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A Moment Alive: Degrees Of Freedom Found By Blue Gene Tyranny Reviewed
Ned Raggett , June 7th, 2021 06:26

Our Man In San Francisco, Ned Raggett, gets to grips with Degrees Of Freedom Found, a six CD collection of material recorded between 1963-2019 and finds a monumental box set

"Blue" Gene Tyranny by Pat Kelley

This time of loss was heightened by the continuing disaster of COVID, but the loss was present already, almost woven into the system, as people leave, institutions disappear. It makes considering the new box set by "Blue" Gene Tyranny all the more of a task because if all had been well, the artist first named Joe Gantic then Robert Sheff would be here and carrying on. Yet health had been an issue for years, and while the 6CD set Degrees Of Freedom Found, fully planned by Tyranny beforehand and with extensive notes throughout from him, now has to be tagged as monumental precisely because it is now a monument, a salute to the departed, it still doesn't feel like it was intended to be. The death of this pianist, keyboardist and writer provides a loss not merely of the artist but the context, the astonishing weaving pattern which someone can show in living life and being in the world. So much is said about the outsider artist but Tyranny perhaps was never truly outside, in the best of ways.

The Wire's obituary for Tyranny on his passing last December provides a detailed exploration of that life pattern that, the more one reads of it, the more it makes one's head spin. A high school friendship with Philip Krumm that led to collaborations and work with Robert Ashley as an undergraduate shaped the course of his creative life to a strong degree, but it also led to a guy named James Osterberg being wowed by those undergraduate performances, not to mention playing with him in the Prime Movers. So when a few years later Iggy Pop wanted a keyboardist with the Stooges for live dates, "Blue" Gene Tyranny was fully born.

Ashley invited Tyranny to Mills College in Oakland near the start of the 1970s and the following decade resulted in musical collaborations and performances that almost become their own universe still; the Trust In Rock recordings alone are worth consideration. Tyranny performed in Carla Bley's ensemble in that decade, later released recordings on the Lovely Music label, then into the further decades after a New York City move played with Trust In Rock partner Peter Gordon in the Love Of Life Orchestra, guested on work by Laurie Anderson and David Behrman, much more besides. A sideman? A session mainstay? A trailblazer among trailblazers? All the terms seem too limited, burdened down by tedious overuse in other contexts.

For all that a name had been made and he continued to work and record and, when he could, perform, why did Tyranny only seem to finally get a deserved greater attention in more recent years? Arguably, but I think clearly enough, time finally caught up to him, thus freeing him in many ways. This can be a canard – the story of the pioneer whose work becomes commonplace, the innovator out-innovated or reduced to a John the Baptist role. But I mean it in a different sense of collapsed context, where the narcissism of very small differences that once seemed vitally important are more evanescent now. On a broad level, think of how 'classic rock' is now a mishmash, how playlists and TikToks and casual exploration of seemingly vast discographies via clicks results in so much. Think also perhaps how an even more elastic word perhaps more appropriate for Tyranny's work, 'jazz,' means newer and stranger things even now, as generations raised in much different contexts than earlier ones reinterpret and refigure not only the field's broadening past but what the present offers.

So it wasn't simply the efforts of the redoubtable Unseen Worlds label, the releasers of this compilation, that helped in establishing more clearly just what Tyranny was able to bring to the world, though their reissues and championing absolutely helped. It's what resulted from that afterward. Consider how 'Next Time Might Be Your Time', the opening track from his fully solo debut album from 1978 Out Of The Blue, hits at once a demonstration of Tyranny's abilities to create for a group of players and add his own fluidly elegant and exploratory work and a warm, winning lyric about friendship, partnership, encouragement and communication. At the time the context would have been those listening to the Lovely label's work, a small, dedicated clutch. Now, it sounds wide open, a 70s should-have-been classic that feels timeless. If that song in particular was the hook for many to dig deeper, then little surprise so much new listening has followed. It's something notable that after the often too cloying 'childlike wonder' strain of indie over time – think of the line of descent from Mercury Rev to Animal Collective to MGMT to wherever it's gone after that – perhaps a better alternative can be realised in this song's greater sense of warmth, empathy and play.

The set itself reflects this kind of interconnection and disassociation from various moments of creation – one of the most purely appealing things about it is the fact that it does not respect time; selections appear without any chronological pattern in the slightest. As the title of the box itself notes, one can find freedom in how one considers the past. It could have been a steady march across decades, the portrait of an artist as a young then older man, the type of thing that still reminds me how fundamentally dull my own young attempt to engage with Eric Clapton as a 'serious' artist with the Crossroads box was. For musical reasons alone there's a world of difference, and a key word in the title again, freedom. So much freedom in these performances, this sense that there were possibilities rather than simple rules. How wonderfully antithetical to the stage name he chose, how delightful, how, in the end, utterly joyful.

'Meditation For Trio And Chamber Orchestra' might summarise this feeling the best due to the simplicity of the approach – the same composition as such by Tyranny but from two different, fully combined performances, the chamber orchestra being the ONCE Festival Ensemble from Michigan 1963, the other a performance of marimba and vibraphone from a New York date in 1993. If there's a join I can't sense it, and arguably I don't want to, but more to the point, what is authenticity, and what even is the point of it, when this kind of realisation can be the result? Are you supposed to call it a self-mash up?

Where there are organising principles in the set, they seem to vary as necessary. Play the collection straight through to a newcomer and they might naturally assume due to the first disc that general piano improvisation might be the rule of thumb. But then the second disc introduces carefully structured, but not locked down, synthesized work from the 1980s, invoking the Australian First Nation term 'dreamtime' and suggesting, however secondhand, other perceptions of fluid time, other visions of music's function, the 'natural' sound of the unnatural and perfected-over-time piano giving way to another unnaturalness aiming to invoke the natural. Piano remains the main focus throughout but the various electronic explorations and innovations, as well as the introductions of full ensembles and other collaborations, keep the sense of magpie variety fresh.

On the first disc, for instance, there's a live performance of 'The 36 Chords From The Driver's Son' from 2004, engaging and gently compelling, itself drawing on a work composed in 1989. But then the third disc returns to 'The Driver's Son' in full, a five person ensemble whose performance spills over into the fourth disc – and then improvisations and a seeming encore performance of the concluding part, except that itself is from a wholly separate performance from 1990. Time collapses and reworks, there was a 'real' show but now there is something more, recurrent, revisited, perhaps more like John Oswald's meta-live concert reworking of the Grateful Dead, Grayfolded, than anything else.

Consider 'Time Transposing Pianist' as another example of how freedom works – a live recording from 1992, Tyranny accompanied on marimba and vibraphone. But in his notes Tyranny explains, almost with an implied smile, as to how improvisation and rhythmic variety itself is key to the piece, and the feeling is less of recital than in simply testing a possibility in a moment to see what happens. Jump ahead almost a decade later with the next track, another live performance in the same venue, and Leroy Jenkins is telling the tale 'On The Road To Blountstown', featuring an encounter with a racist Southern sheriff, leading into a viola performance that Tyranny explains is something he'd not heard before, playing along as creative support and partner at Jenkins's sotto voce invitation. But yet again, on 'Tango For Band', a 1985 performance by Peter Gordon and the Love Of Life Orchestra, Tyranny says one listener remarked it must have all been improvised, yet he says it was all laid out carefully.

What makes Degrees Of Freedom Found an apt title is that the core feeling of freedom itself can mean many things, to resist simply being one thing, or to always assume that freedom means simply the sense of a lack of burden. Certainly, 'Any Fine Afternoon' would, on its own, seem like a goofy grin of a song, a squelching synth slap bass of a kind and an air of running over the grass or flopping out onto it. But there's the joy of emotional tension and release – 'Tango For Two' is a frenetic, almost explosive performance, solely by Tyranny on piano and synth, a kind of solo orgy of sound in the moment. There is the freedom to mourn too – 1979’s 'Harvey Milk' uses the recording of a fiery speech by the assassinated San Francisco councilman against a homophobic California state proposal to trigger electronic tones and responses. The sense of strange serenity that arises out of the anger and pride was remarkable then and no less so in the present.

Perhaps one of the most striking moments of a set that can't have one moment defining it is 'Barn Fever', a second performance of a dance piece originally premiered in 1983, here from a 1984 followup. By default both the dance and the lighting – the latter something Tyranny often mentions in his notes for the performance, considering how they affected or added to the whole – aren't available for a listener, just the piece itself. But the pulsing, shifting flow of the twenty-five minute piece, suggesting a rollicking house party going through different levels, with occasional electronic animal noises underscoring the barn aspect, simply feels like joy, something that doesn't leave even when a distorted voice appears towards the end asking a series of questions asking 'you' how things are and what you've experienced. That joy, as much as the sense that there's every possibility at once throughout the box, seems just as key as to why Tyranny has his new strong place now.

Experimental music, however defined, has never solely been po-faced or serious, however much some would like to assume that, preferring the stereotype over a deeper truth. When Tyranny goes full boogie after the 14 minute mark of 'Barn Fever', I like thinking how this moment of spontaneity may not be that on the one hand, per some of the earlier comments I noted, but on the other, it could be exactly what it sounds like, and it doesn't matter either way. Tyranny, so calmly at ease and thoughtful in his liner notes throughout, offers nothing in specific about this performance beyond the details I've already mentioned. Maybe in this case all he needed to show, away from the concepts of time and retrospection and presentation, was what had already happened – a degree of freedom found, a moment alive.

Degrees Of Freedom Found is released on Friday