Interview with ("blue") Gene TYRANNY ROBERT SHEFF by Loren Means
LM: How did you get involved with Robert Ashley and the Ann Arbor scene?
RS: I'm from Texas, San Antonio. A friend of mine, Philip Krumm, and I started doing concerts in New Music there--we didn't know it, but we were the only people doing anything like that in all of the Southwest. I was just starting high school and he was just graduating. We met one day and just started rapping--started rapping about Charles Ives first of all. And talking about Ives was weird in Texas, people just couldn't get into anything beyond Debussy. And we were into Cage and like that, so we got together and started doing theater concerts and working with other people, mostly not musicians, but like artists and some architecture students and some people at the military bases, composers who were coming through.
We were doing pieces we just couldn't believe--pieces without notes, theater pieces, process music, instructions to do things, the beginning of that whole thing. This in '59 and '60.
Then Philip left to go to Michigan because he had a scholarship to the English Department, but in Michigan he found Gordon Mumma and Bob Ashley and he said I should come up there. So when I graduated from high school, I got a scholarship to Juilliard, which was just sort of a ruse to get out of Texas. I went up there just to look around, it was unbearable...I'd sent them compositions, I won the BMI contest for composers, and I got a scholarship on piano--one of the judges had been down to Texas and had heard me play. But I was just seventeen, just out of high school, and I wasn't used to the New York style of things.
LM: How long did you stay at Juilliard?
RS: I lasted one week. They made it hot for me there--that's an esthetic I learned from Bob Ashley. I went for an examination for composers, and they would accept the things that I wrote in more or less traditional notation, but when they came upon pieces that were written in new forms of notation, such as graph notation, they just out of hand rejected that and said I would have to burn those pieces up and start all over again.
That made me very mad, and it also made me very conscious of the fact that music schools are very political. I believe in using what you need to use--if it's a graph piece it's because you want those elements in there and you want a certain amount of freedom that standard notation really doesn't have. Standard notation can't even handle standard music--it's nearly impossible to write down even a simple jazz improvisation in standard notation, and it would take you months to write down a rock tune, unless you write just the barest elements of the charts. There's no reason logically for opting for standard notation, so it comes down to a political situation, in which the politics is the kind of politics that's non-ecological--it's reactionary, it's destructive.
LM: so you never went to college?
RS: Well, I tried to. I applied to the University of Michigan and they told me to come out and I could get in-State residency in half a year. So I waited half a year, and then they passed this new rule that you had to be twenty-one, and I was only eighteen at the time, so I just decided to forget it. I started playing in rock bands and jazz bands, any kind of music I could get into.
And I started working with Bob Ashley and the ONCE group. In 1960 they started giving concerts of the most modern music there was--John Cage and David Tudor came and gave a concert, there was a Stockhausen concert, an electronic concert...and that started off the ONCE Festivals. And then as things went on there was more jazz--Eric Dolphy played one of their concerts, and later the Judson Dance Group came, they used to be associated with Merce Cunningham, and thy did dance-theatre pieces, dance oriented but with set sound. so more and more the Festivals came to include theater.
And then the ONCE Theatre Group evolved, including people from Ann Arbor like George Manupelli and Bob and Gordon and myself. We would do elaborate light-theatre improvisations with projectors and prisms. The first time we performed out of Ann Arbor was at a theater festival in New York, at the Judson Theatre.
LM: When did you and Robert Ashley come to Mills?
RS: About 1969 he was offered the job here, and he came out, looked around, and at the time there was just nothing--there'd just been a big ripoff. It was really sad when he came here--there was just the one Buchla sitting in a room, and one tape recorder, and space. He was supposed to try to get the thing going again, which seemed impossible, but he decided to do it. Bill Maraldo was a graduate student here and they became co-directors.
LM: How did you come to call yourself "Blue" Gene Tyranny?
RS: the name grew up suddenly in 1972. I was interested in the fascism of the notion that certain things are genetically determined, especially that people of a certain race are less intelligent, and that sort of thing. So there was the notion of "genes," and "blue genes" would be someone who is a criminal perhaps, or born sad, something like that. And "Tyranny" is fairly obvious. I wasn't thinking at the time about the actress named Gene Tierney.