Oct 27th 2019

Kyle Gann interview: Where is new music going?

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”



Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.

Kyle Gann by the author of the article Michael Johnson

What’s going on in new music today compared to fertile periods of the past 50 years – Cage, Young, Partch, Harrison, Nancarrow? Are you encouraged? Discouraged?

Today there is little money for art, few resources, few opportunities, so organizations don’t take chances, instead staking everything on a few well-established names or “flavors of the month” who have won awards, or who are protégés of influential mentors. So the most visible current trend is to promote good-looking young composers from prestigious schools whose music is plausibly modernist without being overly challenging. 

What about the other 99 percent?

Composers who don’t get picked up by the publicity machine have to continue their work with the slimmest of resources, and many never reach their potential for reasons not their fault. The result in terms of the young generation is the same as it was in mine and my teachers’ generation, only worse – the young composers who get widely celebrated are not the best ones. It will take decades to sort out who the really good composers of our time were (just as it did for 19th-century composers). 

Still, isn’t there is a flow of new music coming from young hopeful composers ?

Yes, there are plenty of young composers around doing wonderful stuff, but the new music that gets major publicity is mostly derivative crap. In terms of trends, it is not worth characterizing. I am endlessly encouraged by the resiliency of the human spirit, and endlessly discouraged about capitalism’s inability to nurture creativity. 

Are your young music students today evolving differently from those of ten or twenty years ago? In other words, can you, as a professor, see where are we headed?

Understanding young composers today is like reading tea leaves. They are so haphazardly educated, more by what goes around the internet than by systematic education, that while they bristle with ideas, they don’t realize how many of their ideas have already been done before. Plus, many academic departments, especially the most prestigious, teach a sterilized, thin, biased history curriculum that omits much of the most interesting 20th-century music. 

You sound as if you have lost hope.

No, the young composers’ intelligence and creativity are as admirable as ever, but they start from random odds and ends and misconceptions. I tell students that if all they know is what they learned in college, they don’t know anything. The only real education is self-education. 

Well there is still much to learn from clips on the internet, isn’t there?

The internet makes self-education rather hit-and-miss. Perhaps that will change, because we humans haven’t remotely acclimated to the internet yet, and it may still evolve into a more efficient and helpful tool. One can already find better resources online than in many college music departments, but it takes discernment to winnow the wheat from the multitudinous chaff. As a result, so much of the current scene is a potpourri of recycled ideas that we have no idea where we’re going.

At 63 you are still composing. Your ‘Hyperchromatica’ is a marvelous adventure in microtonality. Did you succeed in creating the alternative universe that you wanted? Is there more of this music in you?

Thank you. Yes, it turned out even better than I expected, though not many can hear it as an alternate universe yet. Some find its diversity of style a deficit, but it is more unified than they’ve learned how to hear yet, and I had strong reasons for scattering my ideas through a wide variety of contexts. I could write much more music building on this, but have little incentive at the moment.



An excerpt from Gann’s ‘Hyperchromatica’



Your enthusiasm for microtonality has a missionary zeal about it. In your new book, ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’, you wrote that you wanted to “seduce musicians into the field … and to empower those who are afraid the subject is difficult.” Are you converting the doubters?

Recently an ensemble had a contest for pieces in alternate tuning, and the director told me that most of the entering composers cited me as an inspiration. So I suppose so. But I get little direct evidence of conversions. 

Are you counting on the music establishment to come around?

Certainly the classical music establishment will not budge on the issue during my lifetime, but the manufacturers of electronic instruments and software are already having an underground effect, presumably without my direct influence. Since tuning is math, and math is embedded in software, it’s simple to add user-tuning capability to virtual instruments, and to refrain from doing so needlessly limits one’s potential clientele. The nature of math makes further exploration inevitable. I’m just trying to ease the transition.

Do you compose for the mainstream concert-going audience – or a specific smaller audience – or for your own internal muse? What is your thinking behind those choices?

I compose for the mainstream concert-going audience. Always have. Why wouldn’t you? We composers have the luxury of being the people who get to spend our lives channeling musical inspiration out into the world, and only a jerk would withhold that inspiration from the public, or want to compose only for fellow composers. It is our responsibility to reach as wide a public as we possibly can while remaining true to our musical inspirations, which means we have to hone and simplify and edit those inspirations for maximum communicative impact. Many composers don’t want to do the work, and are satisfied with baffling academic complicatedness, which, given the way the music scene works, often accrues its sufficient rewards.

Who out there is responding to your work?

I get more gratifying and insightful comments on my music from non-composers and musical amateurs than I do from composers. People who don’t like any other modern music often like mine, which pleases me. What works against me is that composers are in charge of who gets programmed and commissioned, and they mostly don’t take my music seriously because it doesn’t throw up sufficient challenges against the listener’s understanding.

Do you feel that you as a composer are up against a status quo that serves as a straitjacket of the imagination, as you have put it?

Absolutely. In 1980 I thought we were merely going through a bad pass, that a bunch of old-timey professors had welled up in academia, and once they were replaced, history would flow again. I’ve since learned that the eternal tendency of academia is toward elitism, just as the tendency of capitalism is toward monetizable superficiality. In better times one could fight both tendencies, but when money and opportunities grow scarce, the creative ones have little to fight back with. That’s what Manhattan’s “Downtown” scene was, from 1960 to 2000: a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism. Now I don’t know where we can escape to, except maybe the internet.



The full text of this interview will appear in the forthcoming book “What Musicians Really Think”, a collection of 30 interviews by critic Michael Johnson.



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