Kyle Gann: Cap Rock Wind — performed by Contemporaneous

Contemporaneous performs the world premiere of Kyle Gann’s Cap Rock Wind (2016). The piece was commissioned by commissioned by the Adele and John Gray Endowment Fund and Contemporaneous.

Program note:

In 1947, folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a novel titled House of Earth. It was a story of living in the Texas panhandle region during the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Guthrie was clearly inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but why he failed to publish House of Earth remains something of a mystery. He apparently sent it to Hollywood studios in hopes of having it made into a film, but since the first half of the novel centers around a startlingly erotic sex scene and the second half graphically describes a birth nine months later, the chances of it being turned into a film in the 1950s, or even afterward, seem remote to say the least. In any case, this beautiful novel was finally published in 2013 by Infinitum Nihil, the publishing company founded by actor Johnny Depp. In fall of 2015, the ensemble Contemporaneous asked me to write them a piece. I wanted to take advantage of their expert conductor, David Bloom, to employ the kind of intricate ensemble polyrhythms that I rarely get to indulge in with a chamber orchestra; I wanted to also benefit from their dynamic mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae. I pored through various texts, many of them my usual suspects, but nothing seemed suitable until I found House of Earth, with its rambling descriptions of weather whose riotous lists of objects and verbs accumulate into a Gertrude Stein-like ecstasy. So I finally settled on an unusual form, two movements played without pause, one instrumental and rhythmically fluid, the other vocal and more operatic. As I composed, each movement borrowed more and more from the other, tying them more closely together. (Of course I considered quoting tunes of Woody’s songs, but they would have pushed the music in a very different direction – one already well explored by American composers of the 1930s – and added copyright issues.) The piece is about wind, and, in the first half, is a depiction of high winds and associated weather, climaxing in a cathartic rainstorm. The novel is about a couple, Tike and Ella May, living in the Cap Rock region of the Texas panhandle and trying desperately to protect their fragile, rented frame house from the violent vicissitudes of the weather during the Dust Bowl. Tike has received a pamphlet from the government explaining that adobe houses stand up better under the southwestern wind and rain and sleet and ice than wooden houses do – thus his dream, a House of Earth. I grew up in Texas, but had never before made the state a subject of one of my compositions. Out of many such passages, I copied out 1500 words or so that I found amazingly musical in their repetition and nuance, whittled those down to about 500, and sought and received the kind permission of Woody Guthrie Publications to use them. The first 3/5 of the text describes the weather in the Texas panhandle; the remainder charts the thoughts of the woman in the novel as her baby is coming into the world.