Things Composers Can Do


Peter Burkholder’s book All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing is my bible. In it Peter systematically outlined all the various methods and intentions with which Ives quoted and borrowed from other music. Peter worked from the manuscripts outward, and when he found a folk song penciled next to the symphonic tune Ives derived from it, Ives was caught red-handed. There were many attributed quotes in Ives that I was reluctant to think were intentional, but when Peter shows the notes in the manuscript next to the score, … [Read more...]

Justifying the Strange Artist

For forty-five years, since I was a middle-schooler in Dallas, Ives's Essays before a Sonata has been one of the most important books in my life. Lately it's become tremendously underrated. Some Ives scholars have dismissed it nearly entirely as a jumble of psuedo-intellectual bloviations. The literature about the book has mined it piecemeal, a few sentences at a time, for insights into Ives's biography, or to prove that he was highly influenced by Emerson and considered himself a Transcendentalist - or to prove the opposite. One of the themes … [Read more...]

Bob Gilmore (1961-2015)


I am stunned by the news on Facebook that musicologist and my close friend Bob Gilmore has died at age 53. He had survived a bout of cancer when I saw him two years ago in Amsterdam and London, and was physically reduced, but last I'd heard he was on the road to complete recovery. What a loss! He was not only a superb scholar (biographer of Harry Partch, anthologizer of Ben Johnston) but an incredibly irreverent spirit, incisive and fearless. I'll never forget, after corresponding with him for years, pulling into Dartington, England, on the … [Read more...]

Charles Ives as Improviser


One of the passages in my book I'm most proud of is the one in which I analyze my transcriptions of Ives's recorded performances of the Four Transcriptions from Emerson (passages of the Concord's Emerson movement that he revised to be closer to the way he played them). One of my external readers advised firmly that this chapter should be stricken from the book. That's right: for the first time, someone transcribed what actual notes Charles Ives played when he considered that he was playing Emerson, giving us a chance to see how what Ives … [Read more...]

Ruskin’s Influence on Ives

All that is currently clear is that Essays After a Sonata: Charles Ives's Concord will be delayed, as musicologists argue over whether I've flattered them enough. But they can't silence me, and as I've been chary of posting excerpts of the book for fear of getting scooped on some of my ideas, it is perhaps time to spring some of those ideas out into the world. This way you can judge the book, piecemeal, for yourselves, and savor the naughty thrill of reading a book someone doesn't want you to read. Of course, it may be - who knows? - that my … [Read more...]

Analyzing Music No Longer Allowed

One of the things my Concord Sonata book is being criticized for is that all I do is analyze the music. Apparently I'm supposed to be bringing in multidisciplinary approaches: I dunno, historiography, reception history, gender studies. Musicology has moved on from the mere analysis of music, and by analyzing a piece I must be implicitly asserting that all I care about is the glorification of Dead White Males and the Great Western Canon. I am accused of a "music in a vacuum" approach (I thought that was called music theory) - and seriously, … [Read more...]

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...]