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Best of 2021

Blue Gene Tyranny

Degrees of Freedom Found (6CD box)

Label: Unseen Worlds

Format: 6CD Box

Genre: Sound Art

In stock

A truly stunning accomplishment from Unseen Worlds, building on their long-standing relationship with the late, great "Blue" Gene Tyranny, comes 'Degrees of Freedom Found', a towering 6 CD box set of material recorded between1963-2019, hand selected from the archives by the artist before his passing in 2020. Spanning countless musical forms and as ever refusing to be nailed down, it’s a visionary excursion into the irreverent world of one of the most import musical figures of the last 50 years. So good...

**6CD Box. Includes 24 page booklet with liner notes by "Blue" Gene Tyranny and download card.** There have been very few artists as singular, unique, and difficult to define as the late, great "Blue" Gene Tyranny. A maverick of the highest order who blended a near countless number of musical idioms into a definitively unique form, his long-standing relationship with Unseen Worlds breathed new life into his practice and fan base over the last decade or so of his life. As a final parting, the label has now embarked on their most ambitious release attending to this incredible artist’s legacy, Degrees of Freedom Found, a six CD set of material recorded between 1963-2019, that was hand selected by Tyranny from archival, live recordings, and brand new first recordings, before his passing in 2020. This is a truly stunning accomplishment that represents the most comprehensive immersion into Tyranny’s incredible world of sound, we couldn’t possibly recommend it enough.

Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, "Blue" Gene Tyranny began studying piano at an early age and launched his performance career while still in high school, already drawn toward the avant-garde by the work of composers like John Cage. Across the 1970s and early '80s, he taught at the legendary Mills College, and toured with The Carla Bley Band, The Prime Movers (which included Iggy Pop and Michael Erlewine), and Iggy & The Stooges, as well as embarking upon extensive work with composers like Robert Ashley, Peter Gordon, and Jacques Bekaert. In the words of Kyle Gann, Tyranny had "Cecil Taylor's keyboard energy, [and] Morton Feldman's ear. The most original aspect of [his] works is the way they create continuity: they're tonal, yet rigorously asymmetrical. They satisfy the ear without letting it take anything for granted. They evolve...with the labyrinthine irreversibility of deep psychic forces."

A number of years before his move to NY in 1983, Tyranny recorded his debut LP, Out of the Blue - for many his most definitive and most striking statement - issued by Lovely Music in 1978. While currently not the earliest of his available recordings - Unseen Worlds’ incredible archival issue of Trust In Rock, for example, predates it by a couple years - Degrees of Freedom Found takes unprecedented steps to fleshing out our understanding of his activities for the decade preceding and following, as well as what has come since, of this seminal work.

Degrees of Freedom Found, sprawling across 6 CDs, features recordings dating to as early as 1968, and builds across the '70s, '80s, and first two decades of the 2000s, curated conceptually and for playability, rather than chronologically. Featuring live and studio recordings, that encounter Tyranny solo on the piano, in numerous stunning duos, and working within ensembles of varying sizes - featuring astounding players like Leroy Jenkins, Conrad Harris, Jon Gibson, Richard Landry, Peter Zummo, and a near countless who’s who of the American experimental vanguard, the degree of creative diversity and scope is absolutely astounding across the album’s length, ranging from emotively melodic minimal piano excursions embarked upon solo, works for tape and electronics, expansive orchestral works, abstraction laden efforts of startling harmonic interplay, fascinating ventures into the fourth world, and playful rethinking of the nature of song, the set really has it all and brings an artist like no other into crystalline focus.

A truly monumental gesture that couldn’t be bested as a farewell to one of the most singular artists of the last 50 or so years. Unseen Worlds has done it again, reminding us not only of Tyranny’s seminal place in the history of music, but of the importance of record labels in the support of their work. Issued in a beautiful box with extensive notes on each work made by the artist himself, stunning colour photographs by Phil Makanna and a black and white portrait by Pat Kelley, this is absolutely essential and not to be missed.

It is advisable to jealously preserve these archival recordings, especially as evidence of a repertoire which, perhaps also due to its studied naiveté, risks not outliving its creator [...] but this affects in no way their modest and dreamlike ingenuity, permeated by the same vivid colors which the American West Coast bequeathed to the young Robert Sheff.
The fearless work of the late avant-garde pianist is celebrated with a momentous new anthology, showcasing his immense talent and passion. (8.4) | Read more

When he was in kindergarten, the late avant-garde pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny brought his favorite records to show-and-tell. He made tape recordings of sounds in his backyard, sang in his Lutheran church’s choir, and even attended additional Baptist services to accompany them on piano. At 11, he took composition classes at Trinity University, where his teacher sent him off with Charles Ives and Harry Partch LPs after their first lesson. For one of his early assignments, he unintentionally composed a 12-tone piece. He soon befriended composer Philip Krumm, and the two put on events where Tyranny performed music by John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Anton Webern, as well as theater pieces from 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 playing in live ensemble settings, every musician except Tyranny was generally given a solo: “He’s supporting everyone else… that’s who he is.” Those who knew Tyranny considered him one of the greatest pianists alive. And while such praise didn’t lead to sizable fame, archival releases from the label Unseen Worlds—most notably the reissue of avant-pop masterpiece Out of the Blue and the live album Trust in Rock—have helped bring his music to a larger audience. Degrees of Freedom Found, his first posthumous release through the label, is even more momentous: a six-disc anthology featuring 380 minutes of music recorded between 1963 and 2019, complete with extensive liner notes from Tyranny himself.  Tyranny’s closest brush with fame arrived in the early ’70s when he went on tour with the Stooges as their pianist (he and Iggy Pop first played together in the ’60s blues-rock band the Prime Movers). On stage, Tyranny would appear in tattered clothing, with light-emitting diodes in his hair, his sweat occasionally leading to electric shocks. While he wouldn’t continue down this punk path, his resolute spirit remained. During an early-1980s live performance of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, an opera where Tyranny plays the role of “Buddy, the World’s Greatest Piano Player,” shards of a broken mirror cut up his hands and left his piano splattered with blood. 

Such dedication to the craft comes alive on Degrees of Freedom Found. Tyranny’s secret to conjuring deep emotions lies in the tension between structure and spontaneity. While this balancing act isn’t as obvious in his pop works, the solo piano and piano-centric pieces on this collection make his methodology clear. As he navigates the opening piece “A Letter From Home,” taking crooked and diagonal paths along the way, Tyranny maintains a stately, lovely demeanor: an apt reflection of the stream-of-consciousness reminiscing that appears on Out of the Blue’s extended take on the track. Whether at small or grand scales, his compositions were fully-realized.  Revisiting and reworking 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 piano along with an “electronic orchestra,” resulting in a barrage of synthesized instrumentation with technicolor flashes and unpredictable evolution. “The 36 Chords from the Driver’s Son,” another mesmerizing highlight, has seamless modulations and a quizzical structure—there’s power in the gentlest keystrokes and grace in the most rambunctious clanging. The music from “36 Chords” draws from “The Driver’s Son,” a sprawling journey whose 80-minute 1999 performance acts as the box set’s centerpiece. With four other performers providing vocals, synthesizer, and percussion, it is a full-fledged epic, well-deserving of Tyranny’s description of it as an “audio storyboard.”  Tyranny loved avant-garde music for its potential to extend “beyond the particular circumstances of both your life and the whole history of music.” As he explained in Sonic Transports: New Frontiers in Our Music, “To try as much as possible to circumvent Puritanism in the United States and elsewhere is the task.” His political intent is most prominently showcased on “Harvey Milk (Portrait),” a track from 1979 that features a speech from the openly gay San Francisco politician, soundtracked by Tyranny’s sparse electronic blips.

The second half is voiceless—a stark depiction of Milk’s assassination the previous year. This simple change creates an uneasy atmosphere: a meditation on lost hope.  Music provided opportunities for Tyranny to open himself up to unfamiliar terrain, which was the primary goal 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 during a 2001 set and no material left to play. In the introduction, Jenkins shares a story about being stopped by a sheriff and taken to jail. Next, Jenkins vocalizes atop his viola and Tyranny’s piano, both musicians in perfect dialogue. As Tyranny’s piano dances alongside the shrieking strings, he runs through multiple emotions to flesh out the story’s drama.  He could also find inspiration in more lighthearted fare. “How to Swing a Dog,” from 1984, is a boisterous improvisation that features playwright Roger Babb talking at lightning speed from the perspective of a dog; it’s one of the liveliest tracks on Degrees of Freedom Found, and it emanates classic early-’80s art-school humor. On 2019’s “The Forecaster Hopes,” the newest composition, a 1960s electronic analysis of natural, quotidian sounds becomes the source material for generating “quasi-random rhythms” for his string arrangement. The song is at once steady and erratic, defined by a hopeful aura: a musical embodiment of someone moving through life itself. As the final track on Degrees of Freedom Found, it serves as a capstone to this exhaustive overview of Tyranny’s career. It’s the sort of music that leaves you in awe: a reminder that music always did the same for him.

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