Kyle Gann: I'itoi Variations (1985)


Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann, pianos

I'itoi is the mythic Elder Brother of the Papago Indians of southern Arizona, the famous "man in the maze" of Papago art. He figures in the creation myth as a shadow figure to Earth Doctor, and bears certain resemblances to the Aztec Quetzalcoatl; he led the Papago to their present land, created the calendar, taught them to smoke tobacco, bothered the young women, was killed by his own people, and came back to life before disappearing back into the earth.

The Papago keep I'itoi's myth alive through a long cycle of songs, of which I'itoi Variations is based on the "Song of the Black Mountain" (originally recorded on Everest, later available on Legacy international CD 388). I was intrigued not only by the song's unusual rhythm, with its shift between dotted and undotted beats, but by the women's moving drone above the men's melody. The translated text of the song is as follows:

There was a black mountain in the ocean. There was an unseen cloud coming toward that mountain. It went into the black mountain and made it wet.

You can listen to the original Papago song .

Across I'itoi's death-and-rebirth story I superimposed a worldy/spiritual contrast modeled after Beethoven's Op. 111 Sonata. Variation VI is the crisis point, the Scorpionic death/transformation; Variation VII is the alchemical rebirth as spirit. Variation II is an homage to Busoni's two-piano masterpiece Fantasia Contrappuntistica. Variation IX is subtitled "Hoodoo" after the lumpy, vertical rock formation characteristic of so many Utah canyons. The Finale carves metaphorical petroglyphs (rock drawings) on the slowed-down, rocklike theme, then turns back for a quick trip through all eleven variations in reverse order.

I'itoi Variations was a calculatedly ambitious work, a summing up of my education. I was about to turn 30, had quit my job to stay home with my newborn son, and was propelled by a need to achieve something big and difficult. I admired the "intellectual" monumentality of the two-piano repertoire, including Busoni's Fantasia Contrappuntistica, Wallingford Riegger's Op. 54 Variations, Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Stockhausen's Mantra, Ligeti's Monument / Selbst-Portrait / Bewegung, Zimmermann's Monologe, Reich's Piano Phase - each of which left its mark on the piece some way or another. I'itoi Variations was written with the help of a grant from the American Ritual Theater Company, and was published by Editions V in Essen, Germany (run by Gerhard StŐbler). It seemed commodious enough to merit two dedicatees: my wife Nancy and my fellow political composer Frank Abbinanti.

World premiere: May 4, 1990, at Cooper Union's Great Hall by Double Edge (Nurit Tilles and Edmund Niemann)
Other performances:
March 16, 1996 at Mannes College of Music Concert Hall, New York, by Anthony De Mare and Kathleen SupovÄ

mp3 recording of the world premiere

PDF score; slightly revised, so it departs from the recording a little

Duration: 26 minutes

- Kyle Gann

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