“Blue” Gene Tyranny (1945–2020)

December 28, 2020

The composer and pianist Robert Sheff, better known as “Blue” Gene Tyranny—whose collaborations with the likes of Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley, Carla Bley, and Iggy Pop placed him at the center of the avant-garde’s entanglement with pop music—died of complications from diabetes on December 12 in Long Island City, Queens, where he lived for the last two decades. Announcing his passing on Instagram, the record label Unseen Worlds called Tyranny “a shining enigma of generosity and brilliance, so gifted musically that he was able to live his life in music.”

Born Joseph Gantic in San Antonio, Tyranny was adopted at an early age by Meyer and Dorothy Jean Sheff, who renamed him Robert Nathan and enrolled him in piano lessons. In his teens, Tyranny began to perform works by the likes of John Cage and Charles Ives, organizing a series of experimental music concerts with the local composer Philip Krumm. Through he was invited to study performance at the Julliard School, in 1961 Tyranny instead moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to live and work. It was as a part of that city’s music scene there that he met local composer Robert Ashley, who then organized the ONCE Festival of New Music, and James Osterberg Jr.—later known as Iggy Pop—with whom he played in the pre-Stooges Prime Movers Blues Band.

In 1971, Tyranny followed Ashley to Oakland’s Mills College, where he held the position of lecturer and instructor in music for eleven years while also recording and touring with other artists. In 1973, Iggy Pop invited his former bandmate to play keys on the protopunk Raw Power tour; three years later Tyranny’s “Trust in Rock” concerts, held at Berkeley’s University Museum of Art, brought together the composer’s own work with that of Peter Gordon in a three-night fusion of rock, jazz, and new music. Tyranny also featured prominently in Ashley’s television opera Perfect Lives, 1978–83, for which he played “Buddy (The World’s Greatest Piano Player)” and contributed piano harmonies that followed the older composer’s loosely outlined score.

Tyranny’s solo records, most of which were released on Mimi Johnson’s label Lovely Music, include Out of the Blue (1978), Just For the Record (1979), Harvey Milk/Portrait (1980), The Intermediary (1982), and Country Boy Country Dog (1994). He received a composer award at the Bessies in 1988 and a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1989. David Bernabo’s documentary about Tyranny, Just For the Record, was released on Vimeo this year. Degrees of Freedom Found, a six-CD box set of the composer’s collected works, will be issued by Unseen Worlds in early 2021.