What’s in a name? It’s a question that arises when thinking about a boy born Joseph Gantic in San Antonio on New Year’s Day 1945 to William and Eleanor Gantic. But when his birth father went missing over the Asian theater during World War II that year, the infant was given up for adoption.
Named Robert Nathan Sheff by his adopted family, he became a child prodigy, playing piano from a young age and studying composition by the age of eleven. As an adult, Sheff rechristened himself “Blue” Gene Tyranny, a funny, fantastical name that can scan as a comment on genetics, a pun on that ubiquitous Texas fabric, and a skewed tribute to forties leading lady Gene Tierney.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny won’t be a familiar name to most, as the Texan was as chameleonic as his many shifting names would suggest (for the groundbreaking opera Perfect Lives, Tyranny even took on the character of “Buddy, the World’s Greatest Piano Player”). But for a generation of artists, Tyranny was a vital collaborator. His keen ear, polymath musical pedigree, and empathetic piano work supported the likes of Iggy Pop, composer Robert Ashley, jazz composers like Carla Bley and Bill Dixon, Laurie Anderson, and numerous modern dance troupes. He tended to deflect attention from himself, releasing albums under his name only intermittently. But with the recent retrospective six-CD box set of the late composer and accompanist, Degrees of Freedom Found, Tyranny’s full range can be properly heard.
The small Texas label Unseen Worlds got its start in 2007 with a CD reissue of Tyranny’s exquisite 1978 debut album, Out of the Blue, reintroducing its avant-pop charms to a new generation of listeners. The label has since relocated to New York, but it comes full circle with Degrees of Freedom Found, presenting well over six hours of Tyranny’s previously unreleased music.
Freedom Found, culling music from his personal archives, was a project begun in the last stages of Tyranny’s life. And while he didn’t live to see it to completion (he died from complications of diabetes at the end of 2020), the set is a lasting tribute, comprising the most comprehensive portrait of the man’s preternatural musical mind. It’s the perfect document of an unclassifiable talent, impossible to absorb or assess in one listen—or even ten—and revealing astonishing new musical discoveries with every play.
Tyranny spent most of his adult life performing and teaching composition at Ann Arbor, Michigan, at Mills College in Oakland, and in New York City, but the musical stew of his South Texas upbringing is never far from the surface. As a kid, Tyranny would take a little transistor “radio to bed and hide it so my parents couldn’t hear it,” he told his colleague Ned Sublette in an interview. “That’s how you got your music.”
Bob Wills’s Texas swing and Tex-Mex, Fats Domino–style R&B and Sunday-morning gospel—these were but some of the sounds that nurtured him. After his first composition class at Trinity University at age eleven, his teacher sent him home with the works of singular American composers like Charles Ives and Harry Partch.
As a teenager, Sheff began staging new music events with friend and fellow budding composer Philip Krumm. But on the weekends, he could be found banging the keys in rock and roll bands at the local drive-in theater. The two corresponded with the likes of John Cage, Yoko Ono, La Monte Young, and other avant-garde composers, world-premiering pieces at San Antonio’s McNay Institute, no mean feat for two teenagers in South Texas not yet out of high school.
When, at the age of sixteen, Sheff won a BMI Student Composer Award in 1961, he moved to Ann Arbor, where he worked with pickup groups for touring Motown artists, a blues band with the future Iggy Pop, as well as a new generation of avant-garde composers like Ashley and Gordon Mumma.
Deep into Freedom Found, you can hear on disc six “Wooden Nickels,” a silky, soul jazz track with a nine-piece band helmed by the future Tyranny on a Hammond organ in the late sixties. It nestles in alongside “How to Swing a Dog”—a manic synth ditty from the eighties—and a haunting electronic meditation from 1979 based on a speech by gay rights activist Harvey Milk. There’s also a honky-tonk version of Tyranny’s song “Leading a Double Life,” recast as a ballad. All of the above transpires within a 45-minute span.
There are plenty of portals into Tyranny’s musical mind, but one that stands out is disc five’s “Daylight Savings.” It opens with instantly recognizable riffs on “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” before detouring into a contemplative, lyrical solo piano piece. You’ll find yourself humming along with those deeply ingrained melodies and then wondering where Tyranny has transported you. A solo synth soundtrack for dancers dating from 1984, “Barn Fever,” ranges from the whimsical to the cosmic across its 25 minutes, veering from cheesy lounge music to surreal pharmaceutical ad, and finally reaching transcendence at the end.
Freedom Found doesn’t always make sense. Disc one offers up the ruminative solo piano piece “The 36 Chords From the Driver’s Son.” A few discs on, it returns as an expansive, elaborate ninety-minute-plus piece “The Driver’s Son,” what Tyranny called an audio storyboard. It bears some resemblance to some of his more beloved works, like the spoken word and electronic meditations from his first album or Robert Ashley’s Private Parts, yet it feels far more arduous. I haven’t quite been able to unlock it yet. But as the box set moves on, that flummoxing quality becomes one of its strengths, always foregrounding Tyranny’s prodigal talents.
Which is a rare treat. As one sound engineer described it in the 2020 documentary Just for the Record: Conversations With and About “Blue” Gene Tyranny, “he’s supporting everyone else … that’s who he is.” He was the consummate collaborator, and here the curtain finally pulls back to reveal the wizard at work building his own idiosyncratic worlds. You’re as likely to be thoroughly enchanted by a piece of Tyranny’s solo piano as you are baffled by whatever comes next. Piece to piece, disc to disc, Freedom Found is boldly contradictory, much like the poet Walt Whitman’s proclamation: “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” No matter the name, “Blue” Gene Tyranny’s many personas fill every corner of the set.