The Planets (1994-2008)
for flute, oboe, alto saxophone, bassoon, viola, double bass, percussion, and synthesizer
Commissioned by the Relache Ensemble

Book I: Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars
Book II: Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn
Book III: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

No one could be more aware than I am of the foolhardiness of competing with Gustav Holst. Asked, years ago, to write an article about my favorite orchestral warhorse, I picked his The Planets. My justification for writing my own such piece is this: music has not progressed since Holst, in the sense of having improved, the new superceding the old - but astrology has. The ushering in of "free will astrology" by composer-astrologer Dane Rudhyar and others in the mid 20th century has replaced the old view of astrology as implacable fate with a new one of psychological process. At the same time, through the advent of minimalism, music itself has become more capable of embodying gradual and transformational process. Where Holst had melodies suggestive of traditional planetary forces, I have processes that mirror our current understanding of how those forces operate. My Planets may be better, may be worse, but their raison d'etre is that they are more suggestive of contemporary astrology than Holst's. This was sufficient reason to update.

At the same time, I have Pluto, which wasn't discovered until 13 years after Holst wrote The Planets - and which is still used as a crucial astrological planet, even if downgraded by the astronomers. And Holst didn't portray the Sun and Moon, which astrology refers to as planets, possibly because they seemed too personal to exert the same influences, or perhaps simply because they weren't strictly speaking, planets. But in astrology as conceived today, the Sun isn't really the Self (nor the Moon the female or receptive Self), but is rather an influence that acts upon the Self with particular characteristics, more intense, perhaps, but no less qualifiable than Mars, Saturn, and so on. And so I have ten movements where Holst had only seven. The male planets are Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; Mercury and Uranus are neuter; Moon, Venus, Neptune, and Pluto are female (though Pluto is related to Mars despite its Dark Mother feminine archetype). The "personal" planets (Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus, Mercury) are characterized by clear melodies and individualistic solo parts; the "transcendent" outer planets are depicted in cloudier ensemble effects. Male-planet movements are driven by active melodies, female ones often fall into a receptive musical background with no foregrounded elements.

Sun: The Sun is the planet of progressive self-realization; we are not necessarily born with the qualities of our sun-sign, but spend our lives growing into them. Thus the "Sun" movement evolves through the linear crescendo common to all sunrise movements (for example, Ferde Grofe's "Sunrise" from the Grand Canyon Suite). The form of the movement is strictly additive: A, AB, ABC, ABCD, and so on. In addition, a plethora of motives is determined by the number series. The "5 motive" reappears in repetitions 10 and 15, the "3 motive" in repetitions 6, 9, 12, and 15, and so on. The content of each module within the lengthening crescendo is determined by its numerical place. From the boiling intensity of the minor-key opening, one might gather that I "am" a (that is, my Sun is in) Scorpio. The movement is dedicated to Joseph Franklin, original director of Relache.

Moon: The "Moon," depicting our archetypal phase-shifting experience, is reflective in many senses, based on chords going in and out of phase, and the constant of the movement is that every texture is made up of phrases going out of phase with each other. The ancient archetype of the moon is its changeability, and thus the movement changes texture about once a minute. Also, since the Moon represents our comfort zone, the music keeps modulating toward the flat side, drawing us in and making us feel more comfortable - up to a point. The Moon represents not only Woman, but our collective past, so the final section is marked by a host of voices from which no individual one emerges. Dedicatee: Janice Giteck.

Venus: Venus is the planet of receptivity and relationships. Each instrument here gets paired with another, each phrase is answered by a corresponding phrase, and two tempos float in relation to each other (one of them a simple 3/4, the other a virtual 25/16 meter that moves in beats 5 16th-notes long). Venus determines the style of not what we do, but of what we want from others. Therefore the climax is a negative one: the music opens up a space for a melody, and none appears: we wait, we receive. Dedicatee: Nancy Cook.

Mars: "Mars" is "Venus"'s opposite: rhapsodic, jagged, nonpolyphonic, single-minded, channeling its anger into a Sybaritic dance. The rhythmic language, switching among various tempos, is one I derived from Hopi, Zuni, and various Pueblo Indian musics. The fact that the movement is more plaintive than forceful, and ends softly, can be attributed to the fact that I was born with Mars in the gentle sign of Libra; ultimately, the entire piece can only be an astrological self-portrait. Dedicatee: Mikel Rouse.

Jupiter: Jupiter is sometimes said to be the "octave" of the Sun, that is, a similar kind of force on a larger and more unconscious plane. Therefore "Jupiter" is a second sunrise, another expansive additive form. The languidness of Jupiterian action is suggested by a certain passivity, and as there is also a kind of Sagittarian depression that comes from high expectations going unfulfilled (Jupiter being the ruler of Sagittarius), the piece ends in mournful anticlimax. Dedicatee: John Luther Adams.

Mercury: Mercury is the quick, darting, mercurial planet whose retrograde phases everyone seems to know about; bad luck for contracts, repairs, and so on. Two retrogrades are audible in this Mercury movement, points at which the music turns backward briefly before going forward again. Since this is the planet of communication and logic, the disconnected phrases (articulating different tempos) cumulatively combine themselves into longer phrases that begin to make more rhythmic sense. And since Mercury is a kind of gender-neutral planet, the harmonies all combine major with minor triads. Dedicatee: Brenda Hutchinson.

Saturn: The Saturn movement must be a process like a Saturn transit itself - a transition from the painful, irritating, and overly long to the most exquisitely beautiful. Structure is everything, and the closing music conservative, almost conventional, as befits Saturn's relationship to the past. The form, traditionally enough, is a chaconne, or recurring series of harmonies, the harsh dissonances of the opening cumulatively replaced by waves of melody. Dedicatee: William Duckworth.

Uranus: Uranus is the planet of unexpected events - strange things that break one out of one's habits by revealing bizarre impulses that refuse to be repressed. Musically I understood that as a series of nonsequiturs whose very unrelatedness begins to make its own kind of sense through relentless repetition. Since I have Uranus trine (in pleasant aspect to) my Sun and ascendant, my experience of Uranus is more benign than many people's, thus the rather upbeat movement for this compulsively individualistic planet. Dedicatee: Eve Beglarian.

Neptune: Neptune is the planet of vagueness, irreparable disappointment, glamor, and egolessness, which appear in the successive stages of the "Neptune" movement. The planet's lack of definition required that, for the first time in 20 years, I set all the musicians going independently at different tempos, coming together in rhythm only for the "glamor" moment. (Theoretically the tempo ratios are 18:19:20:21:22:23:24:25, but the synchronization is not intended to be exact, and using clicktracks for performance would violate the required effect.) As Neptune is the "higher octave" of Venus, "Neptune" is based on the motives and chord progressions of the "Venus" movement. Dedicatee: Elodie Lauten.

Pluto: Pluto is the planet of transformation, power struggles, and obsession. Consquently the piece contains only one idea - the transformation of minor chords into major and vice versa, both contrapuntally and structurally, sometimes carried out in bitonal conflict - and no changes of tempo, meter, or (almost) even rhythm. The effect would be incomplete without a long passage of Plutonian depression. Dedicatee: Joseph Bakst Zahm.

I wrote "Sun," "Moon," "Venus," and "Mars" (under the less competitive title Astrological Studies) in 1994 on trips to Seattle with the Relache Ensemble, as part of the Music in Motion program. I wrote "Jupiter" and "Neptune" for another performance in 2001, but Relache's endemic financial fragility made me reluctant to complete my longest work for them, at least until they seemed guaranteed to survive. Survive they have, and I am grateful to them for keeping their faith in the work. The first book was written with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

"The astrological ideas suggested the moods, and Gann's witty style shaped music that is built of tingly sounds, intricate metrical joining, and compelling movement. The ensemble - flute, oboe, bassoon, viola, bass, saxophone, clarinet, percussion, and electronic keyboard - craftily blurs the distinction between dance music and something much more serious... Gann has a sense of wit that keeps everything just beyond expectations, and always with an oblique sense of phrase. We could almost sing that theme - not quite - and be just a little wrong in predicting where the music would take us... The ensemble is so at home in new gestures and conflicting inner workings that the music sounded simple, expressive, wryly descriptive, and cheerfully edgy.
"The planetarium staff filled the heavens with huge planets, fleeting stars, and a sense that the composer could hear the speed of celestial time."
- Daniel Webster in The Philadelphia Inquirer

Venus: MP3
Uranus: MP3
360-page PDF score

CD on Meyer Media:

World premiere: February 20, 2010, Trinity Center for Urban Life, Philadelphia

Other performances:
February 11, 1995 by the Relache Ensemble at Arts Bank in Philadelphia (Book I only)
February 29, 1996, by Relache at Merkin Hall, New York City (Book I only)
May 28, 2009, by Relache at Fels Planetarium at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia (six movements)
September 13, 2012, by Relache at Olin Auditorium, Bard College

- Kyle Gann

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