“Blue” Gene Tyranny: Degrees of Freedom Found Album Review
When he was in kindergarten, the late avant-garde “Blue” pianist Gene Tyranny brought his favorite records to show and tell. He made sound recordings in his garden, sang in his Lutheran church choir, and even attended other Baptist services to accompany them on the piano. At age 11, he took composition lessons at Trinity University, where his teacher sent him with Charles Ives and Harry Partch LPs after their first lesson. For one of his first assignments, he unwittingly composed a 12-tone piece. He quickly befriended composer Philip Krumm, and the two hosted events where Tyranny performed music by John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Anton Webern, as well as plays by Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Yoko Ono and La Monte Young. He was 14 at the time.
Despite his stage name, Tyranny was a kind, funny, and self-effacing person who uplifted others whenever possible. In David Bernabo’s 2020 documentary, Just for the record: conversations with and about “Blue” Gene Tyranny, sound engineer Philip Perkins notes that when they performed in live ensembles, every musician, except Tyranny, was usually assigned a solo: “He supports everyone… that’s what ‘he is “. Those who knew Tyranny considered him to be one of the greatest living pianists. And while such praise did not lead to considerable fame, the archive releases of the Unseen Worlds label, including the re-release of the pre-pop masterpiece Out of the blue and the live album Trust in rock– helped bring his music to a wider audience. Degrees of freedom found, his first posthumous release on the label, is even more noteworthy: a six-disc anthology containing 380 minutes of music recorded between 1963 and 2019, supplemented by numerous cover notes by Tyranny himself.
Tyranny’s closest contact with fame came in the early 1970s when he toured with the Stooges as a pianist (he and Iggy Pop first played together in the blues-rock band of the years 60, the Prime Movers). On stage, Tyranny appeared in ragged clothes, with LEDs in his hair, his sweat sometimes causing electric shocks. While he would not continue down this punk path, his purposeful spirit remained. During a live performance of the early 1980s of Robert Ashley Perfect lives, an opera where Tyranny plays the role of “Buddy, the greatest pianist in the world”, shards of a broken mirror cut off his hands and left his piano spattered with blood.
Such dedication to craftsmanship comes to life on Degrees of freedom found. The secret of tyranny to evoking deep emotions lies in the tension between structure and spontaneity. While this balance is not as evident in his pop works, the solo piano and piano-centric pieces in this collection clarify his methodology. As he walks through the opening piece “A Letter From Home”, taking twisted, diagonal paths along the way, Tyranny maintains a majestic and charming demeanor: an appropriate reflection of the stream of consciousness that remembers that appears on Out of the blue‘s extended take on the track. Whether on a small or large scale, his compositions have been fully realized.
Revisiting and reworking the compositions was a common practice for Tyranny throughout his career. “Tango for Two”, for example, was originally composed in 1984 as a solo piano piece for the International Tango Collection. On the version here, Tyranny is credited with a piano with an “electronic orchestra,” resulting in a barrage of synthesized instruments with technicolor flashes and unpredictable evolution. “The 36 Chords of the Conductor’s Son,” another haunting climax, has transparent modulations and interrogative structure – there is power in the softest strikes and grace in the most exuberant tinkle. The music of “36 Chords” is inspired by “The Driver’s Son”, a sprawling journey whose 80-minute performance in 1999 serves as the centerpiece of the set. With four other performers providing vocals, synthesizer and percussion, this is an epic in its own right, which well deserves Tyranny’s description as an “audio storyboard”.
Tyranny loved avant-garde music for its potential to extend “beyond the particular circumstances of your life and the whole history of music”. As he explained in Sonic transports: new frontiers in our music, “Trying as much as possible to circumvent Puritanism in the United States and elsewhere is the task.” His political intent is evident on “Harvey Milk (Portrait),” a 1979 track that features a speech by the openly gay politician from San Francisco, to a soundtrack of Tyranny’s rare electronic blips. The second half is speechless, an austere description of Milk’s assassination the year before. This simple change creates an atmosphere of unease: a meditation on lost hope.
Music allowed Tyranny to open up to new ground, which was the main focus of his collaborative work. One of the most striking examples appears in “On the Road to Blountstown (A True Story)”, a song that was largely improvised when Tyranny and musician Leroy Jenkins had 10 minutes left in a 2001 set and none. material to play. In the introduction, Jenkins says he was arrested by a sheriff and taken to jail. Then Jenkins vocalizes at the top of his viola and Tyranny’s piano, both musicians in perfect dialogue. As Tyranny’s piano dances alongside the howling strings, it runs through multiple emotions to flesh out the drama of the story.
He could also find inspiration in lighter dishes. “How to Swing a Dog” from 1984 is a loud improvisation featuring playwright Roger Babb speaking at lightning speed from a dog’s point of view; this is one of the most vivid pieces of Degrees of freedom found, and it emanates from the classic humor of the art schools of the early 80s. On “The Forecaster Hopes” from 2019, the latest composition, a 1960s electronic analysis of natural and everyday sounds becomes the source material to generate “quasi-random rhythms” for his arrangement of strings. The song is both stable and erratic, defined by an aura of hope: a musical embodiment of someone moving through life itself. As the final track on Degrees of freedom found, it serves as the cornerstone of this comprehensive overview of Tyranny’s career. It’s the kind of music that impresses you: a reminder that music has always done the same for him.
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