Kyle Gann: Summer Serenade (2014)

for organ

I had owed composer/organist Gerhard Staebler an organ piece for thirty years. Whenever I tried to write for the damn thing, it just didn't work out. But then Carson Cooman e-mailed me one day suggesting I write one for him. He wrote, "For some time, I've imagined broadly in my mind a extremely nice Gannian organ piece in your quiet, beautiful, tranquil/gentle vein. No particularly significant dynamic or timbre change, but just happening." It was the perfect thing to say. I had just had my hands on the piano playing the lovely chord that ends my Catskill Set, and I instantly realized it was voiced perfectly to sound good on the organ, and that the pedals (taking the lowest, almost unreachable note) would free up the hands for some subtle counterpoint. From that moment I could hardly pause until I finished the piece.

Technically speaking, the piece follows a paradigm I invented for myself that I call "relenting minimalism." That is, the bulk of the piece is rather austerely static, but after it exhausts its various possibilities the music relents and begins to release a tune that seemed to have been implicit all along. I delight in using "normal" musical materials in unusual contexts, and the nine chords that appear (all transposed over pedal drones on D, Eb, E, F, F#, G, and Ab) are all basically either minor, dominant, or major seventh chords with various added notes. Thus there is a bebop-like reliance on ii-V-I progressions jumping among various keys, brought into focus near the end by a simple (if rhythmically odd) melody. Starting at m. 219 the five continuous lines begin to wobble by half- and whole-steps, erasing the previous differences among the chords. An apparent disjunction between modernist strangeness and tuneful "normalcy" is thereby mediated.

Let me also add that, as much as I love hearing my music perfectly in tune, I do think that equal temperament is crucial for this piece. The differing beats that happen in different voicings on the organ enliven the chords and raise the energy level. I suspect it would fall flat without them (not much worry that it will ever be heard that way).

- Kyle Gann

Duration: 15 minutes

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