Custer and Sitting Bull:

Program Notes

MP3 recordings
1. Custer: "If I Were an Indian...", 8:42
2. Sitting Bull: "Do You Know Who I Am?", 8:42
3. Sun Dance / Battle of the Greasy Grass River, 7:59
4. Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull, 10:04
PDF score

Custer and Sitting Bull -- an electronic cantata, if you will -- is a musical document of two male egos, taken as symbolic of the tragic clash of two cultures. My aim was to juxtapose statements each made throughout his career, many of them mutually self-contradictory; the complexity of their personalities thus revealed precludes, I feel, the possiblity of a simple or unequivocal response. At greatest issue, of course, is the alleged guilt of George Armstrong Custer: once a hero to many generations of American schoolboys, more recently a scapegoat for everything considered culpable about the white male.

The text to "Custer: If I Were an Indian..." is mostly taken from Custer's autobiographical My Life on the Plains, which was first published serially, starting in May 1872, in a belles lettres magazine called The Galaxy (which later merged with The Atlantic). In early installments, Custer showed considerable sympathy for the Indians he was pursuing. If he were an Indian, he muses, he would rather join his comrades hunting on the plains than confine himself to a reservation. The nonchalance with which he admits this is shocking, given that his assignment was precisely to hunt down and kill any Indians who refused to live on the reservations. In later chapters -- either because portraying the Indians as savages added to his reputation, because he was being pressured to justify the Army's genocidal Indian policy, or some other reason -- his tone changes, and he sets down some of the coarsest, ugliest statements of hateful bigotry ever committed to print. What changed? His early sympathetic remarks have an air of sincerity, while the later bigoted ones seem forced, overstated for badly calculated effect.

The middle part of the movement evokes the 1868 "battle" of the Washita, in which Custer claimed to have killed 103 Cheyenne warriors; what he actually achieved was to kill 11 warriors and massacre 92 women, children, and old men. The band stormed in at daybreak playing Custer's favorite tune "Garry Owen," quoted here at length. The last section, beginning with a litany of military crimes Custer didn't commit, is taken from Custer's written defense at his court-martial. (Here and elsewhere I have streamlined Custer's eloquent 19th-century English; no military leader today could match Custer for fluency of literary style.) This latter event preceded the Washita battle by a year, but I have placed it last to allow the final words - "Judge me not by what is known now, but in the light of what I knew when these events transpired" - to serve as a defense for Custer's entire life, and perhaps by extension as an epitaph for the white male in general, of which he is so archetypal a symbol.

Custer's ambivalence is nicely matched by that of his enemy Sitting Bull. Clearly, Sitting Bull was the greater man, a true spiritual leader, but he was not blind to the value of good public relations. Granting interviews to reporters, he would claim in humility that he was no chief, just a man. Facing U.S. government agents, he would revel proudly in his chiefhood and boast of his importance. His actions never seem mendacious or self-serving, yet he did keep a fluid enough view of reality to change stories as circumstances seemed to require. The second movement, "Sitting Bull: Do You Know Who I Am?", contrasts quotations from Sitting Bull's speeches from various parts of his life, and is based on a song attributed to Sitting Bull and written down second-hand after his death.

"Sun Dance / Battle of the Greasy-Grass River" depicts the fateful encounter of the two men, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which latter the Sioux killed 263 soldiers including Custer's entire command - the greatest military victory the Indians were ever to enjoy over the American army. (Greasy-Grass River was the Sioux name for the Little Bighorn River.) Before the battle, Sitting Bull performed a sun dance, cutting notches of flesh in his arms and legs and letting the blood run down until he had a vision. The vision he had was of white cavalry and soldiers falling down, as a voice said, "I give you these because they have no ears." The Sun Dance uses motives from a war song Frances Densmore recorded from Isna'la-wica', or Lone Man, a Teton Sioux who had participated in two sun dances and who fought with Sitting Bull at the Little Bighorn. The rhythms of the battle scene are based on the text of the frantic note that Custer dictated to his aide during the battle, his last words to posterity: "Benteen, Come on, big village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. Bring pacs [sic]." The original note can be seen today in the museum at West Point Military Academy, Custer's alma mater. The actual battle lasted only fifteen minutes, so at two and a half minutes it is represented here at a scale of 1:6.

According to a Lakota Sioux tradition, Sitting Bull visited the battlefield after the battle, where the ghost of George Armstrong Custer appeared to him; only after one's death did the two meet face to face. "Custer to Sitting Bull" is a setting of the alleged text of Custer's posthumous speech, taken from an old astrology book by psychic Martin Schulman, who claimed to have channeled it from the spirit of Sitting Bull. That was good enough assurance for me.

Undoubtedly Custer's worst act, for which he should fry in hell for a billion years, was the Washita River massacre - but in this Custer was merely following army policy, and he was afterward rewarded by commendations from General Phil Sheridan and the Secretary of War. The charges against him at his court martial seem trumped up (he was charged with shooting - though not killing - deserters who were resisting arrest, and for leaving the post to visit his wife, both of which he had been given permission to do in advance), while his actions at the Little Bighorn are militarily defensible, given what he knew at the time. Custer was a popular Civil War hero, and many jealous enemies yearned to cut him down to size. He testified against corruption in Grant's administration, for which Grant got revenge by putting control of the disastrous 1876 Indian campaign in Alfred Terry's hands, a situation partly responsible for Custer's defeat. For 120 years Custer has been singled out, made to bear America's genocidal sins on his shoulders alone. But his real crime, a crime he shared with thousands of his contemporaries and with untold millions in this century, is that he handed over his personal responsibility to a corrupt social structure. Custer's tragedy - perhaps a basic white male tragedy - is that a person so daring and brilliant in carrying out his assignments had no moral compass with which to judge the humaneness of those assignments.

"Custer: If I Were an Indian..." uses a scale of 20 pitches, actually made up of two pairs of major-minor scales 257 cents apart. In short, there are two tonalities related more or less by quarter-tones. Where Custer rationally contrasts Indian and White cultures, the music flows smoothly between the scales. Where Custer retreats into a narrow, White man's vision of life, only one of the scales is used. And where he indulges in hypocrisy and dissembling, the two scales combine, contradict, and sour each other. This is my first piece to extensively explore just-intonation dissonance, which, as Harry Partch says, is "an entirely different serving of tapioca" from equal tempered dissonance. "Sitting Bull: Do You Know Who I Am?" weaves nuances around Sitting Bull's quoted song in a 22-note-to-the-octave mode. The third movement uses a complex scale of 30 pitches; 22 are used in the Sun Dance, capitalizing on various dissonances between the perfect fourth and perfect fifth, including the "wolf fifth" that European music spent centuries avoiding; the other eight, outlining a tonality a tritone away, come in during the Battle to symbolize the attacking cavalry. "Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull" in set in a more consonant 30-pitch scale over a drone, meant to allow a sighing motion like that of the wind.

Selected performances:
"Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull": October 28, 1995, Weiss Center, Bucknell University
"Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull": February 19, 1997, Interpretations Series, Merkin Hall, New York City.
Complete world premiere: February 22, 1999, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as part of the CalArts Musical Explorations festival
February 24, 1999, Olin Auditorium, Bard College
November 12, 1999, in Kulas Recital Hall at Oberlin Conservatory
April 13, 2000, at the Center for New Music and Audio Technology (CNMAT) in San Francisco
April 15, 2000, in "Piano Pairings," the PONCHO Concert Hall, Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle
July 6, 2000, Storm King Music Festival
November 16, 2000 in Olin Hall at Bard College
December 6, 7, 8, 9, 2000, at the Kitchen in New York City
March 27, 2001, at the University of New Mexico Composers Symposium, Albuquerque
April 7, 2001, at the MicroFest at Harvey Mudd College in Los Angeles
August 26, 2001 at the Ought One Festival of Nonpop in Montpelier, Vermont, organized by the Kalvos & Damian Web Site
March 1, 2002, at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina
April 3, 2002, at Faulkner Recital Hall on the Vaughan Recital Series at Dartmouth College
June 20, 2002, at the Electric Words festival in San Francisco
August 3, 2002, at the Mini-Max Festival at the Powerhouse, Brisbane, Australia
October 26, 2002, at the Alernativa festival at the Dom in Moscow, Russia
November 1, 2002 at the Beloselski-Belozerski Palace in St. Petersburg
March 12 and 13, 2004, at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe
May 25, 2005, at the University of Costa Rica in San Jose
October 9, 2007, presented by the Karnatic Lab at De Badcuyp in Amsterdam
October 25, 2007, at the Mendelssohnsaal of the Hochschule fr Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany
November 7, 2007, at Trinity College in Dublin
Additional performances in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Ruston, Louisiana to be documented later

Read the text for Custer: "If I Were an Indian..."

See the tuning for Custer: "If I Were an Indian..."

Read the text for Sitting Bull: "Do You Know Who I Am?"

See the tuning for Sitting Bull: "Do You Know Who I Am?"

See the tuning for Sun Dance / Battle of the Greasy-Grass River

Read the text for Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull

See the tuning for Custer's Ghost to Sitting Bull

Notes copyright 1998 by Kyle Gann

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