This recording features three works by Kyle Gann (b. 1955)—Custer and Sitting Bull, Scenario, and So Many Little Dyings, from the decade 1994 to 2004. Those familiar with Gann’s music will recognize a commitment to just intonation (alternate tunings), paired with a deployment of unexpected meters, often set to frequently shifting tempos. But here we also encounter another side of Gann, a composer preoccupied with texts, the inherent rhythms found within the spoken word, and the dramatic potential of these texts (including poems, interviews, stories, speeches, and even one psychic transmission).
A musical reflection on the historic encounter between Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the Lakota leader Sitting Bull, Custer and Sitting Bull (1995–99), presented here in an updated version, is an example of a “pocket opera,” a kind of one-person opera that blossomed in the unfunded spaces of Downtown Manhattan. From 1999 to 2007 Gann performed it live himself, narrating the drama using various historical texts set to a MIDI keyboard accompaniment tuned to just intonation (ranging from 20 to 31-note-to-the-octave scales). While it takes the form of reimagined American history, Custer is perhaps most centrally about the value of sustained, repeated listening. Indeed, Gann’s use of just intonation not only rewards but arguably requires many hearings to access certain subtleties.
The title of So Many Little Dyings (1994) is taken from the Kenneth Patchen poem “And What with the Blunders” (from First Will & Testament, 1939). The entire work originates from the pitch and rhythm of Patchen’s spoken voice, which Gann sampled and transcribed from a recorded recitation of the poem. Listening to it, however, one might not perceive this borrowing immediately, as the work begins with the sound of a microtonal toy piano imitating the rhythms and contours of Patchen’s voice. Very slowly, over the course of the 7-minute work, the piano’s melody is taken over by a recording of Patchen’s sampled voice.
Scenario, for soprano and virtual orchestra, was written between 2003–2004 but wasn’t performed live until 2012. The text is taken from a 1932 S. J. Perelman story of the same name, which consists of a non-stop, breathless collage of filmic clichés. On the page, Perelman’s text continues for pages without paragraph break and includes dialogue excerpts, Hollywood rumors, and behind-the-scenes film directions. In Gann’s setting of it––what he calls “a surrealist collage opera, the musical analogue of an animated cartoon, for theatrical soprano and virtual orchestra”––each collaged portion is set in a corresponding style and character, so the soprano must alternate rapidly between each affect and singing style throughout the 17-minute work.