“Blue” Gene Tyranny is a musician’s musician, someone who makes everyone around them sound better. As music writer Nicole Gagne explains in Just For the Record: Conversations with and about “Blue” Gene Tyranny, the first feature film to survey Tyranny’s work, “because he’s been very good at helping people sound their best--from Robert Ashley and Laurie Anderson, Carla Bley, Iggy Pop--it can make it hard for [his] own personality to be sufficiently distinct.”
But Tyranny is also a composer; a creator of systems for composing and frameworks for improvised music; someone who composed graphic scores and tape pieces in the days of the ONCE Group, 70s pop run through contemporary music processes at Mills College in the 70s, and audio storyboards and song cycles in New York in the 80s and 90s; a pianist; an improviser of great depth and nuance and virtuosic skill.
Just For the Record locates San Antonio, Ann Arbor, Oakland, and New York City as locations where Tyranny’s compositions and collaborations developed. Filmmaker David Bernabo takes a deep dive on the recently reissued Out of the Blue and the long lost Trust In Rock concert, on the long-gestating audio storyboard The Driver’s Son, and Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives. Interwoven with discussions on Tyranny’s music is a conversation about the nature of reissues and how distribution is survival for many aging musicians.
Throughout the documentary, Bay Area filmmaker K. O. Beckman’s films with Tyranny, dating back to the 70s, provide rarely-seen performances and video projects.
The film features conversations with Tyranny, composer/musicians Joan La Barbara, Peter Gordon, Kyle Gann, David Grubbs, Philip Perkins, Jeff Berman, and Bill Ruyle, writer Nicole Gagne, artist Pat Oleszko, and Unseen Worlds owner Tommy McCutchon.
Without knowing it, “Blue” Gene Tyranny provided my first education in American 20th Century Classical music. Many evenings in high school were spent cross-referencing musicians listed in allmusicguide.com where Tyranny’s album reviews took up a lot of real estate. I would tab over to Audiogalaxy to see if the music that I was reading about was available for download. Much of it was! This process changed my life. Many of these musical finds are still with me today, albeit in multiple physical, legally purchased forms on the bookshelf.
I knew “Blue” was a composer, but I thought of him as a writer first and, thus, frequently passed up his records at the record store. I bought Robert Ashley’s Celestial Excursions. I didn’t understand it. I was attracted to the Phil Makanna photograph on the cover of The Somewhere Songs/The Invention of Memory. I looked at it for years before buying it. Popping it in the car CD player, I was disappointed, thinking, “I didn’t sign up for stories about aliens.” Then the fourth track came on, and I melted, overwhelmed by the beauty and grace of the chords, the sequence and pacing. That song--“Now Minus One”--was the key. It unlocked an intense appreciation for all of “Blue”’s music and the music of Robert Ashley and Jacqueline Humbert and Sam Ashley and others. And that’s the song that opens the film.