Countries with Sexier Composers than Us

OK, kids, gather around, it's time for Uncle Kyle to continue your education in Serbian music. I've already told you about Ljubica Maric (1909-2003), who was the country's leading modernist composer of the early 20th century, and the only woman to occupy that position in her country's culture. Nor will I repeat what I said there about Stevan Stojanovic Mokranjac (1856-1914), the country's leading musical patriarch and composer of traditional choral music.Instead, I'm going to start with an unknown composer I'm totally fascinated by: Ksenija … [Read more...]

The Damage We Do

BELGRADE - Everyone here's been very nice to me, but my first lecture happened to fall on the 11th anniversary of the onset of the NATO (mostly American) aerial bombardment of Belgrade, which a few people mentioned. 3.24 is their 9.11 - except that the bombardment lasted 78 days. The city runs sirens at noon every year to commemorate the day. Professional people - authors, musicians, scholars - have told me stories of huddling in their basements, their knees giving way from fear, making their way to the grocery store through the rubble of … [Read more...]

Well, Damn If It Ain’t Sort of Blue After All

Ba da da da dum (bum, bum - bum, bum):In case you didn't get the onomatopoeia, that's the blue, or grayish-blue, Danube. It begins at Donaueschingen ("fount of the Danube") in Germany, and, unusually for a European river (they mostly flow north or south), flows eastward into the Black Sea. In the 1770s, ur-musicologist Charles Burney sailed down it to document musical activity in eastern Europe. Me, I'm currently lecturing at the University of the Arts of Belgrade. Half of the students I've met are doing projects in American music (Gershwin, … [Read more...]

A Man Grown Silent in the Praise of God

The Dessoff Choir's March 6 performance of my Transcendental Sonnets, based on poems by the Transcendentalist poet Jones Very and conducted by James Bagwell, is now up on my web site:1. The Son2. Enoch3. Love4. Faith5. The WordI thought it was the best ensemble performance I've had in my life. (It's the two-piano version, not the orchestral version.) … [Read more...]

A Rolling Stone…

This weekend I'll be in Ottawa, Canada, for the conference of the Society for American Music. Sunday morning I'm chairing a panel on experimental music theater with respect to Cage and Berio. Then Monday I fly to Serbia, where I'll be lecturing about my music and American music in general at the University of the Arts at Belgrade for a couple of weeks. I'm sure I'll be blogging about that, and posting photos. Never been there before, but I have a bunch of Serbian musicologist friends I'll be glad to see. Meanwhile, on Saturday of next week … [Read more...]

Floating in Free Pitch Space

Microtonal theorist Timothy Johnson, of whose theoretical skills and even more his work ethic I stand in awe, has sent me the MIDI file he made of the first 30 measures of the final movement of Ben Johnston's Seventh String Quartet, of which I wrote in my last post. At 2:41, this represents about a sixth of the third movement, which must total 16 minutes. I can't listen to it enough: exotic consonances floating in a totally free, gridless pitch space. This is truly the music of the distant future. He made the file with piano sounds, since MIDI … [Read more...]

The Mount Everest of String Quartets

One of the best things the Microtonal Weekend at Wright State University did for me was initiate me into familiarity with Ben Johnston's Seventh String Quartet. Written in 1984, the piece has never been played. It has a reputation as being the most difficult string quartet ever written. Timothy Ernest Johnson of Roosevelt U. gave a paper analyzing the third movement (his doctoral dissertation is on the entire work and also Toby Twining's Chrysalid Requiem), and for the first time I learned exactly wherein that difficulty consists. If you know … [Read more...]

Faux pas-ing my way into history

A former student reports meeting a young Southern belle in North Carolina, mentioning John Cage to her, and having her respond, "Oh, didn't he write some kind of opera about Sitting Bull?"  I'm going to speculate she was a student at Lenoir-Rhyne College when I performed Custer down there about eight years ago. Of course, what's important about a name is how many letters it has, so, John Cage, Kyle Gann, Carl Orff, Arvo Pärt, Alex Ross, whatever. I wrote The Planets so people would mistakenly buy my CD thinking it was Holst, but I'm equally … [Read more...]

Regarding Ben

You can't make a living giving keynote addresses, but through repetition you can become proficient enough at them to take them in stride. Here's my keynote address honoring my teacher Ben Johnston, for the Microtonal Weekend at Wright State University, organized by composer and microtonal cellist Franklin Cox: * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Charles Ives once fantasized about "some century to come, when the school children will whistle popular tunes in quarter-tones." It has long seemed to me that when I hear people … [Read more...]

Keeping the Score

The other day I heard a music publisher inveigh against composers who post their scores for free as PDFs on their web pages. I am one of that tribe. His argument, which was new to me and interested me, was that those composers pose unfair competition to the composers whose scores are published, and thus cost money. I have trouble crediting this argument. As much as I'd love to think that my music has an inside track because people can get the scores for free, it's difficult for me to believe that any performer or ensemble ever makes a … [Read more...]

Reality Beyond Imagination

A composer imagines a piece of music in its entirety. Many decent performances don't quite recreate the piece as one heard it in his imagination. Sometimes one gets really lucky, and a performance exactly matches a piece as the composer heard it in his inner ear. A few times in a composer's life, a performance goes beyond what one's heard in his imagination. Not only is every detail of the notation heard in acoustic reality, but immanent structures within the piece are brought out, exaggerated as it were, and the composer hears and becomes … [Read more...]

The Joe Biden of Ivesiana

Today I was voted vice-president of the Charles Ives Society. My term officially begins July 1. This is the highest peak to which I have ever acceded in electoral politics, and the highest I ever expect to attain. I harbor no presidential aspirations. Aside from state funerals, ship christenings, and the like, I imagine my role as vice-president being to shoot my mouth off in wild public misstatements from which the new president, scholar Gayle Sherwood Magee, will be forced to tactfully distance herself. No other candidate, I'm sure you'll … [Read more...]