Monday, July 13, 2015

ArtIfacts: Recent Chamber Works by Mara Gibson

Mara Gibson's music is all about sound. That is certainly not to say there is no form or melodic elements, but rather to say conventionality yields to the palate of sounds and even visual media available to the modern composer. Mara celebrates sound through the stretching the limits of an instrument or ensemble. Her work celebrates the creative process as well through the connection of words and music and the connection of physical elements and musical sound. In all her works on this CD of recent chamber works, moments of lyric intensity are interrupted by sounds that one might think is coming from another instrument or sound world. Never done just for shock or display, the new sounds propel the works along and become a part of the long stitched fabric. Thus a key to experiencing her music to the fullest is not to concentrate only on the short motifs but to look at the long view of a work... it becomes crystal clear.

Yes, her music is tough listening. This is not music to listen to while folding laundry, Lord knows I tried that and soon the laundry was forgotten. It requires concentration and an open ear, which opens a world of color, drama and sound. Since Mara Gibson lives and teaches in Kansas City, I have had many opportunities to hear her music live and often experienced their first performances. Her music is even more engaging and satisfying heard live as you feel as well as hear its power and motion.

The generously programmed CD begins with 2013's “Moments” for clarinet, viola and piano. Gibson's epic trio in three parts further divided into eight movements (“methods and “improvisations”) is inspired by a quote from Confucius:

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” 

The piece starts with the viola and clarinet vaguely in unison. After this short introduction, their tones bend and separate as they go their own way. The piano's role is to comment and reflect on the other instruments musings while providing cohesion and framework. All three members have extensive, improvisatory solo “moments”. The clarinet's is melodic, even jazz edged. The viola explores the woody, earthy textures of its strings through extensive pizzicato. The piano grandly concludes the solo “moments” with a climatic cadenza worthy of Henry Cowell using both the piano's keys and the strings. The third part, “Experience,” serves as a coda, with the trio finally playing as an integrated ensemble. The music here had a tinge of bitterness and resignation but a also a certain final confidence and consonance.

Michael Hall, viola, Thomas Aber, clarinet and Robert Pherigo premiered this piece and give it a loving, compelling performance. Not likely to hear any better.

2014's "Flone", for flute alone, written for and performed here by Italian flutist Luisa Sello, is based on Bach's "Partita for Flute" BWV 1013. Atavistic fluttering and the pizzicato of tapped keys evoke earth sounds as the theme from the Allemande of the Partita emerges and takes flight. The theme is embellished until it climaxes and deconstructs into fragments, returning to the earth music of the opening. A most compelling and fascinating work and sure winner of the Most Cleverly Appropriate Title of the Year award.

“Canopy” for solo viola and mixed media was inspired by “Ferment,” a massive outdoor sculpture installation by Roxy Paine at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, and premiered by violist Michael Hall at the unveiling ceremonies in April 2011. The work has become one of Gibson's most performed works and receives its deserved CD premiere. “Ferment” is at once recognizable as a tree but also foreign and desolate in its cold, hard, metallic construction. Gibson’s substantial 15 minute piece has many of the same characteristics; the mixed media blending and contrasting its other worldly, metallic sounds with the warm wood of the viola. “Canopy” explores organic growth, long lines from the viola predominate while the media comments on and propels the soloist, alternating periods of stasis and growth finally reaching the fragile threads of a lone, barren tree’s highest, most delicate branches. “Canopy” is a most fascinating and colorful work, deserving of its many performances; the one here with the incomparable violist Michael Hall being as definitive as one can get.

“Map of Rain Hitting Water” (2006 rev. 2012), conceived for solo percussion and video (by media artist Caitlin Horsman), is inspired by the poem “Clarence Playing” by Wayne Miller....

By the song’s end, he reaches into a brief
Rapture of completion (as a child reaches
into a cabinet of sweets). Though,
Now he thinks perhaps the music’s
More like a map of rain hitting water—

...and the relationship between how words visually appear on the page and how they sound. Unfolding slowly and hypnotically, “Map” is just as enjoyable without the video (which can be seen here) as it is with the images. Compositions like this can often become meaningless Muzak. But Map, with mostly metallic percussion (with a persistent pulse of a woodblock and log drum) is always colorful and expressive, it slowly progresses and subtly draws you into its world. Brilliantly performed by Mark Lowery who commissioned it and for whom it was composed. The bright, clear recording brings out every nuance and shade of color in the percussion and associated sounds.

Two short works “Hands” and “Lullaby” (2006) for two pianos (fine performances from pianists Ya-Ting Liou and Blas Gonzalez) are movements from larger work titled “Duo”. “Hands” is a propulsive moto perpetuo of falling figures, starting in the lowest register and ending in the eerie highs. “Lullaby”, appropriate to its title, is a short, magical essay evoking a music box or two gently (and sometimes not so gently) tempting to leave reality and enter a world of dreams and suspension of time.

“E:Tip”, for cello and fixed media, is one of three works for varying ensembles inspired by the trajectory and refraction of an eclipse. “E:Tip” stretches the tones of the cello through time and space, ebbing a flowing through a cloud of sound created by electronically manipulating the droning of bullfrogs in a pond. Another successful example of Gibson's hypnotic and gently unfolding sound essays, wonderfully realized here by Alan Wong, cello.

Every work is worth a listen or twelve, each one always displaying Gibson's considerable, distinctive voice. Well recorded with excellent and intelligent notes and bios of the performers and composer, the CD is available through CD Baby, Google Play, Amazon, Spotify or in old fashioned hard copy by contacting the composer at

ArtIfacts is a labor of love, a festival of performers and a composer enjoying their craft and relishing their collaborations. And contemporary music is richer for the effort.

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