Long Night – the Postclassic Review

Most of the reviews are presumably in on my CD Long Night, and as I said earlier, though complimented by the general positivity, I didn’t feel any of them exactly grasped the piece, so I thought I should maybe show how it’s done. After all, there’s no Kyle Gann out there to review me – except for Richard Taruskin, actually, who once wrote an evaluation of my work so detailed and deadly accurate, in both positive and negative points, that I changed my compositional priorities in response to it…. anyway, I decided that if I was really going to get Long Night summed up, I’d better do it myself. So watch.

Long Night is an early work – only the fourth or fifth on Gann’s worklist to later escape his “juvenilia” bag – and like many young works it inadvertently says something different from what its composer intended. Gann’s program notes for the piece, back to the original ones he wrote in 1982 for New Music America, note the influence of Martin Heidegger, with particular regard to that philosopher’s characterization of moods. For Heidegger, moods are perception-altering, and also come and go with an independence of our volition that imposes a certain nonlinearity on not only our emotions, but our very cognition of our environment. What Gann tried to do in Long Night, then, was to bring nonlinearity to a succession of musical moods – to create a moment form, in fact, a series of textural nonsequiturs in illustration of Heigegger’s description. Only, instead of the sharply intercut moment form familiar from works by Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and others, he – under the influence of ambient music – tried to create a gradual moment form, in which each texture would blur into the next.

To do this Gann fused, as young composers so often have to start by doing, two strong influences that were not terribly commensurate. The basic technique of Long Night is that of Terry Riley’s In C: three pianists play repeating figures, moving on to the next whenever they feel like it (though there are certain aural cues to be followed, to preserve the integrity of the work’s seven sections). The differences from In C are that the pianos do not play identical material, but are contrasted by tessitura; and that they are not rhythmically synchronized, which is why on the recording it is no problem for pianist Sarah Cahill to overdub all three pianos. Technically the work comes straight from Riley, but melodically and texturally it owes more to Morton Feldman and especially Harold Budd, whose slowly meandering tonality had a tremendous impact on Gann in the late 1970s. (There is also a touch of Eno, especially Music for Airports and Discreet Music: Gann’s original idea for Long Night, never fulfilled, was to have the pianists widely separated in a casual environment, providing ambience for something less formal than a concert setting.)

The problem is that over 25 minutes the Heideggerian idea becomes evident only in two places, one in particular. The first four sections are in C Dorian mode, the fifth in A major, and the last two in C# minor (the pitch A being common to all three). It is in the peculiarly sharp overlapping change from the C Dorian to A major that the Heideggerian nonlinearity suddenly asserts itself, and the essence of the piece is heard. One reviewer has pointed this out as an arbitrary-sounding weak point; actually, the correct response would be, “That’s the most interesting moment in the piece, Gann should have fulfilled its implications more throughout so that it doesn’t sound arbitrary.” A similar but less shocking change comes with the gradual move from A major to C# minor. Lacking the audacity to repeat such puzzling effects, the rest of the piece changes moods by texture but not by key, and is a little too monochrome to make its central point clear.

And so for the listener, who after all is unlikely to reinterpret the entire piece around a change that comes 4/7ths of the way into it, the piece loses its intended nonlinearity and becomes simply about mood, a single if gradually transforming mood, and secondarily about the accidental melodies that arise from the random interaction of the three pianos, which years of being steeped in Cagean thought had led Gann to accept. The In C device, creating mini-echoes among the pianos, is fertile enough to survive the lack of synchronization, and the soft, pandiatonic wash of minor scales can hardly help but be pretty – an insight that, two years later in 1983, drove Gann to veer into a more challenging, rhythmically precise idiom. Aside from the bitonal moments, the one gesture that seems like more than a reflexive response to the minimalist/ambient concerns of 1980 is the quasi-autobiographical summing up of the piece’s melodic motives at the end, in ten loud notes as the music dies away – an effect Cahill manages with grace and dignity. Yet this too is another Eno-esque touch: the isolated melodic figure as self-evident sonic icon, which Gann attempts to integrate into a structure more ambitious than Eno’s ambient vignettes.

Otherwise one can hear in the work’s inchoate, scattershot prettiness the confusion of a young generation eagerly responding to minimalism but not quite sure how to do it yet. The real legacy of Long Night is that its watery textures of bobbing notes will return two decades later in Gann’s Disklavier music, where the technology will make the problem of key changes in multitempo music much easier to negotiate.

There ya go. It’s the most negative review the disc has received, but the most intriguing because it locates the piece historically, and also the most flattering because it takes the structure seriously. You’ve got to tear into the piece with your teeth a little, and if it doesn’t survive, then it didn’t deserve to.