Other Freakin’ Options Available

I like this interview with Branford Marsalis in the Seattle Weekly, and completely agree with him: You put on old records and they always sound better. Why are they better? I started listening to a lot of classical music, and that really solidified the idea that the most important and the strongest element of music is the melodic content. In jazz we spend a lot of time talking about harmony. Harmonic music tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you're in the private club with a secret handshake. I have a lot of normal friends. … [Read more...]

Perverting the Young, Microtonally

A couple of summers ago I had the odd idea of writing some simple microtonal pieces for kids, and maybe calling them "Nursery Tunes for Demented Children." I had forgotten about them (odd how often I forget pieces I've written) and ran across them today, found I had completed two. I had been wanting to use some complex scales in a simple context, and maybe also thought that if kids were exposed at a tender age to something other than the 12-pitch scale they might grow up as weird as I am. Here they are: Down to the End of the Town Tiger, … [Read more...]

A Necessity Outlived

This is a rather idle comment, so don't take it too seriously and get all outraged. I'm sitting here putting in, and fixing, footnotes in my book. I try to put them in as I'm first writing, but sometimes I write one from memory and don't pause to look it up; or I find it in another book and don't have the original book to look it up in; or I'm quoting something I had used in a less scholarly publication; or I'm just on a tear and don't want to pause for footnotes. So I'm making a final pass, and I see an incomplete footnote. It's from a book I … [Read more...]

I Mingle with Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian (Whoever They Are)


Well, I don't know how he did it or who got paid what, but David First somehow got me mentioned in People magazine. It's in connection with his Star Ballads band that my son Bernard plays in, and someone thought People readers would gain some kind of helpful context from knowing that Bernard is the son of a theory professor. That does it. Now I'm going to get David's name in The Journal of Music Theory.   … [Read more...]

Shucks, It Weren’t Nothin’


Amazing to say, Bard College has been ranked number one school in the country by the Princeton Review on the criterion of student satisfaction with classroom experiences, and as this reflects directly on me and my 200-and-something colleagues, I thought I'd trumpet it. We also ranked high on "Most Liberal Students" and "Most Accessible Professors," and it's true. I'm really, really accessible. The students sometimes wish we'd go away and quit hovering over them. The photo provided is across campus from me on "Stone Row." They teach biology, or … [Read more...]

Gann Sings at Glimmerglass

A week from tomorrow, August 9 at 10 AM, I'll be delivering a lecture on American opera at the Glimmerglass Festival. It's a favorite subject of mine, and one I rarely get to talk or write much about. Other professors than myself teach copiously about opera at Bard, and one dream course I've never ventured is a completely non-overlapping one on experimental American opera: Virgil Thomson, Harry Partch, Robert Ashley, Philip Glass, Mikel Rouse, maybe Cage's Europeras. But then I start thinking how reluctant I'd be to omit Copland's The Tender … [Read more...]

Inventing an America

I have no idea why I plan out dream courses I could teach, when it's the middle of the summer. One of my great regrets (there are so many) is that I've never taught an American music course. It just doesn't fit our curriculum. To do it the way I want to, it really ought to be a graduate seminar somewhere, because I'd want to get into Riegger's Study in Sonority and the Becker Third and Martirano's L'sGA, which I can't do if they don't know who Ives is yet. I taught a History of the Symphony once and I'll never do that again because it was waaay … [Read more...]

The Composer as Cripple

...alias, Musicology as Schadenfreude. Poor Charles Ives. He never got over his father's death, and kept trying to fill in the gap. He was driven to keep using certain tunes and instruments in his music because they reminded him of George. He kept pretending that he'd learned more from his father than from his college teacher Horatio Parker. Unlike most composers, Ives couldn't make up his own tunes anyway, so he'd find one and rearrange it until no one could recognize it. He never knew what he really wanted. He claimed that he didn't need … [Read more...]

Trusting Your Material

One of the fascinating things about going through Ives's manuscripts has been getting a feel for his composing method. I'm not likely to become an expert on it, because I'm only dealing with the piano sonatas, and I have more to do with the rest of my life than decipher Ives's creaky handwriting, as others have heroically been doing. But I have found interesting patterns. Early sketches for the First Sonata are more revealing than for the Concord, which is one reason I'm analyzing it too. There's an early sketch for the First Sonata, dated … [Read more...]

Ives the Primitive as Straw Man

Essays After a Sonata is in publishable form, and I’ve got six weeks left to think and rewrite, and think and rewrite, and reread other books and think and rewrite, which is just how I wanted it. And now I have to decide how and whether to address what’s bothered me about most of what’s been written about Charles Ives in the last thirty years. Maybe writing about it here will show me how not to write about it in the book, which is something this blog is sometimes good for. At some point in the 1980s, all the musicologists started trying to … [Read more...]

Symphonic Milestone

Today is not only the 197th birthday of Henry David Thoreau, but the milestone 60th birthday of the composer (and my good friend) Robert Carl. His Fourth Symphony is on my web site if you'd like to celebrate. (Be warned, the beginning is very soft.) … [Read more...]

Reunion Anxiety


I've been sitting on the scoop that the black metal band Liturgy is indeed reuniting for a new tour and record, but Pitchfork broke the news. That's Bernard Gann in the back, I think, though with enough hair he and Greg Fox can look almost indistinguishable. Bernard's other band (or rather, one of his other bands) Guardian Alien was interviewed by High Times magazine back in May, but for some reason it was only in the paper magazine, and never appeared on the internet. … [Read more...]

Composer Casualties

I'm kind of fascinated by the First World War, which I think of as a catastrophe unparalleled for its combination of massive scale and utter pointlessness. I particularly recommend Adam Hochschild's book To End All Wars, one of the most fascinating history books I've ever read; and Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is a film I can always watch again, as is Paul Gross's Passchendaele. I'm commemorating the centennial of the war's inception by listening to music of George Butterworth (1885-1916), who, as far as I know, was the most well-known … [Read more...]