Gene Tyranny

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Robert Nathan Sheff (January 1, 1945 – December 12, 2020 [1] ), known professionally as "Blue" Gene Tyranny, was an American avant-garde composer and pianist.


"His memorable pseudonym, coined during his brief stint with Iggy and the Stooges, was derived partly from Jean, his adoptive mother’s middle name," wrote Steve Smith, in his New York Times obituary for Tyranny. "It also referred to what he called 'the tyranny of the genes' — a predisposition to being 'strongly overcome by emotion,' he said in Just for the Record: Conversations With and About ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, a documentary film." [2]

Robert Nathan Sheff
Birth nameJoseph Gantic
Also known as“Blue” Gene Tyranny
BornJanuary 1, 1945
San Antonio
DiedDecember 12, 2020(2020-12-12) (aged 75)
Long Island City

Early life

Tyranny was born Joseph Gantic in San Antonio on January 1, 1945 to William and Eleanor Gantic. Later that year, after his birth father, an Army paratrooper, went missing in the Asian theater of World War II, his mother put him up for adoption. He was adopted by Dorothy and Meyer Sheff of San Antonio, who changed his name to Robert Nathan Sheff. [3] [4] [5] Tyranny was raised in the Lutheran church. [6] He studied piano with Meta Hertwig and Rodney Hoare, and composition with Otto Wick and Frank Hughes.


Tyranny began his performance career in high school, playing pieces by major composers (such as John Cage) with Philip Krumm in a concert series in San Antonio. He toured with the Carla Bley Band in 1977 [7] and the Prime Movers (which included Iggy Pop and Michael Erlewine) as well as Iggy & The Stooges. "After releasing the album Raw Power in 1973, [Pop] invited his former bandmate to join him on tour," Steve Smith noted in his New York Times obituary for Tyranny. "Mr. Tyranny accepted, performing with red LED lights woven into his hair." [8] He performed on albums by Laurie Anderson (Strange Angels), David Behrman ( On the Other Ocean ), John Cage ( Cheap Imitation and Empty Words), Peter Gordon, and Robert Ashley ( Perfect Lives, Dust, Celestial Excursions), with whom he frequently collaborated.

He taught at Mills College from 1971 to 1982, where his students included composer Hsiung-Zee Wong, and also worked at the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills. He moved to New York in 1983 and received a Bessie in 1988 and in 1989 a Composer Fellowship from the NY Foundation for the Arts.

Tyranny was a contributor for AllMusic, reviewing albums and creating biographies for many notable contemporary artists.

According to Kyle Gann in the Village Voice, Tyranny had "Cecil Taylor's keyboard energy [and] Morton Feldman's ear." "The most original aspect of [his] works," wrote Gann, "is the way they create continuity: they're tonal, yet rigorously asymmetrical. They satisfy the ear without letting it take anything for granted. They evolve...with the labyrinthine irreversibility of deep psychic forces." In another Voice article, Gann was lyrical in his evocation of Tyranny's virtuosity: "God plays the piano through this man. Science cannot explain the speed with which trillions of inspired brain impulses zip through his...hands, resulting in note-perfect works...the 1988 Kitchen improv-with-delay [The Intermediary Following Traces of the Song]...I called 'the most inspired piano performance I've ever heard.' It still is. At his schmaltziest ("Sunrise or Sunset in Texas") he's like Keith Jarrett on an extremely good day. At his best, it's like listening to Ives improvise 'Hawthorne' from the Concord Sonata." [9]

In October 2020, Just for the Record: Conversations With and About "Blue" Gene Tyranny, a documentary film directed by David Bernabo, premiered at the TUSK Festival 2020. [10] In a review of the film for The Wire, Joshua Minsoo Kim wrote, "Hearing Tyranny talk and learning how he lived his life encourages one to go the same way." [11]

Tyranny died in hospice in Long Island City, Queens, on December 12, 2020, of complications of diabetes. [12] [13]

In David Bernabo's documentary film Just for the Record: Conversations With and About ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny, Tyranny said music was a source of solace, but also a means “of deeply informing myself that there’s another world. Music is my way of being in the world.” [14]


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  1. "Steve Smith, "'Blue' Gene Tyranny, Whose Music Melded Genres, Dies at 75"". New York Times. Retrieved 2020-12-22.
  2. Smith, Steve (23 December 2020). "'Blue' Gene Tyranny, Whose Music Melded Genres, Dies at 75". The New York Times.
  3. ""Blue" Gene Tyranny". Retrieved 2018-02-07.
  4. ""Blue" Gene Tyranny (1945–2020)". Retrieved 2021-08-02.
  5. ""Blue" Gene Tyranny Was Texas's Greatest Piano Prodigy". Texas Monthly. 2021-06-26. Retrieved 2021-08-02.
  6. ""Blue" Gene Tyranny: Degrees of Freedom Found". Pitchfork. Retrieved 2021-08-02.
  7. Fred Seibert. "On the road with Carla Bley (and a big band of musical geniuses and misfits)". Fred Seibert Dot Com. Retrieved September 12, 2021.
  8. Smith, Steve (23 December 2020). "'Blue' Gene Tyranny, Whose Music Melded Genres, Dies at 75". The New York Times.
  9. Gann, Kyle (October 2, 1990). ""Blue" Gene Tyranny, The Intermediary, procedural score, realization for piano, synthesizer & playback." AllMusic.
  10. "FILM PROGRAMME - TUSK Festival". Retrieved 2020-09-10.
  11. Kim, Joshua Minsoo(February 2021). "Just For the Record: Conversations with and about “Blue” Gene Tyranny". The Wire. No. 444. p. 75 – via Exact Editions. (subscription required)
  12. Smith, Steve (23 December 2020). "'Blue' Gene Tyranny, Whose Music Melded Genres, Dies at 75". The New York Times.
  13. "@unseen_worlds "Rest in Power "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Robert Sheff, Joe Gantic. 1945-2020". Archived from the original on 2021-12-24. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  14. Smith, Steve (23 December 2020). "'Blue' Gene Tyranny, Whose Music Melded Genres, Dies at 75". The New York Times.