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,…