Tim Disappears

Herewith CD III of the “Blue” Gene Tyranny box set (UNSEEN WORLDS UW35). This disc is given up to The Driver’s Son, a piece for five performers composed in 1989. In fact so extensive is this piece, it extends onto half of disc four.

Besides his association with the Lovely Music label, “Blue” Gene Tyranny also composed (with Peter Gordon) much of the music for Perfect Lives by Robert Ashley, a “television opera” which originally appeared in 1983. I mention this as The Driver’s Son seems to me quite close in form to Ashley’s work – it’s a half-sung, half-spoken monologue delivered here by Jonathan Hart Makwaia, with continual piano music supplied by “Blue” Gene, electric keyboards by Nurit Tilles, plus two percussion players. I hesitate to call it an “opera”, and likewise the term was not really adequate to account for the highly innovative works of Robert Ashley. Whatever these composers have invented, I’d regard it as a very American development, where the spoken-sung words seem to constitute the main body of the performance (another not-dissimilar work is Mike Kelley’s Day Is Done (2005)), while the music provides deceptively simple accompaniment that almost could be mistaken as background music at first glance. If you listen to the entirety of The Driver’s Son, its largely unvarying tone and voicing sweeps the listener along as surely as an afternoon of daytime TV. And it also tells a story, with a cast of characters. Perhaps it could be taken as Tyranny’s sideways take on that most American of televisual achievements, the soap opera. There’s an undeniable theatrical aspect too, reflected to some extent in the selection of Makwaia to perform the libretto – he is an accomplished voice actor (as well as a teacher, actor, composer and singer).

The story of The Driver’s Son is served up in episodic forms, labelled as scenes with very narrative clues (e.g. ‘Tim Disappears’, ‘Trooper Ralph’, ‘The Happy Landing’); the story unfolds in a slow languid manner much like a very leisurely road movie. I won’t say it’s easy to follow; there’s a high degree of lucidity to the delivery (not a single line fluffed or obscured), but as the tale progresses it’s not clear who or what is the central focal point, which character is experiencing what; simple linearity is side-stepped, and some of the incidents seem to be recounting memories of earlier incidents. I like the gradual reality-sapping effect this has, especially as the music keeps steadily treading the same pathway at the same tempo and in the same mode, as if nothing strange is happening at all. In this magical-realist road movie story, there are numerous concrete visual images of things you’d expect to see on any American highway, but I think it’s also proposed as a metaphor for the music compositional process itself; I’m picking up on a few scant clues that seem to be describing the practical problems faced by a contemporary composer. To put it another way, the story and structure seems to be acting as a “roadmap” for the composition, with signposts and speed (tempo) indicators.

Tyranny himself remains silent for the most part on the creation, execution and meaning of this large-scaled work; but he wants to stress the “36 objects” associated with the 36 chords, a structural plan already alluded to on Disc one of this set. Here he informs us that these 36 elements are designed to be combined in many ways, forming multiple stories; what we hear on today’s disc is “just one possible combination”. This suggests that Tyranny has found another very productive approach to composition, one that could generate a large number of valid permutations; and also one that allows him a highly flexible semi-open framework in which to perform his 36 chords. Perhaps we can take The Driver’s Son as yet another manifestation of the “degrees of freedom” he has found.