Mechanical and Microtonal: Kyle Gann’s “Hyperchromatica”


gannchrom

Other Minds OM 1025-2

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Classical Conductors (Black Classical Part Two)


James Anderson De Preist(1936-2013)

James Anderson De Preist
(1936-2013)

The recent passing of conductor James DePreist is a great loss to the world of classical music. I first encountered this man’s work when I bought a New World CD containing music by Milton Babbitt (Relata I), David Diamond (Symphony No. 5) and Vincent Persichetti (Night Dances). All performances are by the Julliard Orchestra under three different conductors of music by three different composers of about the same generation of east coast American Composers. De Priest conducts the Night Dances piece. He had studied under Persichetti at the Philadelphia Conservatory.

De Preist had a fondness and a feel for contemporary music. Among his fifty some recordings (no reliable discography is available online just yet) he recorded music by Paul Creston, George Walker, Gunther Schuller, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Easley Blackwood, Aulis Sallinen, Giya Kancheli, Alfred Schnittke, William Walton, Nicholas Flagello and Joseph Schwantner among other more familiar names as well.

He was the nephew of Marian Anderson and cared for her in his home in Portland, Oregon until her death in 1993. De Preist was the conductor of the Oregon Symphony and served as it’s music director from 1980 until 1993. He conducted nearly all of the world’s major orchestras and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2005.

His passing this February, Black History Month in the United States, got me thinking about the legacy of black classical conductors. There have been a few luminaries that also deserve attention and I will attempt a short survey a few of those whose art has touched my own life.

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman

Paul Freeman (1936- ), now retired, was the founder and music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta, an alternative orchestra to the Chicago Symphony which played a distinctly different program from them introducing a great deal of new music by young composers along with an unusual selection of older music and some classical warhorses. His 9 LP survey recorded 1974 to 1979 and released by Columbia Records in 1986 of music by black composers is a landmark set of recordings surveying music by black composers from various countries with some emphasis on American Composers. He followed this in 2003 with 3 CDs of music by black composers on Chicago based Cedille records and has continued to give exposure to these unjustly neglected artists. Along with his promotion of black composers Freeman has recorded a great deal of 20th century music by other unjustly neglected masters such as Leo Sowerby, Meyer Kupferman, Bohuslav Martinu, Tibor Serly, Robert Lombardo, William Neil, Richard Felciano to name a few. He recorded a delightful complete set of Mozart Piano Concertos with frequent collaborator, pianist Derek Han (the set was incorporated into the Complete Works of Mozart released on the Brilliant Classics label).

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan (1957- )

Michael Morgan who I recall as having been the assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony from 1986 to 1990 under both George Solti and Daniel Barenboim. I had the pleasure of hearing him conduct the Chicago Symphony’s fine training ensemble, The Civic Orchestra, on several occasions.

Currently he is the music director of the Oakland East Bay Symphony, a post he has held since 1990. In that time he has done much to strengthen the orchestras standing artistically and financially and he has forged alliances with the Oakland Youth Orchestra and the Oakland Symphony Chorus.

Unfortunately Morgan has made few recordings but his choice of repertoire and championing of new music continues to endear him to critics and to bay area audiences.

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

Thomas Wilkins (1956- )

In 2011 Thomas Wilkins became the first black conductor appointed to the Boston Symphony (a city historically resistant to integration in the 1960s). He is the conductor of that city’s youth orchestra.

He was appointed music director of the Omaha Symphony in 2005 and has held appointments with the Richmond Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the Florida Orchestra.

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

Henry Lewis (1932-1996)

California born Henry Lewis was the first black musician to join a major symphony orchestra when, at the age of 16, he joined the double bass section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He became the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra when Zubin Mehta appointed him assistant conductor of that same Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1961, a post he held until 1965. He is credited with founding the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra as well

Lewis is probably better known in the media for having been married to soprano Marilyn Horne from 1960-1979.

Carl Van Vechten's portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis in 1961

Carl Van Vechten’s 1961 portrait of Marilyn Horne with her husband Henry Lewis.

Horne credits Lewis with her early development as a singer.

Charles Dean Dixon (1915-1976)

Charles Dean Dixon
(1915-1976)

Dean Dixon, as he was known, was born in Harlem and studied at Julliard and Columbia University. He formed his own orchestra when racial bias prevented him from working in most settings and in 1941 gave a concert at the request of Eleanor Roosevelt who in 1939 famously arranged for Marian Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she had been prevented by racial bias (and the Daughters of the American Revolution) from singing in any concert venue in Washington D.C.

While he did guest conduct the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadephia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony he left the United States in 1949 to further his career in overseas. He conducted the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during 1950-51, was principal conductor of the Gothenberg Symphony from 1953-60 (by popular demand), the HR Sinfonieorchester in Frankfurt from 1961-74, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1964-67.

Dixon returned to the United States and had various guest conducting engagements with major orchestras. And he conducted the Mexico City Orchestra during the 1968 Olympics. His legacy includes quite a few recordings made in the 1950s, some of standard repertoire, but some of American music like that of Randall Thompson, Leo Sowerby and fellow black American William Grant Still among many others. These were some of the first recordings I ever heard of much of that repertoire.

He, like those who followed him, did a great deal to promote the music of Americans and of the 20th Century in general. And his recordings are an important part of his legacy that remains largely untapped (though Naxos historical has reissued some on CD, bless their hearts). The racial bias he encountered is our American legacy. Dixon once defined three phases of his career by the way he was described. First he was the “black American conductor”. Then he was the “American conductor” and, finally he simply, “the conductor Dean Dixon.”