2000 Volume XXIX, No. 2
Custer's Just Intonation
by Noah Creshevsky
Gann’s musical vocabulary is characterized by deceptively consonant harmonies, conjunct melodies, and nearly straightforward rhythms. Like a magician, Gann creates smooth illusions; you barely notice the sleight-of-hand. Surely those are triads, and yet not quite major or minor ones, but somewhere in between. Rhythms that initially seem to be quarter and eighth notes refuse to come out squarely on the beat. The pulse seems steady at first, until you try to tap. Do we have one foot too many or one too few? A careful listener is likely to replay the track in an effort to identify the nature of its puzzles.
Most of the compositions are for synthesizer alone, while Custer and Sitting Bull is for voice with electronic accompaniment. Gann performs in all the works and narrates Custer and Sitting Bull. His “orchestrations” bring together fanciful casts of musical characters assembled into musical palettes far removed from European instrumental traditions. So Many Little Dyings, for example, features various birds, a gong, toy piano, splashing waves, guitar, and the voice of poet Kenneth Patchen. Such improbable alliances of disparate timbres produce ambiguous environments in which synthetic and sampled instruments, tuneful melodies, triads, percussion, and assorted sound effects convincingly occupy the same time and space. The audacious Superparticular Woman (1992) displays the sounds of a synthetic celesta, whistle, guitar, and drum machine in such extreme ranges and tempi that they seem to have drifted in from different rooms. Although they eventually cadence together on what is very nearly a G major triad, there is more than a hint of musical schizophrenia here and elsewhere on the disc.
Custer and Sitting Bull, a one-man opera for voice and electronic background, is the most recently composed work on the disc. Gann describes it as “a musical document of two male egos, taken as symbolic of the tragic clash of two cultures.” Drawn from Custer’s My Life on the Plains and from verbal statements that Sitting Bull made at various times, the composition is politically bold. The text for this thirty-five-minute work is fused with Gann’s most ambitious and accomplished musical score to date. What emerges is as disturbing as any musical-political work in recent memory, for its emotionally riveting portrayal of Custer, Sitting Bull, and the events surrounding them.
As musicologist and critic, Gann labels, classifies, analyzes. As composer, he seeks to obscure categories. Resolutely opposed to academicism in music and in music education, Gann creates sonic environments that are simultaneously familiar and enigmatic, but always unique and recognizable to anyone who listens to his work.