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An interview with Kyle Gann
by Jeff Lunden for Vocal Area Network
Posted February 12, 2007

Kyle Gann's new choral work, my father moved through dooms of love, a setting of the E. E. Cummings poem of the same name, will receive its world premiere performance by The Dessoff Choirs, under the direction of James Bagwell, on March 10, 2007 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York City. The piece will be featured on "Musicians Wrestle Everywhere," a concert of work by living composers, including James Bassi, Elliott Carter, William Duckworth and Phillip Rhodes. Jeff Lunden, a tenor with Dessoff and freelance radio reporter for NPR, traded e-mail with the composer to find out more about his new piece.

Jeff Lunden: How did you come to set this particular E. E. Cummings poem? What attracted you to the language and imagery?

Kyle Gann: I'm something of a fanatic about speech rhythms, and especially the rhythms of poetry. My mother says that when I was a toddler I would listen to her read poetry as long as she'd indulge me. I feel I can set any text whose words have a certain, indefinable rhythmic quality, and if they don't have it I can't do it. Cummings' poetry often has a wonderful rough, masculine, but regular rhythm to it:

obey says toc, submit says tic,
Eternity's a Five Year Plan:
if Joy with Pain shall hand in hock
who dares to call himself a man?

I loved the rhythm of "my father moved through dooms of love" before I even thought about what it meant, and it was about his father. I've always associated my father with choral music, because he loved it and sang it, and my Transcendental Sonnets for chorus and orchestra (2001-2) is dedicated to him, and begins with the repeated word "father." My father was dying as I started writing my father moved through dooms of love -- his Alzheimer's-related symptoms had just taken a bad turn for the worse -- and he was naturally much on my mind. Not until I had already set several lines of the poem, though, just to get a feel for it, did I do some research and find that it was an early poem for Cummings (1926), written after the violent death of his own father in a railway accident.

Some of the poem's imagery does apply to my own father: "his anger was as right as rain / his pity was as green as grain." Other lines I wish were more true of me: "if every friend became his foe / he'd laugh and build a world with snow." In its sometimes deliberately mystifying way, the poem paints a picture of a diverse and complex human being who manages to maintain and joyously assert his humanity in a rotten, despicable world, without ever being brought down or turned timid or cynical or cruel by it. The final lines -- "because my Father lived his soul / love is the whole and more than all" -- contain depths I don't even want to speculate about. I set them almost like Gregorian chant.

JL: Can you talk a bit about your musical choices and compositional process -- the harmonic language of this piece, compared to some of your other work (I know you've written some microtonal music, so this score was a bit of a surprise in its tonality!), the choice of piano and violin, in addition to choral forces, your approach to text-painting, etc.

KG: The addition of the violin I thought was a happy inspiration. I wanted it to wordlessly symbolize the father of the text (I kept visualizing a big, tall, barrel-chested male violinist soaring on a comparatively diminutive violin). A vocal soloist would have made this particular text too personal, maybe even maudlin, but I wanted some element to distinguish the work from the standard choir-and-piano format. I've never heard of another piece for choir and piano with violin soloist, but all those Morton Feldman pieces for chorus or chamber orchestra with viola probably steered me in that direction.

I have written a lot of microtonal music, which actually tends to push a composer toward tonality. However, I don't write microtonal music for performers unless specifically asked, and even then I resist, because it's so difficult. The real surprise for this piece was that it is largely, though not consistently, couched in the octatonic (or "diminished") scale, the scale of alternating whole-steps and half-steps (B-flat, B, C#, D, E, F, G, A-flat). Stravinsky used the scale at great length -- The Rite of Spring contains large sections based on it -- and I had never used it simply because in college one analyzes so much music that uses it (Olivier Messiaen is another big example). However, I have recently found myself falling into it by accident, as I did here; I began writing the piece just experimentally, and realized by page two that I was waxing octatonic, and might as well continue. It's a good scale for writing nice choral triads related by heavy chromaticism. It offers wide contrasts between bright happiness ("and should some why completely weep") and creepy darkness ("maggoty minus and dumb death"). (I just Googled "waxing octatonic," and the phrase does not appear elsewhere on the web.)

JL: Perhaps you can write a little bit about your own background, as both a composer and critic, and of your interest in choral music. Influences?

KG: I sang in church choruses myself as a teenager, and absorbed the style pretty early. Then in college the most important course I took, the one that took deepest hold on my sense of music, was Renaissance counterpoint, which is of course the technique of writing music that works well for the voice. I studied it with Greg Proctor at University of Texas (though I later graduated from Oberlin), and its principles pervaded my way of composing. Consequently, I love writing for chorus, which many composers these days find too limiting, and I wish I had more opportunities to do it.

It's career death to mention it in certain circles, and I don't think you'd glean it from listening to the piece, but by heritage I really consider myself a minimalist. The sudden re-emergence of simplicity after those decades of 12-tone music was the great musical event of my youth, and I was particularly impressed by the voice-leading (the way chords connect among different voices) in Philip Glass's early music, which is much in evidence in my father moved.... The fact that in 2006 I could write a highly chromatic minimalist-influenced piece in octatonic scale means that the style held more fertile possibilities than the minimalism-haters continue to believe. As a critic (for the Village Voice from 1986 to 2005) and music historian, I have primarily been interested in the bodies of music that have evolved from minimalism, which by now are quite extensive, involving hundreds of composers. For me, it was the beginning of an exciting new era - though of course we're in a very pluralistic situation now, which is a positive if perplexing thing, and there are many other musical threads developing at the same time. I've got an NEH grant this year to write a book called Music After Minimalism, and by "after" I don't simply mean "since," but "evolving from."

For more information about The Dessoff Choirs' March concert and to purchase tickets, go to www.dessoff.org. For more on Kyle Gann and his music, visit www.kylegann.com.

Jeff Lunden is a tenor with The Dessoff Choirs and a freelance radio reporter for NPR.

Content Contact: Jeff Lunden.
Revision Date: February 15, 2007.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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