Jan 26th 2020

Kyle Gann interview : ‘No one knows what’s good in new music’

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, in his new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’, makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching, Gann has become a guru of new music. Although he modestly considers himself a “fringe figure”, he continues to produce ground-breaking compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. As he has written, ”Give yourself some time to listen to the pieces over and over, and you’ll probably get used to them.”  In Part I of our interview, he asserts that most new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is derivative in nature, compared to the “golden age” contemporary composition in the U.S. from 1960 to 2000. As he put it in Part I, those composers consisted of “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”. (See Part 1 here )


In Part II, he analyzes his own place in the music world and questions public resistance to the unfamiliar. Musica-lovers are conservative in their tastes, he says. Why? “It’s a mystery”.


Our email dialogue follows:


MJ Kyle Glann
Kyle Gann by the interviewer Michael Johnson


Q. You once endorsed “ecumenical open-mindedness” toward new sound worlds. Do you see other musicians or music-lovers agreeing, and demonstrating real tolerance for newness?


A. Oh, open-mindedness as a virtue in itself is very popular at the moment, insofar as it means not discriminating against other musical genres. A tolerance for real newness is much rarer. The great tragedy is that, collectively, musicians long ago decided that no one knows what’s good in new music anyway.



Q.  We used to know good from bad. What happened along the way?

The main cause, I think, was the scholarly embrace of Schoenberg and his disciples, which disastrously shook people’s confidence in their own ears. The unfortunate upshot is that, if you do something new that’s so abstract or complicated that no one understands it, the musical elites tend to give it the benefit of the doubt. If you do something new and they can understand it, they dismiss it as “well, it’s not going to catch on.”


Q. What do you mean by catching on?


“Catching on” means success, and our musical elites critique musical trends the way op-ed writers review political races, not to judge anything on merit but to keep score of who’s winning. So there is a glib tolerance for a certain type of vague newness, but not toward anything clear-cut.


Q. Examples?


A. Take microtonality, minimalism, and pop influences. Microtonality “just doesn’t sound good” to people who haven’t taken the time to get used to it or seek out the best of it. Minimalism remains widely frowned upon in music composition programs, disdained on principle for its very popular success. Pop influences in new composed music are frowned upon even by younger composers who love pop music, which blows my mind.


Q. Except for smalI groups of fans, mostly trained musicians, I see less open-mindedness in the public. They seem to prefer visiting “the museum”. Why is this?


A. I think it’s the economy. People are scared and stretched thin, and they rein in their imaginations to survive. We do not have a sense now that “everything is possible,” nor that the unfamiliar will be safe. Society is contracting, and resources will have to flow back to everyone again before it will feel safe to expand. Many smart people have speculated as to why conservatism remains a stronger force in music than in art or literature. I have nothing to add to that conversation. It’s a mystery.


In this clip, he plays the daring “Neptune Night” from his album “Hyperchromatica”:



Q. Going back to Cowell and Cage, the rejection of the European music traditions has been a constant in the new music world. Surely you don’t hate Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms … do you? I know you are a Liszt admirer.


A. Almost every composer loves all that music, but it is tragic to live (as those composers didn’t) in a concert-going world in which 95 percent of the music made public is from the distant past. I’ve stolen as many devices from Beethoven, Bruckner, Schubert, and Liszt as any composer living, but I have no patience for concerts at which only that music is played. Mozart is wonderful, but I would far rather live in a new creative world analogous to his than live as a tourist endlessly visiting a preserved simulacrum of his world every day.



Q. Isn’t “beautiful music” a personal matter, a subjective term?


A. The subjectivity of beauty in music has been greatly overstated. Any music or art or literature, when it first appears, may find public resonance for a variety of subjective reasons. Eventually, though, the social reasons for that resonance will fade away, and under close collective scrutiny the quality of a piece will gradually become evident.


Q. Do you think it possible that one who idolizes Charles Ives the composer in fact admires the combination of biographical and musico-philosophical example set by Ives? 

A. No. The music is fantastic and limitlessly imaginative. The biography is not all that interesting and the philosophy not well defined. The music makes the biography interesting, not the other way around.


Q. You have studied Ives’ output and motiovations. Do you feel there is subtle evidence of Emersonian and/or Thoreauvian ideas in his musical output -- in the music itself ?

A. Sure, I suppose. Each of us is greatly imprinted by the atmosphere of new ideas that arises while we’re in our late teens and early twenties. When Ives was at Yale, Emerson was still championed as the great American thinker, and Thoreau was just being discovered. In order to be deeply impressed – as I believe Emerson wrote somewhere – I think we already have to have inside ourselves some inchoate tendency or idea that we respond to in (or read into) the literature, music, and so on that attracts us. The cloudiness and impressionism of Ives’s music and thought responded not only to them, but also to ideas that were “in the air” with William James, George Santayana, and others, even the Theosophists with their affinity for Scriabin. It was a time in which literal realism was being challenged by thoughts of a deeper spiritual perception.


Q. Speaking as a composer, you do not believe music comes out of thin air, does it?

A. I’m always acutely aware how much inspiration comes from the materials any composer is working with. You push notes, and they push back – you place a sound in your imagination, and when played it sounds like something you didn’t expect. Ives, for example, was in the first generation to encounter Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone”, and (like Debussy and others) he was becoming aware of the overtone series, both as spiritual metaphor and as a template for new approaches to harmony and rhythm. The experiences Ives had experimenting with new tone and rhythmic materials was well suited to merge with the new super-realism of late 19th-century philosophy and religion.


Q. Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?

A. It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially.


Q. How does corporate control of the music business squeeze out creative work?  Won’t creative urges always find a way to break free?

A. The first question rather answers itself, doesn’t it? Since at least Kant, art has been defined as disinterested pleasure, and if you’re doing it with an eye to make money, that’s no longer disinterested. And the second question is again economic. Artists need resources, collaborative aid, and opportunities to do their work and make it public. Creative urges always break free, but if they are denied realization and access to a public forum, they are sometimes squelched at birth.


Q. Do your composer friends continue producing (in the Charles Ives tradition) in the belief that an audience is out there, we just have to find it or wait for it to catch up?


A. We have collectively abandoned, I think, the old belief that there’s some kind of Hegelian World Spirit that guides the course of cultural ideas, in favor of a more Marxist realization that economic powers can push a society in a particular cultural direction. That is, of course there’s an audience out there, for almost anything – if corporations put enough money behind it to expose it widely. In 1992 Nonesuch records made Gorecki’s then-seventeen-year-old “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” famous by sending it out to a wide range of tastemakers and celebrities. I think it’s a mediocre piece, and that its appeal will dwindle, but I think that if Nonesuch wanted to pour the same amount of money into some of my pieces, or almost anyone’s works, a similar effect could be produced.


Q. How important is the rise of self-publishing of avant-garde music. Is this perhaps going to be our salvation?

The question now sounds old-fashioned. Now composers can handle the distribution of their music themselves, though with little money or distribution to aid them. The few composers who still publish with corporations have their music tied up by copyright and lose control over it, often getting no more than having it warehoused as a tax write-off. For music of the last forty years, if it’s not published I can usually find it, and if it is published I often can’t get my hands on it. The music publishing business has imploded and become irrelevant, if not indeed actively harmful.


Q. What is your relationship with the piano?  You have said you like almost anything written for the piano (so do I) yet you dropped it and stopped practicing some years ago. That must have left a huge void. Will you return to it one day?


A. No. I don’t have the discipline to sit there and work at it long enough to get good enough to enjoy it again. I do miss it, but I started typing instead, which became a more manageable substitute.


Q. Has composition replaced performance for you? It would seem so. You have written a lot of piano music, including transcriptions. Is this the focus of your activity now?


A. Writing words was what replaced performance. I’m not a performer-type personality, my brain slips up, forgets, and stutters. I do that in writing too, but no one can tell from the edited end result. I do write a lot of keyboard transcriptions, in order to thoroughly understand some pieces I love. I recently learned more about composing from making a keyboard reduction of Copland’s Third Symphony than I had from any other activity in years. These days I write for mechanical pianos primarily because I can’t get anyone to perform my music.


Q. Where do you see the future of your music going? Do you see it gaining more and more recognition?

In the last few years my music has completely fallen off the map. Except for a small frisson that “Hyperchromatica” seems to have created among young microtonalists, interest in my music has settled around zero. There are many plausible reasons: I’m a white male in an identity-politics era, my approach to microtonality is too baffling, everyone ignores composers who haven’t become brand names by a certain age, I live in the boondocks, I’m not a “people person.” For the first time since the 1980s I have just gone 14 months without composing anything. At the moment I can’t stand the thought of putting energy into something no one will perform. Perhaps this will change again.


Q. Do you wonder how you will be remembered when your time comes? Do you care?

Emphatically yes to all three. Matthew Arnold argued, in “Culture and Anarchy” I think, that great art requires not only the artist capable of it but the right cultural moment in which to realize and receive it. I’ve learned by age 64 that an artist’s most copious and exemplary accomplishments can effectively add up to nothing if the society of the time is not receptive to them. Henry Thoreau was denigrated and ignored for thirty years after his death; in the 1890s thinkers arose who were ready for what he had had to say. I could name quite a number of composers from the past whose music I think has been unjustifiably excluded from “the canon.” I can’t doubt that I have achieved something worthwhile, and I’m tired of speculating why my ideas have achieved such spotty resonance.


Q.  Yet you are a household name among switched-on musicians !

I could do worse than to end up like Erik Satie, with a wide following but eternally considered a fringe figure. During my lifetime I have had a certain underground reputation, though the professional music world has become closed off to me, one might say adamantly and on ideological grounds. Those are the possibilities. But past a certain age, recognition can aid only one’s vanity.





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