Part of a Targeted Audience for Once


At Robert Carl's urging I finally read Richard Powers's novel Orfeo. He told me it was a lifelike novel about a composer, but it's more than that: I think just to understand the novel you'd have to be a composer, or at least an inveterate new-music fan, because the contemporary music references fly thick and fast. One whole long scene takes place within a played recording of Steve Reich's Proverb. The protagonist, Richard Els, is a composition professor who studied at the University of Illinois in the 1960s, and actual people I knew like Ben … [Read more...]

The Mission Creep of Peer Review

I was recently at a reception where I found myself among three other authors who had written admirable, major books on American music. Every one of them said he or she was thinking about putting their next book on the internet, specifically to avoid the peer-review process. I empathized completely. I’m going through it now with my Concord Sonata book, and I’m committed to it one more time, for my Arithmetic of Listening book with U. of Illinois Press, and, because microtonalists are so argumentative, I’m already dreading that ordeal. It’s … [Read more...]

Easier than Literature

From Bernard Shaw's January 25, 1893, review of Dame Ethel Smyth's Mass in D: Whenever I hear the dictum, "Women cannot compose," uttered by some male musician whose whole endowment, intellectual and artistic, might be generously estimated as equivalent to that of the little finger of Miss Braddon or Miss Broughton, I always chuckle and say to myself, "Wait a bit, my lad, until they find out how much easier it is than literature, and how little the public shares your objection to hidden consecutives, descending leading notes, ascending … [Read more...]

Words I’ve Waited to Read My Whole Life

From one of the anonymous readers' reviews of my Concord Sonata book: There was a time when scholars would have dismissed an informal, personal tone for a work of scholarship, but I believe that those days are gone. Frankly, Gann has earned some license to write in whatever style he prefers. And even when the prose is technical and dense, it is a model of clarity. It is ludicrous how difficult it has been to advance in academic circles the principle that clear, unpretentious, readable prose, even in the discussion of technical topics, … [Read more...]

Just Sayin’

The news is so disgusting these days I try not to follow it. But I have followed the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, MO, closely. Because we are all Michael Brown. UPDATE: Look, before anyone else writes in, I did not mean to say that we are all literally Michael Brown. I, for instance, am Kyle Gann. But in 2004, some of my students peacefully protested the election and were physically harassed by the cops, one girl pushed to the ground and injured for having "stepped over the white line in the street." Some local cops pulled a gay gentleman … [Read more...]

Creating Worlds, Including Liturgical Ones


Composer Andrew Violette came to Bard to give a composer's forum last week. I'd followed his music via CDs for years and we'd corresponded, but I'd never met him. He's known for some really long, intense pieces, such as his three-hour-long Seventh Piano Sonata, which I wrote about years ago. He looks less tough in person than he does in his photos, and he spent several years as a Benedictine monk. He wanted to play something live, and since he hadn't written anything for piano since that 2001 sonata, he chose to play half of a book of chorale … [Read more...]

Quixotic Application of Dots to Paper

I wrote a symphony. It came to pass in this wise. I visited my friend Robert Carl at Yaddo. He was telling me his plans for his next two symphonies, one of which would be an orchestration of a two-piano piece he had written. I replied that I had a two-piano piece myself, in five movements (Implausible Sketches) that I think of as an unorchestrated symphony. He said I should arrange it for orchestra. I replied, Nah, I wouldn’t do that. The next morning I woke up obsessed with the certainty that I needed to make an orchestral version of … [Read more...]

Offspring on the Small Screen

This is late notice, but my son is supposedly on television tonight. His black metal band Liturgy is being used in the plot of the cop show The Blacklist, the episode featuring Peter Fonda as guest star. Fonda supposedly appears as a drummer in the band. No idea yet whether they'll be on for 10 seconds or three minutes, but they filmed. I don't have TV reception, so somebody please know what happened if you watch it. Thanks. [UPDATE:] Well, somebody noticed, anyway. … [Read more...]

Hiring Criteria

One of my students decided not to apply to a certain grad school because it had too many white men with dreadlocks in one department. I agreed that that was probably indicative of a certain aesthetic narrowness.   … [Read more...]

Free to not Understand


I am in receipt of James Klosty's handsome new coffee-table volume John Cage Was, a book of photographs of John Cage, many of them rare and unseen before, all of them telling. For the margins Klosty asked a lot of people connected with Cage to write descriptions of him of a hundred words or less, using the words "John Cage was...." For those who are unlikely to shell out for the book, here's what I wrote: John Cage was the figure who, for thousands of musicians, opened the door to the world beyond rationality. By introducing us to the I Ching, … [Read more...]

Fear of Learning

The faculty is once again rethinking the distribution requirements, the obstacle course of varied classes every student has to take to make sure they all have a more well-rounded education than I do. So we're having meetings about how to pitch courses to non-majors. I enjoy these. My colleagues in literature, the sciences, and the social sciences are so brilliant, so eloquent and thoughtful, that I've come to realize that I'm not all that smart - I'm just really smart for a musician. Today they asked what one thing I would want a … [Read more...]

Superficial Perceptions Are Permanent

"[Composer Rinaldo Di Capua] thinks composers have nothing to do now but to write themselves and others over again, and the only chance they have for obtaining the reputation of novelty or invention must arise either from the ignorance or want of memory in the public - as everything both in melody and modulation that is worth doing has already been done over and over again." - Charles Burney, Music, Men, and Manners in France and Italy, 1770 It's every bit as true now as it was then.   … [Read more...]

Zut Alors!


I am told that my copy of the French translation of No Such Thing as Silence - titled No Silence: 4'33" de John Cage (Allia Editions) - is in the mail. UPDATE: The French edition, which has arrived, is very classy, and is decorated with hundreds of photos of Cage, Tudor, Rauschenberg, Coomaraswamy, and others that weren't in the more austere American edition. Perhaps I should just publish my Ives book in French, they seem to have the money.   … [Read more...]