performed by Relâche
Book 1: Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars
Book 2: Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn
Book 3: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto
Members of Relâche: Michele Kelly, flute; Lloyd Shorter, oboe; Bob Butryn, saxophone; Chuck Holdeman, bassoon; John Dulik, synthesizer; Chris Hanning, percussion; Ruth Frazier, viola (on Neptune, Sun, Mars, and Jupiter); Sarah Sutton, viola; Douglas Mapp, bass.
For too long it has seemed like the most comfortable portions of the cosmos were musically owned by a dead British composer. Holst had essentially staked his claim on the biggest chunks of well-known real estate outside of the Earth and put up a sort of musical “Do Not Enter” sign. We composers could write about the Earth or Pluto, the “dwarf planets” that may come and go, or any other cosmic entity (manmade or otherwise), but Holst took the celebrities of our galactic neighborhood and hung them on display like so many apples on the Tree of Knowledge. From 1994-2008, Kyle Gann refused to be daunted by this musical monopoly and created his own suite of suites inspired mainly by the more recent evolutions in cosmology/astrology.
Relâche proves to be the perfect vehicle for Gann’s music and this collection of works showcases their extreme virtuosity in the realms of rhythm and blend. Relâche’s rather quirky instrumentation provides a constantly shifting sense of color and, like an instrumental Pierrot Lunaire, each movement maintains its own timbral character within the context of a unified whole. At first I was skeptical of the synthesizer but in the hands of John Dulik the synth always blends with the woodwind-dominated group and never sounds cheesy or anything less than ethereal. Gann, of course, knows what he is doing and The Planets comes across with light and careful touch. Every movement, no matter how driving and rigorous, maintains a fundamental buoyancy.
While some of these works were available as singles from Gann’s website, this disc is the first aggregation of all ten movements collected into three “books.” Each book could be performed autonomously and, to my ears at least, each individual movement works on its own as well. Gann’s attention to internal driving structures never trumps his generally accessible and listenable sonic palette. This music is intensely difficult to perform but Gann and Relâche never make it difficult to hear. The surface is attractive and approachable and repeated listenings reveal a web of clockwork structures that madly spin forth in a way that would make Bach jealous. I never feel as if I am receiving some grand and verbose lecture on How to Write Post-Minimal Music, even though this disc is a treasure trove of relationships and techniques. Kyle Gann is, in this respect, the Neil Degrasse Tyson of contemporary music. Gann has all the smarts and his passion towards the subject is augmented by sharp and highly refined communication skills. I’m sure Gann would kill on The Daily Show, too.