MOUNTING THE FOUR PILLARS
Avant Media curator and NY-based composer Randy Gibson has stated of his Apparitions of The Four Pillars in The Midwinter Starfield Under The Astral 789 Duet, “My ultimate goal with my work is to create a fully enveloping meditative experience that allows the listener to transcend time and place and be fully in the performance.” That particular goal was achieved in unforgettable manner for this listener when the work was presented in Manhattan on March 1st, 2014 as this year's festival closer. Time seemed to gradually suspend itself as the piece unfolded, from its full drone beginning until its eventual finish 190 minutes later. In between, the six musicians—Gibson (voice and sine waves), Jen Baker and William Lang (trombones), Drew Blumberg and Erik Carlson (violins), and Meaghan Burke (cello)—collectively generated an hypnotic mass of slowly mutating sound that advanced almost imperceptibly through multiple stages; mention also should be made of the critical contributions made by Oscar Henriquez (video sculpture) and Kryssy Wright (lighting design) to the work's presentation. Shortly after the performance, the composer spoke with textura at length about Apparitions of The Four Pillars and other projects, including The First Pillar Appearing in Supernova, his recent cassette release on the Important Records sub-label Cassauna.
Randy Gibson: "Apparitions of The Four Pillars" (Excerpt)
01. Now that the 2014 Avant Music Festival is over, I'm curious to hear your impressions of the festival in terms of how successful it was, artistically and otherwise. And how has the public and media response to the festival been?
This year's festival felt really wonderful. I was extremely proud of the performances we presented and the diversity they represented. Alvin Lucier wrote a remarkable new vocal work for Joan La Barbara to perform and getting to work on the electronic elements of that performance was incredibly exciting and rewarding. We also presented John Cage's Europera 5, which is something that Kryssy Wright (our lighting designer) and I have been dreaming of doing for years.
The response we've gotten to the festival is really great. When Megan Schubert and I set out to put together our first one, we never could have dreamed where it would take us. But in the last couple years, we've both really felt like we've become a fixture of the downtown scene in New York and that we're offering composers a really special opportunity to do that crazy thing they've always been thinking of but haven't had the right place. Being able to help bring these works to fruition is extremely satisfying.
02. Since 2003 you've studied with La Monte Young and since 2005 raga singing in the Kirana tradition with Young and Marian Zazeela. Are those studies still carrying on today and, if so, how frequently? What does a typical lesson consist of?
I do still study with Khan Sahib La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and Jung Hee Choi. I'll have a formal lesson every couple of months, but really, it's about so much more than that. Every moment with them is an education; I'm constantly learning, and they're constantly pushing me to learn more and be better. I come from a very independent background, educationally: I got kicked out of a few schools, I would drive my music teachers to quit, and I dropped out of University after two weeks, but it was always because I was questioning, pushing the boundaries, finding my own way.
From the first moments I spent with Khan Sahib and Marian, which was a late-night composition lesson sometime in 2003, I knew that under their tutelage I would find my right path. Khan Sahib is a truly remarkable teacher and is incredibly supportive of the work that I do. Whether it's hearing a story of the great masters of the past, passed down through the generations, or Khan Sahib selecting a raga for me to learn that, through lots of practice will move my voice to the next level and give me a deeper understanding of the form or reflect some aspect of my own compositions, or something as simple but profound as a blessing at the end of the day on my way home, or those silent moments of contemplation after a performance. It's all a part of a bigger picture that I know is just the beginning of a long and transcendent journey.
03. Let's discuss the March 1st performance of Apparitions of The Four Pillars in The Midwinter Starfield Under The Astral 789 Duet that was presented in Manhattan. First of all, given that the piece has been presented before (albeit in different configurations), was this latest presentation, with its arrangement for two trombones, two violins, cello, voice, and sine waves, the most fully realized one to date?
This was the best performance of the work to date, and I think the best ensemble I've had as well, which is a big part of it. I'm constantly revising, improving, and building this idea of Apparitions of The Four Pillars. The earliest incarnations of this work relied heavily on the mathematical relationships of the tuning, separating out each “Pillar” and then combining them. These versions were very successful and taught us a lot about how the piece could function; they were sort of prototypes for what the piece could become. In 2012, I presented two different versions of the work, Circular Trance Surrounding The Second Pillar, a seventy-minute septimal raga written for the vocal ensemble Ekmeles, and The Third Pillar in Primal Imperfect Palindrome, a two-hour-plus work for solo trombone written for William Lang, who has been performing Apparitions with me since I began working on it. This was a new way of really delving deeply into a single aspect of the work, and I learned a lot from how these pillars could function as their own entity.
Last year we presented a work with the same title as this year, and the two are clearly related, although this year's approach to the material felt much more free and natural, whereas last year we had used a slightly more traditionally notated score. I think the listener would clearly hear the two pieces as the same piece, but for us as performers, this year's version felt like a major step forward. We were really all focusing and performing at a very high level, and it felt like a great spiritual communion.
04. In reflecting on the concert, I was reminded of a recent review of a Morton Feldman recording in The Wire in which the writer commented on the above-average degree of concentration required by both the musicians and listeners for the respective performance and reception of the work. How draining an experience is it for you and the other musicians to perform Apparitions of the Four Pillars, given the degree of concentration involved in performing a work of 190-minute duration? And what kind of pre-concert preparation is undertaken to get such a work ready for presentation?
It's incredibly draining. You're right, the degree of concentration that we have to maintain is extremely high, not only to perform for these sorts of durations, but also to be tuning as accurately as we are and listening to each other in this highly active way. We are functioning as a unit on stage, and having this hyper-sensitivity to what everyone else is doing as well as to what you, yourself, are contributing is very, very draining. In many ways, the duration is the least strenuous aspect of the work. After the performance this year, as we were collecting ourselves backstage and sharing our feelings with each other, several of the performers remarked that they felt like they could have gone another half hour or so, at least.
You know, I don't write with the duration in mind, unless it needs to be something quite short; I just think about what I need to say and let it happen naturally. So while the duration is certainly an aspect of the preparation, the mechanics of being on stage (comfort, hydration, etc.) for that long are one thing, I think our biggest challenge is a mental one.
05. Could you elaborate on the guidelines that the musicians operate within as they play the piece and to what degree those guidelines allow them to improvise?
This was the area where we had the greatest improvement this year. Last year the score was two pages long, and the performances lasted around two hours, much shorter than I thought it would be, whereas this year the score was only a single page, and the performance was just over three hours. Basically, the score is a series of chords, with an approximate duration assigned to them based on a single statement of the melody that happens within the drone at the highest range of our hearing. There are set ways that we move through each chord, as well as specific pitches for us to focus on, but the entire composition, except for a short moment near the end is completely improvised. I've been working with most of these performers for a long time, and we can listen to each other and understand what is needed to make the work a success, and so because of this I've been able to make our guidelines more freeing, allowing us to focus on creating beauty in the moment, with each other, rather than feeling tied to some notes on a piece of paper.
06. One of the most compelling issues that arises from the listener's experience of the work has to do with time, and I'm not referring to simply the detail of the 190-minute length, even if that in itself is compelling. Listeners who grow up within the Western tradition bring to musical reception expectations about development within a given piece. One of the more fascinating things about Apparitions of The Four Pillars is that it challenges convention by having development occur at a much slower pace, a move that in turn brings about a corresponding adjustment, a recalibration if you prefer, within the listener. If I'm remembering the concert correctly, for example, as the musicians' onstage performance drew to its conclusion, their individual contributions grew ever more minimal until their playing ended altogether. Yet this development occurred in such a prolonged manner that it required a great amount of concentration for the listener to realize that the material was being reduced in this way. Could you describe, then, how notions of time and development operate in your work, as well as comment on how challenging it is for you and the other musicians to become comfortable in effecting that temporal adjustment in the material as it's performed?
I like the idea of a recalibration; that's really what it is. And I think this is one of the reasons I choose to include the approximate duration in the program. One of La Monte's most famous tenets is that “Tuning Is A Function Of Time,” and I try to keep that in mind when I'm performing. As Terry Riley has said, “Western music is fast because it's not in tune,” but if you look at Indian music, you see the tempo slow. The majestic alap of a well-rendered raga is stunning, and duration becomes an aspect there. One of my favourite concepts, and one that I return to over and over is from the alap of a raga, a concept called bhadat where each pitch is systematically introduced, slowly, and one-at-a-time, ascending the scale. I take this practice now as a method of structuring the chords of my work. Each subsequent chord introduces a single new pitch, and it's our job as performers to set that up so that when it happens, it seems like the logical next step and emerges naturally from the sound world we've built up. We don't even use the full scale available to us in this work until well past the two-hour mark. That's how I'm dealing with time on a grand scale.
One of the few concepts that I've held to from my early interest in the works and theories of John Cage is his idea of a micro-macro-cosmic relationship, “subdivision by a square root.” Basically it's the idea in a lot of his early works that every small section is related to every larger section proportionately. He was usually referring to rhythm when he talked about this, but you can apply it to any aspect of the composition. So in this piece there is the vertical statement of the scale, the drone in which we perform, then at the next level down is this single statement of the central melody within that drone that takes a little over three hours. Each chord that we're performing is based on the current melodic pitch that's changing within the drone, and our moment-to-moment thinking concerns this melody as well. It's the idea that every aspect of the work is interrelated and connected.
As performers, this temporal shift happens quite naturally. As I've already said, these musicians have been performing with me for a long time. Drew Blumberg has been playing my work since about 2002, and William Lang has been performing it since 2010. I choose musicians to work with that have, in addition to the technical proficiency to be able to perform the tunings, the right demeanour and personality to perform it effectively. Mariel Roberts, a truly gifted cellist, wasn't able to perform this year, but introduced me to Meaghan Burke who is equally phenomenal. When I first met Meaghan and told her about the duration, the idea was met with an enthusiastic thumbs up and a “Great!”—that's the kind of performer I'm looking for. So I think that our own comfort with the scale of the work comes across to the listener in a way that guides them gently into this sort of time-scale.
07. It was fascinating to see that after the musicians' contributions to the work ended and they left the stage, there was no applause but instead silence, with the only sound remaining the drone. How do you account for that response, and is it characteristic of the audience's response to the work? Is it less satisfying for those performing not to receive the immediate gratification of applause?
It's interesting you mention this. A long time ago Pandit Pran Nath established the idea of no applause after his concerts, which, I think goes back to a more serious, religious, spiritual approach to music which Guruji promoted, and La Monte and Marian have followed this practice as well. So every single concert of theirs that I've been to has not had applause at the end. Applause really acts as a reset button on the experience, and if we're interested in creating something eternal, then why would we break that with applause? You hit the nail on the head here mentioning “the musicians' contributions to the work”—this is exactly right: the drone continues and is as much a part of the composition as what we do as performers. I never had to tell the audience not to applaud, but last year, we made a conscious decision to just not encourage it, to remove the visual cues that we are so attuned to. I discussed it with the performers last year, and they all agreed that it would be nice to not have the interruption of applause, to really let the vibrations continue. And they did, we finished performing and left the stage, the drone didn't change, the lights didn't change, the video didn't change, and there was no applause. It actually feels really wonderful to have the drone keep going unimpeded, to allow the music to live on in our minds.
08. Let's shift the focus to your latest release, The First Pillar Appearing in Supernova, which was recently issued in a cassette format on Cassauna. First, in what way does this release, which features two half-hour settings, relate to the Apparitions of the Four Pillars, and, secondly, why is it being presented on cassette as opposed to, say, a CD format?
For the Cassauna release, I focused on cassette again, as I had for my earlier release Analog Apparitions for The Tapeworm. So the format is really a part of the piece. The vocal drones were recorded onto cassette and then manipulated on cassette into the pieces you hear. The dual-sided nature of cassette as well is interesting to me, and something I explored with these works.
To answer your question about how they relate to Apparitions, it's this: each side takes half of the scale and very slowly presents it as a chord. It's The First Pillar—24 32 36 27—on both sides, but on the first side 24 and 32 implode into the tones between that space, the Abyss, on the second 24 and 36 move outward to 32, filling in The Midwinter Starfield.
This was all done one pitch at a time on a variable-speed cassette player and layered. The first side is exclusively voice, the second side has a bit of violin, but once the full chord is sustained it becomes otherworldly. Someone jumping into the work in the middle probably wouldn't immediately recognize the instrumentation.
09. As you're aware, I greatly admire your Just Intonation piano recording, Aqua Madora, which was chosen as one of textura's top 10 albums of 2011 (reviewed here). Are there any plans to do another piano album as a follow-up?
I'm actually working on a new piano piece for the amazing pianist R. Andrew Lee, known for his long-duration performances. It's going to be a part of the Apparitions of The Four Pillars family of works, but will use a new technique I've been developing for adjusting the harmonic language of the piano, and I'm hoping we'll be able to release a recording of that piece at some point.
10. Admittedly, a studio recording of a work rarely captures the magic of a live presentation. Nevertheless, it would be wonderful to have Apparitions of the Four Pillars available in a physically documented form. Is there any chance of that happening someday?
I'd love to release a recording of this work, but it would most likely be a live recording, as Aqua Madora was. The magic of a live performance is really something, and, I think with this piece, the recordings are clean enough that one could potentially be releaseable.
It's really a matter of figuring out the right format to release something that is over three hours long without cutting it up into chunks, which I simply wouldn't want to do. Perhaps a DVD would be the right choice.