Warning: Self-Obsessed Post

I have nothing to say, and I’m not saying it. Or rather, I do have things to say, but not in this format for the moment. I am beginning my sabbatical, and withdrawing from the world somewhat to work on two of the most ambitious projects of my life. The more immediate is a long (hour-plus) work for three retuned Disklaviers. This will give me the opportunity, for the first time since Custer and Sitting Bull (1995-99) to combine my two great obsessions, the completely free-sounding rhythms of multitempos, and the free-sounding pitch space of microtones. (And even in Custer the rhythmic aspect was somewhat limited by performance requirements.) I tried to start the three-Disklavier piece last year, but I had initially come up with a terribly complicated scale, based on some idea of encompassing seven tonalities. I spent much of the month of August devising a better scale, and I’m finding the one I came up with (which I shall detail at a later date) extremely elegant. And according to my conception of microtonal music, if you get an interesting enough scale, you can just explore all the inherent possibilities of that scale, both the ones you built into it and the ones that appear unexpectedly, and the piece practically writes itself. In fact, all music, I insist, is the exploration of a tuning, which is why the 12tet repertoire has become so tired.

I haven’t mentioned this project partly because, based on my experiences last year, I was afraid it might prove beyond my conceptualizing ability. I’ve used as many as 37 pitches to the octave before, and here, by the fact of three pianos, I have 36. But generally, due to MIDI limitations, I only have three or maybe four octaves of pitch space, and here I have a full seven, 264 different pitches in all (88 x 3) if you disregard octave doublings! And I was having a terrible time, with the old scale, remembering which pitches were on which piano! A triad might be made up of one pitch on Piano 1, another on Piano 2, and a third on Piano 3, and there was no way to simply play a chord progression and judge its effect, I’d have to laboriously assign each pitch to the right piano and listen to them, like composing with some awkward prosthesis. But the new scale is so logical, though with a few quirks (which of course become the most playful aspect of the piece), that, after having written 15 minutes of the music, I now have the scale firmly in my head, and it’s just like composing any other microtonal piece; almost easier than most of mine, in fact, since each octave on the pianos is the same pitches as every other octave, which isn’t usually the case in my MIDI pieces.

Plus, the virtue of the scale is that it is organized such that the three pianos can be played as three separate tonalities – or, they can all be integrated into an overtone series on the central tonic of B-flat (which is not to say that, as in The Well-Tuned Piano, all the pitches are harmonics of the tonic). And I am having the time of my life exploring something that I’ve always wanted to try: just-intonation polytonality. There is a little bit of it in the “Sun Dance” movement of Custer, and I’ve got passages of 12tet bitonality in Long Night, War Is Just a Racket, and Kierkegaard, Walking, but nothing compared to what I’m able to do here. As a teenager, I was absolutely enchanted with the bitonal music of Darius Milhaud, and for decades I’ve been meaning to get back to exploring that effect. I find it difficult to pull off charmingly; Milhaud was ingenious at it, and also had an influence in that respect on Philip Glass, whose music, as he’s shown me, contains more bitonality than people suspect.

Polytonality would seem to be theoretically precluded by just intonation, in which every pitch is defined in relation to a single 1/1 tonic – thus the facile, inaccurate joke so many uninformed composers make about all of Partch’s music being in the key of G. (Might as well say all orchestra music is in A because they tune to the oboe’s A.) But in this case I have enough pitches for three separate tonalities, which, with the right relationships emphasized, can be reinterpreted as more distant reaches of a central tonality. As light can be measured either as a wave or as a particle, so the harmonies in this piece can seem incommensurably unrelated, like random pianos not tuned to each other, or as more complex harmonies in a single spectrum – and I have a continuum to move along between those extremes. It’s a fascinating way of working. And in addition to that I can set the different tonalities at different tempos, slicing up the audio surface in two dimensions at once. What I’m hearing is stretching my ears in a way they’ve never been stretched before. Maybe I’ll write a great piece, maybe a dull one, but I don’t think anyone has ever before done what I’m doing – and how many people would know better than I?

The other project will be a book on Ives’s Concord Sonata. Here again I’ve got plenty of ideas and new information, including things in the sketches that have changed my conception of how Ives wrote the piece. Musicologists have written a ton on the Concord, mostly picking out musical borrowings, both real and (in my view) imagined. But no composer has written about it at length, and no one has really attempted a harmonic or formal analysis; I’m convinced I can do it. I think I’ve figured out what harmonic plan Ives had in the back of his head. But again, it might be years before the book comes out, and I don’t want to publish details here that others might be able to get into print before I can. So it’s the depth and breadth of my projects, rather than any lack of activity, that makes blogging about them inadvisable. I don’t know why it is that my psyche seems to need to veer back and forth between creative work and scholarly work, but it is the case. They feed each other. It may seem bizarre, and it is certainly sometimes self-defeating, but it’s who I am. Perhaps that’s what I have in common with Ives, who insisted that his insurance work informed his music and vice versa.

In other news (and there seems to be less news in my life at the moment than at any time I can remember), composer George Tsontakis has made me one of his “affiliate composers” at his publishing company Poco Forte Music. At the moment the position is merely honorary, but it may result in my (self-)publishing some nicely bound editions of my scores. Nothing could be a clearer indictment of the contemporary music publishing business than that a composer as successful in the orchestral world as George is would withdraw from it and begin self-publishing. I asked for some orchestral scores for Christmas, and the only ones that were “backordered” and didn’t arrive were by a living composer – two symphonies by William Bolcom. Now why is it, that I can order symphonies by someone as widely honored and performed as Bolcom, and his publisher can’t simply mail them to me? Was there a rush on them? Bolcom symphonies a hot Christmas item? Featured on Oprah? It’s a rotten business. To sign up with a classical music publisher these days is a fool’s vanity.

More personally, I had cataract surgery a few weeks ago, and can finally see the world in focus again. Happy new year.


  1. Jonny B says

    Super excited about this three-Disklavier piece, Mr. Gann! Your Custer’s Ghost CD and related music is a longtime inspiration of mine. Along with some of Johnston’s music, it affirmed for me that it’s possible to create excellent, sincere music combining “the completely free-sounding rhythms of multitempos, and the free-sounding pitch space of microtones” (Sharing these obsessions of yours, I’ve been spoiled for “normal” music by now). Happy composing as you take this practice to yet wilder frontiers!
    P.S. I also identify with needing to veer between different sorts of work, and how they can feed each other or be at odds. Cool post.

    KG replies: Thanks, glad to hear that about Custer’s Ghost, my “lost” CD.

  2. says

    Hi Kyle,

    I’m looking forward to hearing what you compose within the system you have devised. This could really be a landmark composition. I wish you lots of inspiration on your journey through this landscape!


  3. says

    Hurrah for you, Kye Gann! I’m glad to see that you’re all fired up and working on something really ambitious. I really look forward to hearing the results, and to reading the book when it appears.
    All my best,


  4. says

    “if you get an interesting enough scale, you can just explore all the inherent possibilities of that scale, both the ones you built into it and the ones that appear unexpectedly, and the piece practically writes itself.” – That’s a wonderful way to think about composing – that you’re simply releasing inherent possibilities of a set of parameters – takes the conscious ego right out of the equation.

    Best wishes for a great sabbatical.

    KG replies: Thanks, Lyle. If I can indeed get that conscious ego out of the way, I’ll be in great shape.

  5. Alex LaFollett says

    I also discovered Milhaud in my teens. I analyzed his first string quartet about 10 years ago, and it was one of the biggest revelations for me as a composer. He’s a vastly under-appreciated composer nowadays–like Minimalists, he sadly doesn’t get much respect from most academics. The appeal, at least for me, is not just for his brilliant use of polytonal (and modal) harmonic structures, but also his efficiency with motivic material. The amount of mileage he gets out of them (especially in his early “Post-Impressionist” works) is outstanding.