Friday, July 13, 2007

Towards the Limits of Kyle Gann

My friends know I have a conflicted relationship with Kyle Gann's criticism--I think his larger music-historical conclusions can be kooky, and sometimes he'll come out with statements that are just out-and-out wrong, but I maintain that he continues to do some great services to new music, and to say the least, the Village Voice was pretty stupid to drop him. (The fantastic Robert Christgau, dropped from its pages not long thereafter, was of course the Other Shoe.) This week's postings are a case in point. First, Kyle Gann talks about a computer font someone sent him that will let him print out scores using Ben Johnston's microtonal notation (cool!); he goes on to demonstrate the possibilities of this font by using a rather soggy piece of his own composition (not cool!), and then uses the comments section to snap at readers who prefer to use another notational system (kinda weird!). Yes, it had all the unintentional self-aggrandizement and ideological infighting we've come to expect from Gann--but now he's posted again, and suddenly I can't hate on him because he's doing one of the things he does best, which is championing composers you've never heard of. E.g., helping to keep the torch lit for unsung genius Julius Eastman, and this time around, boosting Gloria Coates, likewise awesome and underrated. If you haven't heard Eastman, you need to get on that--the set of his stuff on New World is priced through the roof, but it's essential, plus Gann's accompanying essay is terrifically useful--and it's the same with Coates. I picked up one of her string-quartet discs secondhand and, well, they're exactly what Gann describes in the liner note, ear-grabbing new sonorities organized with an engaging lucidity. I'm officially addicted. Still, even here, we see the limits of Kyle Gann's resources as a critic. Quartet No. 7 ("Angels") "is a Christmas piece," says his essay, "rare within the instrumental repertoire; Schoenberg's lovely Weihnachtsmusik and John LaMontaine's fantasy on Twelve Days of Christmas are the only other examples I can think of...." Really? Is it the repertoire of Xmas pieces that is so limited, or Gann's knowledge of the literature? Just off the top of my head, I count Barber's Die Natali, Crumb's Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979, Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur, Penderecki's Symphony No. 2 ("Christmas"), and Schnittke's Stille Nacht, and those were all written in this last, atheistic century--I'm not even getting into Christmas concerti and chorale preludes. What was Gann thinking? One can only guess that--as deep as his expertise may run within his chosen specialty--outside of it, he has just a few mile-wide blind spots. Then something like this happens, and I'm reminded all over again of just how much we need him: I've just discovered a composer I'm dying to hear Gann comment on, a Lithuanian named Rytis Mažulis. Mažulis uses all those tricks Gann knows by heart--not only microtones, but also a Nancarrow-like exploitation of musical machines both figurative (audible canonic processes) and literal (clattering masses of MIDI piano). If you haven't already bought Paul Hillier's wonderful Baltic Voices 3 CD for the amazing pieces by Kaija Saariaho and Erkki-Sven Tüür, it's also got a short and lovely work by Mažulis on it, but to my knowledge, that's about the only exposure he's gotten from the classical mainstream. (One of the Gregs reminds me that he reviewed the disc here!) The fantastic Belgian label Megadisc is about to put out their third disc of Mažulis' work, and from what I've heard of the other two it should be a thrill. But who's going to give this stuff the serious attention it deserves? Who can write articulately and knowledgeably about Mažulis' techniques and influences? I'll give you a hint, it's not the P.R. people at Megadisc. Actual quote from their website:
Final Chapter of THE Rytis Mazulis Trilogy. As usual the final chapter show who is Master and who is not. This one is ... Master Mazulis !

Um, thank you, Megadisc. The liner notes themselves are only a little less ridiculous, written in a rich, purple dialect of Translationese ("The composer intuitively seeks to defeat the fatality of narrative (linear) time, explore the depths of a sound, and discover new projections of musical time and space"). But when I listen to the samples of his music at (stream the whole album before you buy--love it) I hear a composer who demands our attention. Help us, Kyle Gann!

And help me, friends & readers. Have I lost it? Am I obsessed? Am I the only person who lies awake worrying about Kyle Gann? Should I just shut up? Tell me what you think.

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Blogger Grrg said...

I'm wounded that you didn't link to my review of Baltic Voices 3. Okay, not really.

July 13, 2007 at 10:44 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Oh geez you're right I forgot! I'll fix that.

July 14, 2007 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Nico said...

Kyle Gann is fully out of control, but I think he knows it. I think he really enjoys writing about his own music (viz. a blog post from a few days ago where he writes, "I love writing about music, and I especially love writing about my own music." Indeed. He is, though, speaking from a place of True Exile; all his Cassandra-like uptown-downtown prophesizing has distracted him from being able to write music that would free him from the confines of that structure, and that is the real tragedy. Can you imagine how great his music would be if it were great? Somebody that thoughtful, online, concerned, gregarious, energetic?

July 14, 2007 at 12:04 PM  

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