|“Some of the rhythms developed through the present acoustical investigation could not be played by any living performer; but these highly engrossing rhythmical complexes could easily be cut on a player-piano roll. This would give a real reason for writing music specially for player-piano . . .” —Henry Cowell
Like many composers of subsequent generations, Kyle Gann (born 1955) was captivated by Cowell’s theories and Nancarrow’s music. His book, The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, is the essential source for any serious study of Nancarrow’s work. Knowing so much about Nancarrow’s music, it’s hardly surprising that it would occur to Gann to consider the question of how he might make the mechanical piano his own. His answer is the music on this recording.
The instrument isn’t exactly the same. Nancarrow employed the old-fashioned player piano, driven by paper rolls with holes punched in them. Gann uses the more recent Disklavier, which is controlled by a computer via MIDI data. However, like Nancarrow, Gann employs the mechanical piano for both musical and practical reasons.
The musical attraction, of course, is the one Cowell observed: The instrument allows the composer to compose with tempo relationships and rhythmic velocities not readily playable by human performers. The practical appeal is that Gann felt that not enough people were playing his music. So in the do-it-yourself spirit of Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, Harry Partch and so many other American composers, he decided to take matters into his own virtual hands.
But although Gann’s reasons for working with the mechanical piano are similar to Nancarrow’s, the musical results are quite different. Gann picks up where Nancarrow left off, developing his own personal methods of working with multiple tempo layers, and weaving elements of popular and classical music into his vivid and distinctive musical tapestries.
Gann’s music embraces a wide range of influences but sounds like no other. His fascination with complex tempo structures and microtonal tunings places him in the experimentalist tradition from Cowell to La Monte Young. Yet the directness and accessibility of his music reveal his affinity with American populists such as Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson. In this highly personal blend of experimentalism and populism, Gann’s closest musical forebears are Partch and Charles Ives. In the spirit of Ives, Gann’s music invokes ragtime, jazz, folk music and Native American music on equal footing with classical music and purely abstract sonic speculations.