two fantastic pieces. Those are not pieces that an 18-year-old American can listen to and then go out and do the same thing. You have to start from somewhere, as Maderna did. Look at Nono’s Polifonia – Monodia – Ritmica—these really simple pieces they started out with to grow into. You don’t start out with Grande Aulodia or Aura. So minimalism gave me a new starting point.
FJO: But Stockhausen’s juvenilia is actually 12-tone, although admittedly some are somewhat Bergian and Neo-Romantic. Might there be some rigorous serial piece by you hiding out in a trunk here somewhere.
KG: No. I couldn’t do the 12-tone thing. And I haven’t done it to this day. What Cage said about it is perfect: you run up and down the row matrix like a rat caught in a trap. But I’d written lots of atonal music. The stuff I wrote in high school, and I have an example of it up on my website, sounds like Ives and Ruggles, Bernstein, Copland.
FJO: The earliest piece of yours I spent any time with is Satie, since you described it on your website as your “Opus 1.” It’s certainly not atonal, and it’s actually quite gorgeous.
KG: Thank you. That was spring of ’75. I was a sophomore at the University of Texas.
FJO: They probably didn’t like you writing that.
KG: No. I transferred to University of Texas from Oberlin and then I went back to Oberlin. I had a brilliant teacher at University of Texas, but he told me that Cage was a charlatan and minimalism was a hoax and that I should be using good 20th-century intervals like sevenths and ninths. But I just couldn’t connect to that. The idea that because you live in a certain time you’re supposed to use a certain kind of interval had no intellectual basis for me. It seemed like totally useless advice.
FJO: But you did eventually get into sevenths, albeit purely tuned ones in just intonation.
KG: And not purely tuned. That was later. I didn’t study with Ben [Johnston] until after I finished my doctorate. He had a concert in Chicago that I went to. I had already heard him. He came to Oberlin when I was a student there, but I had never really figured out what microtonality was about while I was in college, although I was really into Harry Partch. But I went up to Ben at that concert and asked him if I could take some lessons with him, because I had never studied with anybody that was terribly well known. (I studied with Peter Gena, who is wonderful and was fantastic for me—you should do something on him sometime, very interesting music.)
Ben was in Urbana and I was in Chicago, so I offered to drive down there periodically, and I did. But he was also coming up to a Zen temple. I think his priest had advised him to try Zen. So he would drive up and I started meeting him there. Then I started coming early and going to the Zen services with him, which were creatively fantastic—there was a tremendous burst of inspiration after those things.
He never pushed me toward microtonality; he never proselytized for it. But at my first lesson he made a casual comment about how good a chord I had written would sound if it were tuned correctly and he reeled off the fractions. The moment he said it I realized that tuning was all about fractions. I had been the number one math student in my high school, even though when I got out I couldn’t do calculus—calculus was just absolutely beyond me; put dx over dy and my eyes would roll back up into my head. But I have a tremendous gift for exactly the kind of math that tuning needs. And so as soon as I realized that, I thought, “This is it—I’m gonna have to do it!” I was already 28 at that point. I really envy my students who find out something about microtonality in their late teens because they have much more time to adapt to it. I was 28 and had to redefine everything I was working from. I figure it slowed down my career by about five years. I wrote very little music between 1986 and 1991, because I was just filling notebooks with fractions and making up tuning systems.
FJO: And all of the early microtonal music you finally did write was music that you either played yourself or that you composed to be played back electronically. One of the biggest challenges with this kind of music, of course, is finding players who are willing to take the plunge with you. You can get it to the point where you can hear it and come up with something that works on paper, but most musicians are so entrenched in playing everything in 12-tone equal temperament, so getting them to play other intervals can be quite a hurdle.
KG: So I just use electronics, except for one piece—Pat Spencer wanted me to write her a flute piece. I did flute and clarinet, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It’s a really simple, pretty piece, but it’s torture. There’s a different fingering for every one of the 29 pitches. She had to put a fingering chart in her part by every note. I don’t know how she did it or why she wanted to do it. [laughs]
The advent of my microtonal music coincided with my coming to New York. And just like when John Cage came to New York and all of a sudden everything was prepared piano, when you get to New York you realize that you’re not going to have a career if you can’t do it all yourself. Because there’s no rehearsal time and there’s no rehearsal space. So I had gone from writing mostly ensemble music to realizing that I’m never going to have a career in New York on the Downtown scene unless I could do it all myself. So that was the push.
FJO: Curiously though, you did come to New York and wind up having a big career, but the big career was not as a composer; it was as someone who wrote about other composers. And I think it was both a blessing and a curse for you. On the one hand, your columns in The Village Voice made you the spokesman of this scene, but it also made your own composing activities less visible. Obviously what prompted you to do it was that you needed a job.
KG: I had been applying for academic jobs starting around 1984. I applied to over 100 academic jobs before I came to Bard. But my first job was for New Music America and I met a bunch of Chicago critics, and it was easy to get started in Chicago at the time because the Reader was there. It was not at all lucrative, and somehow I was about to give up being a critic because I was making like $5000 a year doing it. I was actually thinking about becoming an astrologer. But then the phone rang and it was Doug Simmons at The Village Voice asking me to apply for a job. There was no choice involved. I couldn’t have said, “No, I’ve got something better to do.”
FJO: How did he learn about your writings?
KG: Yale Evelev at New Music Distribution Service used to read my Chicago Reader clips. (I was pretty good about sending my clips out.) And he recommended me for it.
FJO: You already said it wasn’t lucrative, so when you were in Chicago, what prompted you to write about music?
KG: It was a little bit here and there, and at New Music America my boss told me I write really well. I had no idea. I’d never even thought about it. But I don’t know what inspired me to do the first one. It was a hundred bucks I could get through something I knew how to do, and I didn’t have anything else.
FJO: Working for the Chicago Reader and then the Voice was first and foremost a job, it was about making money. But you were really good at it and wound up having tremendous influence and impact. I’m curious about when you became as invested in that as your own music.
KG: The person I always think about in this respect is Henry Cowell. He wrote not nearly as much as I have but he wrote a couple of hundred articles about music and he published New Music Editions. Nobody else was writing anything about new music; when Tom Johnson and Greg Sandow stopped there was a vacuum there. I’ve always said you can’t be a famous composer in a music scene nobody knows about. You’ve got to bring the entire scene up and make it visible. You’ve got to define for people what’s out there. And even if it’s just your definition that’s wrong and everybody else has a different definition, there’s got to be some narrative to start with. And that narrative wasn’t out there. I couldn’t make anybody make sense of my music without providing a narrative about what was going on in the first place.
FJO: But, of course, the tricky part is writing about a scene that you’re very much a part of yourself. On the one hand, you’re ostensibly the only guy covering this scene and you’re a member of this scene, therefore you don’t get covered. Or, you’re covering this scene you’re part of so of course you’re going to cover yourself, but then people dismiss it because you’re just writing about yourself. You can’t win.
KG: That’s the problem I feel about my blog right now. I feel that people read my blog to find out about other music than mine, but all I really want to write about is my own music at this point.
But this kind of happened in phases. When I first came to New York I had no performances for years. And when I started getting performances they were more on the West Coast than the East Coast. By the time I started performing in New York more often I was also teaching at Bucknell, and the Voice had cut me back to half-time when everybody cut back their arts coverage. And so the moment came when I was doing more teaching than writing. And I was getting more performances, and I went into a kind of mode in which I was really only writing positive reviews. I quit trying to be the objective eye on everything and would just write about things I liked. And then every year from 1997 on, I wrote less and less at the Voice. I quit three times. They kept bringing me back. Once I quit by just not writing anything for a few months and they finally called me up and said, “Kyle, what’s going on?” So even though I wrote for them until 2005, I really felt that it was only until about 1997 that I was performing the function of a really objective music critic. After that it started to veer off into something else.
FJO: The world of composers and journalists are very similar. Both communities are somewhat unsocialized by the very nature of their activities. And yet they’re somewhat distrustful of each other. Trying to be an active member of both communities must have been something of a challenge. Composers all wanted something from you and perhaps didn’t completely trust you. And some journalists might have had issues with you since you were worse than friends with the composers you were writing about, you were a composer yourself.
KG: Whenever I’d become friends with other critics it’s always been kind of a nice friendship. I guess partly because I never expected anything from them and I know what their lives are like. But I also have always thought that Virgil Thomson gives very clear rules for what a critic should do that no one follows. Nobody cares about your opinion, so if you really want to put your opinion in, put it in the last sentence so if anything gets cut for space it’s that. The things you do are: provide context, explain ideas, and talk about where this fits in. You can do that objectively in ways that don’t put people off. I got a review recently that was just, “Oh, I liked this, I didn’t like that.” No context—it was as though it was the only piece I’d ever written. Criticism doesn’t need to be that way. It shouldn’t be a thumbs up or thumbs down. It should be more: these are the ideas; this is where this fits it; and this is how you listen to this kind of thing. Sure, some pieces work and some pieces don’t. But I prided myself on writing negative reviews that the people involved didn’t realize were negative because all I did was state what they were trying to do and they said, “Yeah, that’s right; he got it.” Everybody else would read it and say, “Oh, geez! That sounds horrible.”
FJO: But to be totally candid, there have been composers that you clearly don’t like and you’ve made your opinions known very clearly about it, like Elliott Carter and Charles Wuorinen.
KG: O.K. But to me they’re totally safe targets, because I’m not going to make a dent in their reputations. They are so safe from me; they are gods. Who cares if I don’t like that music? I like some of Elliott Carter’s music; I especially like the stuff he was doing around 1950. I just don’t think it’s all that good.
What I really don’t like is the negative attitude that people in really powerful places have toward the music I advocate for. Wuorinen used to go around giving lectures blaming America’s increasing musical illiteracy on minimalism. He’s pissed a ton of people off, not just me.
FJO: What about John Zorn?
KG: I’ve admired Zorn in a lot of ways. I especially admire what he’s done with his record label and performance space. But when I first came to the Downtown scene, it was so dominated by free improvisation and lots of other musicians couldn’t get their music out. Improvisers didn’t need to rehearse. They could just run up there with their instruments and start playing. And so it was squeezing out all the other different kinds of music. And I knew lots of musicians who were very unhappy with that scene because it was so dominated that way. And so I fought against that domination. But I didn’t fight against the music so much. Some of it I liked and some of it I didn’t like. And I made distinctions. But in that scene you’re not allowed to make distinctions; you’re just supposed to like it for what it is. I’m a big minimalism advocate, but there are good pieces of minimalism and bad ones. I’ve never thought that you have to accept it all as a bunch. But that’s the way people reacted to it when I made those distinctions.
FJO: Because of the strong beliefs you have about our field, being in the position of having a column gave you the ability to take people to task from time to time. But doing that was potentially harmful to your career as a composer.
KG: Probably, yeah. I’ve blown up a lot of bridges. I seem to have a perverse delight in making things difficult for myself. [laughs] I would have done that no matter what I did for a living.
FJO: To my mind you are one of the champions for the music of our field, and there are many composers who agree with that assessment, but there are some on the other side of the fence who think that you’re divisive.
KG: I found myself in a set of musicians in New York whom I found really sympathetic. And when you advocate for one group of composers, composers who aren’t in that group are going to hate you because it’s not them.
A lot of people really resent me simply because I was a cheerleader for a kind of music they weren’t doing. It was rarely that I was dissing any other kind of music; I was mainly just dissing intolerance toward the music I like.
FJO: There was a music critic from another publication I talked to who was active around the same time you were whose mandate from his editor was that out of five CD reviews he wrote, three had to be negative. Was there ever any pressure from anyone at the Voice for you to be negative at times?
KG: Oh, good lord, no! That’s that horrible conception of music criticism—if it ends tomorrow, we can all have a party. To me it’s really important as a music critic to write negative reviews occasionally, because if you go to something—especially if it’s some big name and the audience is sitting there and realizing, “Gee, this really isn’t that great”—you have to say that so the audience knows you’re not just cheerleading for everything. You have to acknowledge the perceptions and values of the audience to keep the dialogue going. Otherwise, they’ll say, “That’s just Kyle Gann; he likes everything.”
FJO: That’s what folks say about me. [laughs]
KG: But you really do. That’s the difference. It would have been hypocritical for me. Even my favorite composers have pieces I don’t like. I just try to steer away from those pieces and try to write more about the ones I do like.
FJO: But I think it’s important to point out to folks who might think that you only have advocated for certain branches of composition, how articulate and persuasive your writings about George Perle have been.
KG: I did notes for one of his CDs once.
FJO: They’re wonderful notes.
KG: He liked them. And I did some for Milton Babbitt. I knew all that music. I’m teaching a 12-tone analysis class next semester. We’re gonna do Babbitt’s All Set, a piece I loved when I was young. It reads to me now like a gigantic Sudoku puzzle. But so be it. It’s fun. I went to college with Cage and Babbitt as my favorite composers. But things happened.
Davidovsky came, and if a piece of music didn’t fit his standards, he would just simply hand it back without comment. People like Pauline Oliveros and Ben Johnston would come in, and they were fun and open-minded. We had a great time. And then these hard-ass 12-tone guys would come in and just diss everything. But that’s not why I went the way I went. I heard Philip Glass’s Music in Fifths and I liked the rhythms. He was getting these wonderful asymmetrically syncopated rhythms out of his additive processes that would have been difficult to achieve any other way, and I wanted to do that.
FJO: You’re now an academic. You get to influence young, impressionable minds and shape their thoughts about music. Given the tangled path your own career has taken, what advice do you give them about the career paths they should pursue as composers?
KG: I tell them anyone’s but mine. I don’t push them to apply for prizes and competitions, but when they show interest in it, I try to encourage them. I’m always writing recommendations. I wouldn’t want any of them to have to go through the really long and circuitous route that I had to go through. Teaching has such a disconnect between input and output. I’m sure I have a lot of impact on these kids, but they’re undergrads, and I think back to how well I remember my undergrad education, and it’s not very much. I remember the first week I was at Oberlin and the first week in my theory class my teacher Paul Mast demonstrated meantone tuning. I wish now I had paid more attention. Now I do a lot with meantone tuning. You hit them with lots of information and it takes roots in ways you wouldn’t expect. You have no control over what seems most important to them. You just throw a lot of stuff out there and some of it sticks and then they go off to grad school or something else. It’s not a plannable situation; it’s a big John Cage piece. You throw the I Ching and what happens happens.
FJO: Does teaching help you keep up with some of the newer music that’s going on?
KG: A little bit. I heard operas yesterday written by Missy Mazzoli and David Little. And we’re getting more and more sophisticated students lately. And some of them are really interested in composers who are just names to me. Some of them are Magnus Lindberg fanatics. They get excited about pieces that make me squirm a little bit sometimes. I say fine. I never dampen anybody’s enthusiasm.
FJO: But does it ever work the other way where students get you enthusiastic about something?
KG: Not yet, but maybe it could. Until recently, many of the students were interested in writing music but not going out and listening to lots. That’s changed in the last few years. It strikes me that it has changed for younger composers in general. It’s a real generational thing, but I can only really judge from my own students.
FJO: What about getting ideas from the music of your students?
KG: Oh yeah, I stole a rhythmic device from one of my students that I’ve written a Disklavier piece based on. The nested triplet thing that I wrote about in my blog. If people come up with a better idea, I’m glad to have it.
FJO: I’m wondering if during the years you weren’t composing and just making ratio charts, if there was something you heard that finally got you back into the process of composing, or did you start finding your way again because nothing you heard was like what you wanted to do?
KG: I was doing all of these minimalist-inspired rhythmic things in the early ’80s. And when I came to New York, I heard Michael Gordon, Mikel Rouse, John Luther Adams, and Evan Ziporyn, and I realized, “Oh shit—they’re all doing the same thing; I have to do more than this.” [Before that] I had thought I was going to get the rhythmic originality award and rest on my laurels, but I realized it was not enough. I was going to have to go beyond it somehow, as I think they all did, too. There was a point at which I felt that Michael Gordon and I were very much in synch, but then he went off in another direction around the time of Yo Shakespeare and I ceased to feel that.
I think my approach to microtonality is pretty original although it does have arguable antecedents in Partch and Ben Johnston, because that was the microtonal music that appealed to me—it seemed like it grew organically from tonality. But my microtonal music is really only about a third of my music; the rhythmic aspect is really the one that’s always there.
FJO: And one of the directions your own ideas about rhythmic complexity took you to are all those Disklavier studies, which is music that is probably never going to performable by human beings in real time, although with groups like Ensemble Modern and the Calefax Reed Quintet being able to play transcriptions of Nancarrow’s player piano music so adeptly, I should probably never say never. But you’ve also written a piece like the Desert Sonata, which is so extraordinarily beautiful and therefore somewhat deceptive about its complexity. I had heard it for years and thought about it a certain way, but then I downloaded a copy of the score of it from your website, and was shocked to see passages that totally flowed that were in meters like 41/16. This is something that also probably shouldn’t be playable by a human being, but Lois Svard did it somehow.
KG: Yeah, it’s really hard, and no one else has ever played it.
FJO: So you say you gravitated toward minimalism, but you never gave up writing music that’s really difficult.
KG: It’s a tremendous misconception that minimalism was ever about simplicity. Some of it is, and there are people that write simple music, like Peter Garland and Beth Anderson—and I just love it. But I came to serialism before I came to minimalism, and so minimalism, to me, provided a way to do all those rhythms I was interested in and you’d actually be able to hear them. It’s not just a conceptual thing where you analyze the score. You can actually do 10 against 11 and sit there and listen to it go by. And then when it’s 10 against 13, it will have a different sound. For the people of my generation who took all that stuff from minimalism, minimalism has always been misunderstood from the very beginning. To talk about Michael Gordon again, in Four Kings Versus Five, he builds up to eleven different tempos going at once. In my Unquiet Night, there are seven tempos in almost every measure. But the context is very minimalist, because they’re all pretty much steady beats. Now, if you do what an Elliott Carter or a Pierre Boulez would do, you’d put rests in and some of them would be dotted. So you’ve got this tempo complexity, but you can’t really hear it. I love analyzing Gruppen with students and they love it—Stockhausen’s got that graph in Die Reihe that shows how it works—but you can’t hear it on that level. I’ve got pieces that if you graphed them out would look like that Stockhausen graph, but I don’t fool around with it—I just do the beats, and so you can hear it.
FJO: But with the Desert Sonata, I didn’t hear it. I never imaged how complex it was until I looked at the score. But I also didn’t feel like I didn’t understand it, because I got pulled into it by its surface beauty.
KG: Yeah, there is a logic underlying it that you can’t quite figure out when you hear it.
FJO: Which I suppose is what differentiates a piece that is post-minimalist from a piece that is minimalist in your definitions of those terms. But another piece of yours, the piano concerto Sunken City which Volharding recorded for Mode, doesn’t sound minimalist, post-minimalist, or even totalist in the ways that you have defined these terms. There are moments in the second movement which might qualify as post-minimalist, but the first movement is almost neo-romantic on some level. And hearing you talk about Gershwin today now helps me understand where it’s coming from a little bit better.
KG: And Milhaud, I was a big Milhaud fan. And also the Copland Piano Concerto, which I still think is the only other two-movement piano concerto besides mine. I’ve been trying for years to say what post-minimalism is and I’m not sure I got it yet. The second movement of Sunken City is about twenty minutes and there are seventeen chords in it. In the romantic attitude about composing, a piece starts somewhere and then it keeps going and reaches new levels. The post-minimalist idea is that you start out with the contained world you’re going to work within. And so even though that piece gets fairly complex at times and there are built in irregularities to the rhythmic display of the chords, I knew from the beginning that all I was going to use was those seventeen chords. It’s kind of a theme and variations—it’s a chaconne. So first you just have the chords. Then you have the chords real loud with the whole band, and then the chords with a certain asymmetrical rhythmic displacement with solos going around. Then there’s a section where the momentum starts going, and then it’s in 9/4 for a long time, and then it switches to 7/4. I realize it doesn’t sound minimalist, but I still feel that it’s one of my post-minimalist pieces because of the way I thought about it.
FJO: But what about that first movement?
KG: The first movement’s a little different, yeah. I write the occasional collage. I’ve been doing that since high school. I wrote a band piece that was never played that had both a satire on the beginning of The Rite of Spring and Liszt’s Liebestraum. One of the things working with the Disklavier pieces did for me was before that, all of my pieces would be structured out before hand so I’d know how everything was going to work. When I got the Disklavier, I learned by disciplining myself to just start a piece and have no idea where it was going to go. With the Disklavier I didn’t have to worry about coordination, people being able to play together, any performance issues. And also, since I’m not very good about electronics, I didn’t have to worry about timbral issues.
When Anthony Fiumara from Volharding called me up about a piano concerto, he said he really loved my Disklavier pieces. And I thought, “Uh oh, I have to write a Disklavier piece for ensemble now.” It was really scary; I didn’t know if I could do it. So with that first movement, I just started off by putting down the first chord and having no idea what was going to happen.
FJO: If I may dare say something super-contentious: the first time I listened to Sunken City, I was reminded me of John Adams’s Violin Concerto, a piece I know you don’t like. Not because of its content, but because of its form—both pieces are totally schizophrenic, which is something I love about them both. The Violin Concerto doesn’t really offer us an explanation for why there’s such a musical transformation—the title is totally abstract—but you called your piece Sunken City and the first movement is a clear evocation of New Orleans. So it’s clear that the transformation is a metaphor for Katrina. But in both cases you think you’re listening to a certain kind of piece and then it becomes another piece entirely.
KG: [laughs] All right.
FJO: No comment?
KG: No. I have a choral piece that’s being done this Saturday in New York, Transcendental Sonnets. I once submitted it to one of the few competitions I ever entered. I didn’t get anything, but the guy who headed the committee really loved the piece and wanted to program it some day because it reminded him of all these really conservative British choral pieces by people like Howells, people I don’t even listen to, and that was fine with me. If he heard that, I’m happy for anywhere it goes.
FJO: What I thought was unusual for you about Transcendental Sonnets, after both listening to it and looking through the score, is that it doesn’t seem to have any polyrhythmic stuff going on. And it also isn’t microtonal. Of course, when you’re writing something for such large forces as chorus and orchestra, if you ever want it to be played, it’s probably best to mostly avoid doing stuff that’s off the beaten path. I was reminded about a comment you made that if somebody wanted to get a sense of what your music was about, they would not get it from hearing what you’ve composed for orchestra. So why would you even write a piece for orchestra?
KG: It’s not that I’m not interested in the orchestra. I really am. In fact, I’m orchestrating The Planets so I’ll have a 75-minute orchestra piece that will sit on my shelf. So it’s not that I’m not interested, it’s that—and everybody knows this—you can’t just write whatever you want. So everybody tones down their language. Compare any composer’s orchestral music to their chamber music—even Philip Glass for that matter, who does fantastic things for his own ensemble that he can’t do with an orchestra.
FJO: But we’ve finally arrived at The Planets, which seems somehow appropriate, considering how long it took for the piece to get completed. And though you started writing it while you were still at the Voice, it seems like it was only possible to do something of this scale after you were no longer active as a critic.
KG: It was written over an extraordinary amount of time. I got to know Joe Franklin and Relâche from New Music America back in 1987. They gave me a commission in 1994 and I wrote four movements. Being in Philadelphia, they were outside the Village Voice coverage territory. And we did it out in Seattle. So it was extracurricular to my Voice stuff. But after doing it, I said, “Gee I’d like to do the rest [of the planets].” And seven years later they came up with more money and I wrote three more. And then two years ago they called me up and said they wanted to record it, so I wrote the rest of it. But I probably spent a total of 25 weeks working on it. Well, maybe a little more than that.
FJO: But despite the many years separating the composition of various movements, it’s remarkably consistent. You mentioned in passing that you contemplated being an astrologer, and astrology plays a big role in this piece, at least as a structural underpinning. It also feels like a culmination of sorts of your music to date. It explores a wide variety of rhythmic and harmonic terrain as well, even though it’s not microtonal.
KG: We tried. The first version of Saturn was microtonal, but everybody agreed that it sounded like a junior high orchestra. It just sounded like crap.
FJO: And you’ve come up with some really creative ways to get really complex rhythmic textures without having to reply on something strict that would have been impossible for players to do precisely. I’m thinking of Neptune, specifically, where all the players are in different tempos, but it’s written in such a way where it’s O.K., and in fact encouraged for them to deviate from synchronizing with each other.
KG: I have a blast listening to that movement because it’s different every time and I never feel like I quite know what that movement sounds like.
FJO: I’m curious about some other details in it, like why is Mercury out of order?
KG: Because I really did think first of Sun, Moon, Venus, and Mars. They make a nice little symphony. And it was very symmetrical. And I didn’t want Jupiter and Saturn next to each other, because Jupiter starts out very beautiful and ends sad, and Saturn starts out messy and horrible but ends beautiful. So I felt like there needed to be something in between. Holst didn’t write them in order, either. I just couldn’t stick it in between the Moon and Venus; it just wasn’t the right place for it.
FJO: And, of course, you have Sun and Moon, which Holst doesn’t include in his Planets, and which are not planets from an astronomic point of view. And neither of you have the Earth.
KG: The status of the Earth in astrology is not very well defined. There are actually people that use it, but it’s kind of theoretical to think about where the Earth is in position to you at any given moment. Hopefully it’s right underneath you.
FJO: Since each one of these movements is an audible musical process, would it be fair to say that this is a minimalist piece?
KG: In that sense, yes. In the ’90s, my standard way of working would be to start out with additive process and just do 1; then 1, 2; then 1, 2, 3; then 1, 2, 3, 4. In Jupiter, I changed it to 1; 1, 2; 1, 2, 3, 4; 3, 4, 5, etc. It’s still a process, but it’s not linear or predictable. Coming out of minimalism, that just seemed like sonata form. That’s how Philip Glass started everything in that period I love of his, so unless I have a better idea that’s my process. And that works for Sun and Jupiter because those are both planets that have to do with gradual increase. But the Moon is based on things going in and out of phase, which is just an expansion of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. Neptune is kind of Feldman-y, but Pluto is Bruckner.
FJO: I actually hear recent Philip Glass in Pluto, but he’s perhaps chanelling Bruckner also.
KG: We’re all chanelling Bruckner. Glenn Branca’s also a big Bruckner freak.
FJO: And you’re now orchestrating it all so it will be even more Brucknerian. But you said it’s going to sit on a shelf. So why bother doing it?
KG: Because after Feldman died somebody put all of his CDs out. I’m going to die someday and maybe somebody’ll say, “Hey look, there’s an orchestra score here.” I know a couple of people I can send it to. I’ve had “flirtations” with a couple of young orchestra conductors that have never led to anything; I don’t know how to break into that world, but I’ll try.
FJO: Posterity is obviously important to you, though.
KG: Well, the piece is not going to go very far in a version written for eight oddly picked instruments.
FJO: That’s the curse of writing for Relâche; they’re wonderful, but they’re the only ensemble with their instrumentation.
KG: And Relâche will die too someday. Relâche and I will both be dead and the piece will get somewhere faster if it’s got a more conventional instrumentation. But I realize I have to have a tenor sax in it, and nobody wants to hire a saxophonist to play in an orchestra. So that’ll kill it, but that’s O.K. I’ve also got a piece for soprano and orchestra that had an accordion, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. I have a MIDI version of it; nobody’s ever going to do that, either. It also changes tempo a lot very suddenly. [laughs]
FJO: That’s a good way to sabotage a performance. But I thought your instructions for performing Neptune was almost an admission of the fallibility of human performers. Where is the room in your mind for interpretation, or even mistakes? What separates a good performance of your music from a bad one? And what gets it to the point where performers can play a piece of yours so well that they “own” it?
KG: I have pretty broad latitude with how I think about interpretation. And this is my argument with people who think that you have to notate a score to death. Sarah Cahill plays a lot of my piano music, and she plays it absolutely beautifully. Some of it she plays more beautifully than I thought it could be played. But every now and then she and I have an argument and I’ll say, “In this section, why don’t you do it differently. And she’ll say, “No, I don’t like it that way.” And then I’ll say, “Hmm, all right.” And then to the next person I go to I’ll say, “Why don’t you do it this way?” But you know, if it doesn’t feel right to them, they won’t do it. Private Dances is now the piece of mine that gets done most often. I’ve heard tremendously different tempos and interpretations of it, and I’ve liked them all so far. There’s a Japanese pianist who did them very, very fast, which was kind of cute. But I do find that with a few of my pieces that the tempo is really essential and I can’t take any chances. Kierkegaard Walking, one of my favorite of my pieces, is a really simple piece and so people tend to do it too fast, so I put a note on there saying not a hair faster than [quarter note equals] 84.
A really great example is the Volharding performance of Sunken City. All those glissandi especially in the first movement—I didn’t write any of those in. I wanted them all—I could have stopped them if I didn’t like it, but I was more interested to see where they would put them than in putting them in myself. It even changed a little from performance to performance. I just loved that about it. I’m tempted to go back and write some of those glissandi in, but I really don’t want to. I want people to feel where they go. I’m really happy to have such a good recording of that so people will listen to it and think that’s what I wanted.
FJO: This brings us back to the whole notion of legacy. Once upon a time, most composers hoped that a publisher would take on their music and some got lucky, and that was the way scores got disseminated. Nowadays if you don’t have a publisher, you can do it yourself as you’ve done. You have most of your music on your website and people can download it from there for free. While it’s not a revenue stream, the work is available for anyone who might be interested in it which hopefully could lead to performances, etc. But what happens after you’re no longer around to maintain it? You talked about someone finding the score of your orchestral piece years from now, but who’s going to pay for the registration fees to keep the website active and who’s going to keep it current?
KG: I don’t know. I’m partly involved in an effort right now to get Roy Harris’s music out.
His children and people who are interested in his music are trying to get that. It’s always nice—it’s always a sign of how much your music means—when there are people who do something to get it out there. I have lived my life in very intimate connections with dead composers. To me Roy Harris isn’t dead and John Cage isn’t dead. I realize my music is a specialized taste, but maybe the people who will connect with it aren’t around yet. One of my favorite composers from the 19th century is Franz Berwald. I love the guy’s music; it really speaks to me. I’m glad there are just enough people out there to keep it going that I can actually get to hear it. I would not want to deny people who might feel that way about my music the same thing. You know, I love going down to Danbury and visiting Charles Ives’s grave and I’m so pissed off that John Cage got cremated. I want there to be a grave.