Kyle Gann: On Reading Emerson

On Reading Emerson (2006) is an uncharacteristic piece, one I wouldnąt have written without a specific impetus. Pianist Sarah Cahill asked me for a piece about one of our mutually favorite authors, Emerson. I resisted the impulse to title the piece "Whim," though like Emerson, "I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation." Emersonąs writing seems to me unlinear; he takes a handful of ideas and juggles them paragraph by paragraph, sometimes letting one take precedence, sometimes another. Often, though there is a logic to each paragraph, the order of paragraphs seems inessential. Of course my conception of Emerson is filtered through Charles Ives, who wrote of him, "As thoughts surge to his mind, he fills the heavens with them, crowds them in, if necessary, but seldom arranges them, along the ground first." To create that effect, I did the reverse: write a bunch of passages of music around a single (or double) idea, and arranged them along the ground before fitting them together. Because I think of Emerson as ever aware of the interpenetration of opposites, almost every chord in the piece contains a tone from the opposite chord, and because he is all encompassing, I used, for the first time in my life, a 12-tone row. (It only appears twice, and elsewhere in fragments, and is never transposed, retrograded, or anything.) Like Emerson's writing, the piece is peppered with quotations, three of which (by Busoni, Ives, and MacDowell, the Busoni itself a quotation from Bach) the listener may recognize. The fourth will not be recognized; it is from a song that I began writing in college on Emerson's "The Rhodora" and never finished, because the only good phrase was the one I resurrect here:

Why thou wert there, O, rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew....

I am grateful to Sarah for giving that orphaned phrase a home at last.

Kyle Gann
Germantown, NY 2007

World premiere: September 29, 2006, by Sarah Cahill at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge, Mass., as part of the Boston Research Center's conference "Emerson and Imagination"
Official Public premiere: October 15, 2006 by Sarah Cahill at the Point Reyes Dance Palace
Other selected performances:
October 27, 2006, by Sarah Cahill at the Berkeley Arts Festival, at the Jazzschool in Berkeley
October 18, 2007, by Lois Svard at Muskingum College in Concord, Ohio
February 2, 2008, by Sarah Cahill at the Berkeley Arts Festival
February 8, 2008, by Mabel Kwan at the University of Kentucky
March 7, 2008, by Sarah Cahill at Roulette in New York City

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