New Clothes for Custer

I write for nonexistent orchestras, peopled by superhumans. I need pitches and harmonies beyond the scope of current acoustic instruments, fingered in rhythms no musician can count. And so, despite a dearth of training in the field, despite a lack of talent for the technology, I am driven to make electronic music that will not be considered electronic music by electronic composers. My music argues its way into a no-man’s land in which even the simple category of medium is denied it: it exists entirely as a digital soundfile, but it is, by universal consensus, not electronic music. There is no side-stepping this dilemma – but I have finally found a solution for it. I can’t produce my music alone, but I can collaborate with people who have finer control over the technology than I do. I can supply the pitches and rhythms – the meaning, the content – and leave the coloring, the timbre, to someone else.

custer37u.jpgAnd so Mike Maguire and I have completely remade my one-man music theater piece Custer and Sitting Bull. Mike (whose composing name is M.C. Maguire) is not only one of the most surprising and innovative composers around, but an expert commercial sound engineer with broad experience in commercials and film. So I gave him the MIDI files and some general pointers, and he’s completely refitted the piece with new sounds, from the ground up – we got together in Toronto to go over the results with a fine-tooth comb. Mike’s sounds are indeed grittier, livelier, more energetic than the ones Dale Hourlland and I had once coaxed out of 1999 technology, but – what’s most important to me – they feel as supple and definite to perform with. I hope this stills some of the complaints I get about my electronic timbres, and if not, that’s the end of the line – my music is not for everyone. It’s my observation that some people are so attuned by pop music that they can listen only to production, to the extent that distinctions of syntax escape them if unorthodox production values get in the way. And then, to people reluctant to bend their ears to it, microtonal music will always sound simply out-of-tune, and the strangeness gets projected onto other elements as well.

This is no apology, for none is needed. Mike did a fantastic and creative job, amplifying effects beyond my ability to conceive of electronically, and even making suggestions that tightened up the syntax. I wish I could hire him for many more such projects, but he’s got his own unutterably complex music to write. Here are the new versions for you to give a listen to:

Custer: “If I Were an Indian…” (8:42)

Sitting Bull: “Do You Know Who I Am?” (8:17)

Sun Dance / Battle of the Greasy-Grass River (7:59)

Custer’s Ghost to Sitting Bull (10:04)

And if you want, you can compare them to the old ones (originally issued on Monroe Street), below. I’d be curious how much change people think there is:

Custer: “If I Were an Indian…” (8:42)

Sitting Bull: “Do You Know Who I Am?” (8:17)

Sun Dance / Battle of the Greasy-Grass River (7:59)

Custer’s Ghost to Sitting Bull (10:04)

Also, the Monroe Street version was recorded before I had performed the piece live. After some three dozen or so performances, I think I intone the text much better in the new version. Program notes and texts are here, and recently, without mentioning it, I uploaded as a PDF the entire 322-page MIDI score, which you can find here – though it’s 146 MB in size, and a hell of a long download. (You can still get a bound hard-copy score from Frog Peak for only $20, and it’ll be a lot more convenient.) Though I wrote it between 1995 and ’99, I still consider it my most ambitious and successful piece, at least in terms of integrating the harmonic and rhythmic sides of my musical language. I’ll be giving the world premiere of this new version October 9 in Amsterdam, at the Karnatic Lab.


  1. says

    The first thing that jumps out at me is the voice — not the delivery, but the way it’s recorded and treated. In the new version, it sits much more easily in the mix, like it belongs with the music instead of being superimposed on it.
    I love the effect used on the words “If I were an Indian” — that feels like much more of a “moment” in the new version. Mike has done some great work here, no question.

  2. mclaren says

    Your music is electronic music, and excellent electronic music. The claim that any synthesized sounds which imitate or borrow from the timbres of conventional acoustic instruments somehow magically render themselves “illegitimate” or “not real electronic music” remains a canard so infantile and so meretricious that there hardly exist words in the english language to debunk such unbelievable tripe.
    Don’t believe me: listen to John R. Pierce, one of the co-invenntors of computer music: “I find myself becoming irritated at criticisms of computer music which imitates the timbres of the orchestra. All types of timbres should be used in computer music. That’s the entire point of the medium.”
    This also points to a previously untapped resource for musical collaboration — online MIDI files. It baffles me that more composers don’t put their MIDI or Csound files online and give others free rein to orchestrate ’em. As we all known, Ravel and Stravisnky worked wonders with orchestrations of various classical pieces, Respighi did great work in orchestrating reniassance dances and lute pieces, and more recently Yvar Mishakoff’s ensemble worked miracles orchestrating some of Conlon Nacarrow’s studies for player piano and playing ’em live.
    Why not let a thousand flowers bloom? Why not put MIDI files online and let anyone re-orchestrate ’em? I betcha some wonderful collaborative pieces would result.
    Of course, this opens up even further possibilities for xenharmonists. Once a MIDI file gets put online, it can not only be re-orchestrated…but retuned. Ivor Darreg called this process of playing a piece in a different tuning “transfer,” and he used to deliberately play some of his 19-equal guitar pieces in 31 equal and vice veras to show the differences. Limitless possibilites present themsleves to the adventurous composer by making the move into electronic music…yet the so-called “serious” music establishment persists in treating ’em as though they don’t exist. As though a score represents what a piece of music IS…as though a tuning were graved in brass, rather than written on water, and changeable at the touchof a button on your computer softsynth or synthesizer module.
    This undoubtedly explains the total neglect of the greatest living American composer, William Schottstaedt, since his music often uses imitative timbres — though it also makes use of mutating and transforming timbres, such as the bird chirps which morph into chimes in Colony V. And yes, it’s all microtonal.
    KG replies: Well, yeah, I agree, but wasn’t going to say so. (Thanks.)

  3. bill says

    I bought the old one back in the day and for whatever reason, in the new one the microtuning/just intonation is way more obvious and enjoyable. Strangely enough, I remember being somewhat confused by the last one, expecting it to bend my brain more than it did; I thought ‘hmm, maybe this just intonation isn’t so out there after all’. But this is more what I had hoped the older version would be- the harmonies and tunings are much more mind-bending and clear. And paradoxically easier to forget in favor of just enjoying it as a piece of music. Maybe high resolution tuning requires a sort of minimum ante in sound/timbre quality just to be apparent to the casual listener.
    KG replies: I admit, I was struck from the beginning of working with Mike at how the tunings came across as slightly more distinct with these sounds.

  4. says

    I’m glad you enjoy the ‘new clothes’ for Custer, but this new version doesn’t have any more or less authenticity for me than the original realization. I don’t like the music any more or less than before, but I do enjoy the performances differently. I see it more analogous to an amateur performance and one created by practiced professionals. The only sticking point would be if a realization were so off the mark that it obscures the work in some way and I don’t see that with Custer in either case.

    It’s interesting though to think of a day when a commonplace performance of an electronic work could be differentiated by who remixed or realized the piece. Certainly not a new thing in other genres of music. The ‘performer’ would be the one manipulating the music much as Mike did. It makes me think in quite a different light of Brian Eno’s idea of the studio as a musical instrument.

    KG replies: Thanks, Scott, I was rather hoping someone would see it that way.

  5. says

    I think it makes a big difference how a MIDI file is realized. Steve Layton took it upon himself to realize a MIDI file of mine, and it has some differences from my own realization that makes Steve’s version distinct and as valid as any other. Indeed, I still toy with the idea of posting all my MIDI or Finale files so that anyone could realize his or her own version, just as with any performance/interpretation.

  6. m c maguire says

    ‘Custer’ was a rewarding challenge. The two biggest hurdles were the piece used micro- tuning and it was originally conceived on a Proteus (where any given preset is 8 ½ octaves—the span of Kyle’s flute part).
    In general, to make micro-tuning work, all the instruments have to be balanced and panned properly in the same sonic space/room and none of the instruments can be multi-timbral (the multiple partials will obscure the original effect of the harmonic values.) Having said this, I doubled all the traditional instruments (flute, oboe, bassoon) with homemade, ethno counterparts to remove some of the’ dead in the water’ effect of midi, and hopefully give it a more dream-like quality–as if they were the lost instruments of North America.
    Without the most recent Vienna Symphony Library, the timbres here sometimes are still a problem, but the sounds had to be compatible with the micro tuning capability of Kontakt 2. All the synth sounds in the original I turned into ‘real’ 19thC indigenous instruments like acoustic guitars, bagpipes, honky-tonk pianos etc. There were no synths at Custer’s last stand. I only use synths just for re-enforcing background pads and drones.
    On the engineering side, I replaced Kyle’s voice of God in the original with him sitting just in front of the ensemble. All the parts are panned, EQed, compressed, reverbed and mixed into a ‘synthetic depth reality’ where all aspects of the score are amplified/clarified. A more seasoned producer/engineer with better gear could have done a better job, but then you’re in the big bucks.
    Respectfully, most midi data produced by midi instruments (a lot of computer music) is unlistenable. It’s like playing a Beethoven sonata without rhythmic, tempo, timbral, or dynamic nuance. Any film, TV or commercial composer knows there are a million tricks to make midi/electronics sing (another reason for the classical music brain/ear drain —but that’s another topic). For them, The two sonic models are the symphony orchestra and a well-produced rock band, the latter being the pinnacle of all music production (not referring to content). But classical composers are not trained to listen to timbral surface (unless it is traditional instruments), just content. This why most classical electronic music has been marginalized—it just doesn’t sound very good (not to mention its’ post-serial, wanker content). Whereas all commercial music (which is mostly electronic in some way) sounds great. This is only because the composer/producer/engineer have done the hours in the studio.
    Just as commercial composers have great distain for Art Music, teaching composition, or starvation and garret living etc., classical composers, in their holy robes, just can’t hear movie cues, ‘CSI ‘or’24’ or their kids’ music. We live in a po-mo age and there is a lot to learn from one another.

  7. Joe says

    How about re-doing the first 3 tracks: Fractured Paradise, How Miraculous Things Happen, and Superparticular Woman? They are among my favorites.
    KG replies: Thanks – I’m starting to work on it, at least the first two.

  8. says

    The new arrangement doesn’t change how I feel about the composition, I’ve always thought it was pretty amazing. But I do like the new sounds.
    I don’t see any point in retuning it, that would change it too much. It wouldn’t be a Gann piece any more. People that want to retune an existing microtonal piece should be writing their own music.
    KG replies: Thanks, David. Don’t worry, no one’s talking about changing the tuning. It’s interesting, though, how different some of the tuning *sounds* when you change the timbres.

  9. Jonathan Webster says

    This is such an impressive work and I can hear many definite improvements in the newer version, though I have to admit I’m having a hard time listening to the piece comfortably at the 128 bitrate. Are you considering a way of making this available on CD yet?
    KG replies: Thanks, Jonathan. Yes, I’m hoping to get it on CD, but I need another 35 minutes of material, and that’s going to involve more of the same kind of production. I’m starting to feel like a filmmaker, for whom shooting and editing the film is just the first part, and the last part involves lots of money.

  10. says

    “Don’t worry, no one’s talking about changing the tuning.”
    I was referring to the previous comments about retuning MIDI files by mclaren.
    KG replies: Ah. It gets difficult to keep all these threads in one’s mind.

  11. says

    Man, Kyle this sounds awesome. I’ve only listened to about five minutes… the last five minutes of Do You Know Who I Am? – which was my favorite moment in the entire piece. while i enjoyed the original quite a bit, this brings alot of the instrumentation to life and the more natural treatment of the voice makes it easier to digest as oration/opera/recitation… whereas there was an omniscient sort of god-feeling in the vocals on the older recording.
    i can’t help but admire how well you, seeming unwittingly, capture west coast gangster rap in is golden age with Do You Know Who I Am? i am surprised you haven’t been sampled already. its a perfect hook.
    i look forward to listening closely to these and rediscovering this piece now… in a slightly (yea, ever so slightly) more mature state. thank you!

  12. says

    lieber Kyle,
    with the exception of the hammered dulcimer replacing the flutes in the introduction to “custer’s ghost to sitting bull”, who could pass up the bluntness of the first verion? i suppose i prefer the original version for all of its parallel anachronisms, and just plain WEIRD juxtapositions: the already “out” tunings against against the post-80’s synths against your reverbed-out god-voice. it’s irresistible. i hope this is no indication of you having sold out, Alter.
    KG replies: No, I think the evidence of my having sold out is probably to be found elsewhere. Thanks, though, Daniel.