Kyle Gann: Snake Dance No. 2 (1995)

One of my ongoing projects has been to work with a scale of tempos, much as Henry Cowell described in New Musical Resources, and as Stockhausen (perhaps after reading Cowell) used in Gruppen and Nancarrow (under Cowell's direct influence) used in Study No. 37 and other pieces. Rather than use the different steps of the tempo scale simultaneously, as they did, I've worked out a rhythmic language progressing back and forth along those steps. For instance, a typical "duration scale" might start out in dotted quarters, then triplet half-notes, quarter-notes tied to 16ths, quarter notes, dotted 8ths, and so on, getting faster by stages. Snake Dance No. 1 (1991) was a big step toward this conception, but I didn't really feel I got all the different elements to fuse into a rhythmic language until Snake Dance No. 2 (1995). The "Sun Dance" from Custer and Sitting Bull represents an even more obsessive treatment, one I haven't since surpassed.

Charles Ives describes the "Emerson" movement of his Concord Sonata as divided between passages of "prose" and "poetry," and I appropriated this paradigm for Snake Dance No. 2. Certain passages, such as the opening, are based in varied phrase repetition; these are poetry. Other passages proceed more linearly and with less repetition. I attempted to imitate the cadences of stirring rhetoric (for which certain American Indian chiefs were famous); I even thought at one point of mirroring a specific text in rhythms, but decided that would be too limiting. I also use a type of modular form typical of me (the "Apparition" movement of "Last Chance" Sonata is another example), in which sections recur, but no two sections ever recur in the same order as before. In any case, I hope the distinction between passages of poetry or dance on one hand, or argument or discourse on the other, is apparent, and that the effect of a group playing complex rhythms in unison is exciting.

Like its predecessor, Snake Dance No. 2 is gratefully dedicated to John Kennedy and Chuck Wood of Essential Music. The recording was made from a dynamite performance by Essential Music on June 5, 1995, at the Grace Church in Charleston, South Carolina, part of the Spoleto Festival. Sometimes, as here, I join the four percussionists on a sampler keyboard adding my own virtual banging of pots and pans into the mix.

mp3 recording from the Monroe Street disc by Essential Music

PDF score

Duration: 10 minutes

- Kyle Gann

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