Reviews of Chamber Music (CD)

Capstone Records CPS-8621

The Music Connoisseur
Vol. 3, no. 4, Fall 1995

Cover art: Barbara Gibson

These two issues [earlier LP, Music of Robert Gibson], despite the overlap of four selections, add up to enough of Gibson’s work to give us a chance to view the Marylander’s career in some kind of perspective. The LP had left us just a bit puzzled; we picked it up at Tower Records Outlet for 99 cents, leaving us to wonder cynically whether this was the best way a serious American composer with talent gets to be heard – being remaindered in the bargain bin. The music itself gave us a first impression of a composer in search of an identity. The concerto, in particular (very well played, by the way), seemed to us quite un-concerto-like in its deft use of fleeting, somewhat spare ideas shared almost equally by soloist and orchestra, not unlike, say, Sessions, though with not quite the same austerity. Here’s a composer with something to say, we thought, but with a characteristic economy.?? But then pieces like November Field and A Sound Within seemed a bit fuller, yet neo-Impressionistic. Only when trying out the CD did we get a better take on Gibson’s style and language, which is marked by a conviction he knows what he wants to say, that he is unconcerned with current fashions and willing to search out new territories.? The CD tells us those territories are principally sonic, timbral. The three works written between 1987 and the present involve computer-generated tape. The composer sounds like he’s finding the experience exhilarating, certainly in Faces for percussion and tape with its hall-of-mirrors twists and turns. Ex Machina, for tape alone, brings us virtually up to the minute. But we can’t say the ink is not yet dry; apparently there is no ink. The liner notes (unfortunately hard to read; a recurring Capstone problem) indicate Gibson fed the computer a canonic idea and the computer did most of the rest, producing a sort of country dance played by impish robots, a charming result, though the sudden ending?betrays the problematic elements in the process. Nonetheless, Gibson is achieving something we rarely hear in electronic compositions these days, spontaneous forms with genuine musical ideas.

—Barry L. Cohen

The Washington Post, February 25, 1996

Gibson’s rich auditory imagination builds fascinating structures from the lonely sound of an unaccompanied recorder (brilliantly played by Scott Reiss), a dialogue between a plaintive oboe and a gruff double bass, the complex homogeneities of a flute choir and, in later works, the unlimited possibilities of computer–generated sound. There is a temptation, when pure sound becomes so intriguing, to skip the hard work of shaping it into forms that have an inner logic, forms that communicate. But the pieces on this disc, expertly played by a variety of performers, merge the attractions of meaningful structures into those of fascinating texture.

—Joseph McLellan

American Record Guide, Vol. 59, no. 5, July/August 1996

This unassuming disc sports a lovely cover picture of a collection of beautiful stones, eight in number. One more stone would have equaled the number of pieces on the disc. The music is concise and full of sonic variety, opening with a two-minute piece for alto recorder solo, continuing with six minutes for oboe and double bass. Next comes a three-movement suite for flute and guitar, a piano suite, a piece for flute choir, and an attractive suite for cello and piano. Then we get into more recent stuff using electronics; we have three examples, one with flute, one with percussion.?? All of this is music by Robert Gibson (b. 1950). Born in Atlanta, Georgia, he now teaches at the University of Maryland. This appears to be his first recording. It is attractive stuff, unthreatening but not mindless. There is a sense of both the impressionists and the neoclassicists about his moods. I am reminded of Debussy’s late sonatas by his neat but always colorful writing. His feeling for all of the instruments is unerring, bringing out each character effectively and never pushing the player too hard for comfort. Since finally buying a car with a working radio, I have been enjoying John Schaeffer on Public Radio on my way home. I would recommend this disc to him for his New Sounds program. I suspect you would enjoy it also.

—D. Moore

Fanfare, Volume 20, Number 2, November/December, 1996

Little is given on this release about the composer or the provenance of the recording. More’s the pity because it is stunning. The small blurb on the last panel of the program notes says only that Robert Gibson was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1950 and that he is currently associate professor of theory and composition at the University of Maryland, which, along with the Maryland State Arts Council, provided financial support for the composition of Mirage, Calling, and Faces, and the realization of this recording. From what my ears tell me, they are backing a winner. Gibson’s voice is fully formed, attractive, and compelling. He is a minimalist in terms of time—the longest piece, Faces (1989), is 8:23 in length; the shortest, Matin (1976/92), 2:05—but a maximalist in terms of how much affective power and depth he packs into his tiny time spaces.?? As to describing Gibson’s influences and their impact on his music. I can do no better than to quote the opening of his brief but trenchant liner notes: “My earliest memories of wanting to compose music are associated with ‘The Purple Grotto’—a jazz show broadcast from a black radio station in Atlanta. Especially I remember one spring in my early high school years when listening to this show in the late afternoon was a ritual. Herb Lance, host of the Grotto, was fond of Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, and Art Blakey, and I had never heard any music other than a few harmonizations from the Baptist Hymnal that moved me so deeply.?My small record collection at this time soon included Miles Davis. Debussy, Charles Ives, and Edgard Varèse. I did not understand all of this music, but I loved the sounds.”

The release is cogently laid out-generally chronologically (spanning from 1975 to 1995) and presenting an eventful odyssey from the most unadorned acoustical sound (the incantational Matin, performed on the alto recorder by Scott Reiss) to the purely computer-generated Ex Machina. In all cases the music grows spontaneously and fluently from its medium and, as in the best scoring, both musical line and its instrumental realization become inextricable from each other. The resourceful and often striking exploration of instrumental sonority is but one element of Gibson’s art. As with all worthy composers from Josquin to Gubaidulina, Gibson urges us to rethink the fundamental elements of music. In his haunting Mirage (for the unlikely ensemble of eight flutes), melody, counterpoint, and harmony are thoroughly merged into a single. almost primordial, entity. Gibson came into electronic music a medium where it sometimes seems to [him] as if one has been allowed to listen to dreams – through Varese. Armed with the late-twentieth-century computer, he creates, in the last three scores on this release, three fascinating and otherworldly realms. In his hands, the computer becomes a cosmic organ. In his inventive exploitation and sheer musicality, I rank him with Shirish Korde.?? The underlying but unsure texts that inform much of this music are often translations from the Japanese. They are, as is the music, strikingly economical. Gibson states: “Sound for me is often associated with visual images, whether or not there is some direct suggestion of a relationship, as with instrumental settings of haiku poetry.” Indeed. haiku poetry and visual imagery are nonlinear: their poetic power instantaneous, as are Gibson’s realizations. An understanding of Gibson’s inspirational impetus is often illuminating but not essential. His music is, in the final analysis, pure music—eight musical distillates—pungent and sometimes overpowering. All performances are technically impeccable, completely sympathetic, and illuminating. The recording is clear, timbrally true, and impactful, both in its realization of the acoustical instruments and the computer-generated pieces. If Mahler can be likened to a musical novelist, then Gibson is a poet. At a timing of 55:13, this one is all too brief because it is all too significant. In sum, pure Want List material by any measure.

—William Zagorski

Fanfare, Volume 20, no. 2, November/December, 1996

Once again the perennial exercise in frustration is upon us—to isolate the best of what we have either reviewed, or have heard, over the past year. The problem encountered by an avowed musical generalist like myself is that there are no real, immutable criteria that can be applied with equal nonchalance to everything in my bailiwick. As one who (like my many colleagues on this magazine) regularly tries to describe the indescribable and quantify the unquantifiable. I hereby offer the only criterion that has, in the long run, any meaning at all: Did I return to that particular recording for my own, wholly self-serving pleasure??? The five, listed below in random order, all pass and continue to pass that test…Robert Gibson’s Chamber Music (see the review in this issue) wins accolades on the grounds of Gibson’s almost perfect (nothing can be wholly perfect) mastery of compositional techniques and his compelling inner poetry.

—William Zagorski

20th Century Music, Volume 5, no. 4, April 1998

Robert Gibson writes lovely and competent chamber music, as demonstrated in his recent release from Capstone. The composer cites Miles Davis, Debussy, Charles Ives, and Edgar Varèse, and one can hear the influence—always on the gentle side of these geniuses. Evident as well is a certain Japanese sensibility (rather ancient or medieval, and sometimes quite animated) exemplified by his Four Haiku (1976/1992), settings not on texts but moods, scored for cello and piano (Sally Gibson Dorer and Naoko Takao). There’s a certain brief and enigmatic quality manifest in other works as well, such as the all-to-brief and haunting Matin (1975/1995) for alto recorder (Scott Reiss’s performance sounding as a sophisticated take on one of those tracks often heard in nature films) and the many-mooded Three Sketches (1977) for flute / alto flute and guitar (George Hummel and Jeffrey Meyerriecks). Unusual ensembles are also in evidence. How often do we get to hear duets for oboe and double bass? Let us hope the performances are always as fine as the one here in November Field (1976), with John Dee and Lucas Drew. The mirage flutes in the shimmering Mirage (1984) almost inevitably calls up baroque consort, the second movement of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, and Brant’s Angels and Devils—but certainly any piece contributing to this sound world is welcome.

The brief–yet–varied worlds are also featured in A Sound Within, which range from fiery animation to a kind of drowned Thelonious Monk sonambulance. The album is rounded out by three compositions featuring computer–generated tape: Calling (1987), Faces (1989), and Ex Machina(1994/1995). In the former two works, high tech is married to the expertise of flutist Kristin Winter–Jones and percussionist Steven Hall. While in each marriage, the personality of the child comes through more clearly in the acoustic components, the final selection transcends transistors in an appealingly peripatetic faux–pianism.

— Phillip George