Music in the Prison’s Shadow

I still have a couple of full days this week, but the bulk of my school work came to an abrupt halt last night, giving me today my first chance to breathe in weeks. Except for their orchestral performances this Friday, my seniors are pretty much packed off into the world to start figuring out, come Sunday, what they’re going to do with their lives. 

I didn’t get a chance to write about the contemporary music festival at Sam Houston State University at which I was the featured composer. I spent several days that week on the street that Kate Winslet runs up, trying to forestall Kevin Spacey’s execution, in the film The Life of David Gale. I highly recommend the movie, and the surprise ending is too good to tell you much about it. It’s about the Texas prison system, and the “walls” unit at Huntsville, Texas, where prisoners are executed and where the ending of the movie takes place, is two short blocks from the SHSU music school. A few years ago in real life, someone on death row shot a guard, escaped, and hijacked a car being driven by the music department’s piano tuner, holding her hostage for a few hours. She’s reportedly still in therapy about it. (Puts Bard’s inconveniences in perspective, I guess.) At 1:55 in the film you can see a corner of the music building behind Kate Winslet as she’s running – unfortunately, I forgot to take my camera, and can’t give you a comparison shot. I got kind of a kick out of it, and also out of the excellent local barbecue.
Also from the honor and the performances, highlights of which came from John Lane’s superb Percussion Ensemble, which played all three of my Snake Dances on one concert; and from my old friend Rob Hunt, who was among my inner circle at Skyline High School in Dallas (back when it was the arts magnet school), and who now teaches piano and accompanying at SHSU. I also enjoyed meeting SHSU composers Brian Herrington, Carlo “Vini” Frizzo, Kyle Kindred, John Crabtree, and Trent Hanna, who had pieces performed. All are considerably younger than me (while at 54 I’m still the youngest composer at Bard), and it was refreshing to spend a few days among young music professors with new initiatives and ideas. It’s quite an active and varied music scene down there – and I found it similar to music schools in the 1970s midwest in terms of being very stylistically open-minded. It’s so ridiculous, in 2010, to be otherwise.
As a result of that and other events, I’ve got a spate of new recordings up on my web site. While I was in Texas, John Kennedy conducted my orchestra piece The Disappearance of All Holy Things from this Once So Promising World at Oberlin, creating my first usable recording of that piece; and at Ball State guitarist Derek Johnson made a nice studio recording of my electric guitar quartet Composure (with Collin Marone, Zachary Barr, and Andrew Cowling). From SHSU I got a recording of the premiere of Snake Dance No. 3 and a couple of early songs no one had ever sung before (Jacklyn Kuklenz and Rebecca Costillo, singers). So here’s some 38 minutes of new recordings:

Snake Dance No. 3 (11:29)
Composure  (13:43)
The Disappearance of All Holy Things (11:38)
I Slept and Dreamed that Life Was Beauty (1:45)
In the Busy Streets (0:43)

The final two songs, with texts by Ellen Sturgis Hooper and Henry David Thoreau respectively, are from a projected song cycle of Transcendentalist songs that I never got very far with. Their stylistic anachronism may seem puzzling; I was much taken, at one point, with Ezra Pound’s concept of setting poetry to music as a species of literary criticism, and I always tried to fit the music to the style and milieu of the poem. 
I didn’t finish the song cycle, though, because it is difficult to get singers to give time to new repertoire, and as a student I had absorbed Cage’s advice about never writing a piece without a performance prospect in mind. He had seen Adolph Weiss become bitter because he had produced so many scores that never got premiered, and he advised young composers not to fall into this trap. I took the advice perhaps too seriously, and have almost never written anything without setting up in advance the means of its performance. I’m changing my mind about this. If there’s anything I’m bitter about today, it might be the pieces I thought of writing and never did because no performance opportunity ever came up. Instead, when faced with a commissionless period I wrote only Disklavier pieces and electronic ones I could perform myself. I think I’m not going to limit myself this way anymore. After all, performances aren’t everything; they’re often disappointing (though the ones above are lovely), the recording doesn’t come out well, the critic doesn’t show up and if he does the reviews are stupid or meaningless, and I get sufficiently excited from hearing the music in my head and knowing what I’ve achieved. Anyway, I’ll be spending the first part of the summer writing a string quartet for which I do have a performance lined up, and afterward I’m thinking of embarking on some more quixotic projects. I may even set to music a few of those poems I never got around to.


  1. Dan says

    Beautiful. The Disappearance of All Things Holy I especially loved. Thank you.
    Seems the link for Composure is the same as that for Disappearance though. Curious about the electric guitar ensemble.
    KG replies: Thanks for the Disappearance appreciation. I’ve always resented that that piece has gotten so little attention (partly because I didn’t have a decent recording).

  2. says

    Thanks, Kyle, it’s great to have a new crop of Gann to listen to. I have to tell you, though, that the links for “Composure” and “The Disappearance of All Holy Things” both point to the same file (Disappearance.mp3).
    KG replies: Thanks, Dave, fixed it.

  3. Steve Baker says

    Oh my goodness Composure!
    I went and found the score on your website and am already in the process of harassing other guitarists at Hofstra University to see if I can’t get a quartet together to play it in the fall/spring.
    So good!
    KG replies: Thanks, Steve! Blogging one’s music pays off again!

  4. GB says

    According to Cage himself, in his 1976 interview with Jeff Goldberg, it was his own teacher Adolph Weiss whose bitterness over not having his pieces played that caused Cage to decide that his task was only half-completed when a composition had not been performed. Finney could have been bitter, too, but his bitterness probably didn’t influence Cage.
    KG replies: Damn, there are two similar stories about Weiss and Finney, and I always mix them up. I’ll fix it.

  5. Ciprian says

    I’m happy to hear a new recording of “Composure”. Although, I have to say, the old one appeals to me much more. Still a great performance though.
    KG replies: The old one had its points, but it started at less than 2/3 tempo, and I had speeded up the recording considerably.

  6. Allan J. Cronin says

    Thanks for the new recordings. Always a pleasure to read your blog (and other writings as well). I tend to agree with you that one sometimes needs to write music even without a performance in mind. It’s fulfilling for me to complete a piece of music. It would be great to get a performance but the act of composing gives me some solace just by itself.
    BTW, can’t wait to see your Robert Ashley book.

  7. Noelle Springer says

    The new recordings are wonderful! Thank you so much for putting them up, they are a great listen! I have really enjoyed reading your blogs!
    Distinguished Concerts International New York would like to bring to your attention our upcoming concerts for June. If any of them are of interest to you, please feel free to contact us, we would like to offer you two complimentary tickets!
    Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 8:00pm, Stern Auditorium/ Perelman Stage, Carnegie Hall
    Eric Whitacre’s Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings (concert version – New York Premiere)
    Friday, June 18,2010 at 8:00pm, The Allen Room/Jazz at Lincoln Center
    Spirit Journey with Darcy Reese and Robert Robinson
    Sunday, June 27, 2010 at 2:00pm, Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
    Psalms and Songs – Bernstein Chichester Psalms and Music of Franck, Holst and Others