Kyle Gann: Disklavier Studies

Explanatory note: A Disklavier is a computer-controlled player piano, i.e., an acoustic piano with hammers and strings that is operated via MIDI. Alternatively, this music can be played on a Pianodisc system.

Despotic Waltz (Mechanical Piano Study No. 1) (1997)
Chopin meets Nancarrow. The virtual right hand is mostly in straight 32nd notes, the virtual left hand changes tempo constantly yet determines the harmony. As with any screwed-up marriage, it's hard to tell which partner is really the despotic one.
Selected Performances:
World premiere: February 24, 1999 at Olin Auditorium, Bard College
November 16, 2000 in Olin Auditorium, Bard College

The Waiting (Mechanical Piano Study No. 2) (1997)
The combination of MIDI-sequencing notation software and Disklavier makes it easy to achieve all the effects Henry Cowell only dreamed of in New Musical Resources. In The Waiting, seven contrapuntal lines - though more often producing clouds than counterpoint - run through most of the piece, playing off tempos of 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, and sometimes 15 equal beats per measure. The piece is dedicated to Joan Tower, who made a dream come true by getting me a Disklavier for my office.
World Premiere: February 24, 1999 at Olin Auditorium, Bard College

Nude Rolling Down an Escalator (Mechanical Piano Study No. 3) (1997-99)
The 20th century began with a Nude Descending a Staircase, and I thought it should end this way. Even modernism has its moments.
Nude Rolling Down an Escalator was premiered on November 16, 2000, at Bard College.
World premiere: November 16, 2000 in Olin Hall at Bard College
Other performances: March 15, 2002 at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina.
March 12 and 13, Santa Fe New Music, Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM.

Folk Dance for Henry Cowell (Mechanical Piano Study No. 4) (1999)
Henry Cowell, in his revolutionary book New Musical Resources, suggested that triplet quarter notes need not always occur in groups of three, and that if you're using triplets, quintuplets, septuplets, and so on, there's nothing wrong with interspersing them amongst each other. So in this sad little dance inspired by the idea, there might be three triplets and five quintuplets in a measure, but one of the triplets might be followed by two quintuplets, then another triplet and three more quintuplets, and so on. Newfangled computer notation software can't handle this notation, but some of the old stupid programs can. More to the point: the harmony is clear, but what meter is it in?

Texarkana (Mechanical Piano Study No. 5) (2000)
Texarkana was the birthplace of both Conlon Nancarrow and Scott Joplin. Nancarrow's favorite pianists were Earl Hines and Art Tatum. Had Nancarrow (1912-1997) and Joplin (1868-1917) ever worked together, or influenced each other, we might have had a ragtime of transcendent rhythmic complexity. Joplin liked his ragtime slow, however, and the Disklavier is a fast medium, so I split the difference between Joplin and Hines and applied Nancarrow's techniques to an early-jazz, still ragtimish style derived from James P. Johnson (1894-1955). Texarkana is built almost throughout on a fast basic rhythm of 29 in the virtual "right hand" against 13 in the "left," with a couple of Johnson quotes, one small Joplin one, and ending in a skewed version of James P.'s solo "Jingles," as recorded in 1930. The piece is dedicated to John Esposito, who may play it any time he likes.
Texarkana was premiered on November 16, 2000, at Bard College.
Other performances: March 15, 2002 at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina.
March 12 and 13, Santa Fe New Music, Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM.

Bud Ran Back Out (Mechanical Piano Study No. 6) (2001)
The question was whether I could make the Disklavier respond as fast as Bud Powell played. Doubting that I could surpass him, I added some tricks that I hope Powell might have envied, such as playing his ultrafast melodies in chromatic sixths and triple octaves, and simultaneous melodies in tempo ratios of 7 against 8 against 9. It was time for technology to provide a new spin on Thelonious Monk's composition *In Walked Bud*. The piece is dedicated to Thurman Barker.
Selected performances:
World permiere: March 15, 2002 at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina.
March 12 and 13, 2004, Santa Fe New Music, Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM.
October 17, 2004, "Sounds Like Now" festival, La Mama E.T.C., NYC

Cosmic Boogie-Woogie (Mechanical Piano Study No. 7) (2000-1)
Nonsynchronous repeating cycles, or loops, have been the basis of many of my works, from Satie's Dream to Mountain Spirit to Cyclic Aphorism #1 to Time Does Not Exist. Cosmic Boogie-Woogie is my clearest statement of the idea yet: seven melodies repeating over and over at different rates, though varying as they interact and grow. Obviously I'd always wanted to write a piece with the same kind of energy as Terry Riley's Rainbow in Curved Air - who hasn't? - and the piece is dedicated to him, one of music's truly free spirits.

Tango da Chiesa (Mechanical Piano Study No. 8) (2002)
Eleven beats per measure in the bass against eight in the treble and 13 in the middle register. A delayed aftereffect of a Baptist upbringing: a churchly tango that no one can dance to.
Tango da Chiesa was premiered at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina on March 15, 2002.

Petty Larceny (Mechanical Piano Study No. 9) (2003)
There are days when you don't have an original thought in your head. As such moments, theft is always an option. Every note here is from the Beethoven piano sonatas, not one transposed from its original key - in other words, I let Beethoven do my modulations for me. I hoped, in so doing, to deconstruct the ways he thought in certain keys, by bringing out key-based similarities.
Selected performances:
World premiere: March 12 and 13, 2004, Santa Fe New Music, Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, NM.
October 17, 2004, "Sounds Like Now" festival, La Mama E.T.C., NYC

Unquiet Night (Mechanical Piano Study No. 10) (2004)
Based in bebop harmonies and six or seven tempo layers at once, this is a long-overdue companion piece to my Long Night for three pianos of 1981, back from my ambient days.
Unquiet Night had its world premier on October 17, 2004 at the "Sounds Like Now" festival at La MaMa Etc. in New York, and was also presented October 25, 2007, at the Mendelssohnsaal of the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater in Hamburg, Germany.

Five of the Disklavier Studies (Despotic Waltz, Folk Dance for Henry Cowell, Texarkana, Bud Ran Back Out, and Tango da Chiesa) were assembled as accompaniment for a dance, titled Looky, by the Mark Morris Dance Company. The dance was premiered May 15, 17, 18, 19, and 20, 2007, at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, and was reprised August 7-11, 2007 at Jacob's Pillow.

Despotic Waltz and Folk Dance for Henry Cowell were also choreographed by Jean Churchill for Maria Simpson December 8, 9, and 10, 2006, at the Fisher Center, Bard College

Return to PDF and MP3 page

Return to List of Compositions

return to the home page