Kyle Gann‘s interest in the microtonal has been evident at least since his opera Custer and Sitting Bull (1997-99). Many will be familiar with his justly famed monograph on Conlon Nancarrow’s player piano works. Given that history this release seems almost inevitable, a series of works (or perhaps it is one big work) written for 3 computer controlled pianos tuned to his 33 note scale based on the harmonics of the E flat scale.
This is also hardly Gann’s first foray into the world of the player piano (as it was called in a different age). His 2005 Nude Rolling Down an Escalator album contains some of his etudes for this computer controlled instrument which is the modern equivalent of the player piano. And in addition to his fascination with alternate tunings and scales it should be noted that Gann is also somewhat of an expert as regards the player piano itself. Gann authored one of the finest books on that composer’s music, “The Music of Conlon Nancarrow” (1995). So it appears intuitive that he would write a magnum opus for the modern equivalent of the player piano, the disklavier, a computer controlled piano.
Gann refers to this work as being the longest composition for a keyboard in alternate tuning. Indeed this would appear to be the case but a listener could easily hear these as individual works with poetic titles like one encounters in Debussy’s Preludes. Like those works one can listen to them individually or as a complete set. But regardless of how you may choose to file these in your head this is an intriguing and engaging work (or set of works).
A work of this dimension will necessarily invite comparisons to The Well Tempered Clavier, The Art of Fugue, and similar works because it effectively demonstrates the scales and the various musical possibilities unlocked by the different tuning much as Bach did nearly 300 years ago with well tempered tuning (or, in the latter example, the possibilities of counterpoint). This work is like a major thesis on alternate tunings and the effects it has on melody and harmony. Some listeners will be familiar with the interesting but less comprehensive Microtonal Music (1996) CD by Easley Blackwood. Using a synthesizer Blackwood explores tonal and melodic relationships of various different tunings achieving some of the same goals as Gann.
The titles the composer uses reflect his ongoing fascination with things cosmic as he did with his, “The Planets” (1994-2008). In this respect we hear Gann, the romantic, writing little tone poems. Now these tone poems put the listener into a different universe but they fit the same logical category as tone poems written in a more familiar tuning system and hence have the more romantic quality of representational (as opposed to absolute) music. Of course the composer’s intention of exploring this tuning system keeps this work also in the category of absolute music meaning that it is in large part about the tuning system. Unlike the Blackwood experiments which were about finding functional harmonies (at least in the commonly understood western music definition) Gann’s work is about expression, motives, melodies. It is, if you will, a logical step for one who has worked intensely with the complex rhythms endemic to Nancarrow and the fascination with alternate tuning systems gleaned from both western music history and world musics.
Since the end of the Baroque era western music adopted well tempered tuning as a standard and the result is that hearing these alternate tunings sounds wrong to most ears. One of the things Gann is doing here is to make a foray into what will likely be a more common practice, that being the use of alternate tunings. They are quite approachable and listenable in this context.