‘A Higher Plane’
Randy Gibson is a sound-world architect. He’s best known in connection with the Avant Music Festival each year in New York. (This year’s opens on 20th February, he performs on 5 March.)
And if you’re familiar with the astonishing work of the late outsider artist James Hampton, who named his 27-foot masterwork sculpture The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, you’re about to meet a man who can outdo even Hampton at titles. Gibson’s newest iteration of his own core work is called: Apparitions of The Four Pillars in The Midwinter Starfield Symmetry under The 72:81:88 Confluence in a setting of Quadrilateral Starfield Symmety A:L Base 11:273 in The 181 Profusion.
Quadrilateral Starfield Symmetry A:L Base 11.273 in The 181 Profusion is a light-and-video installation that envelopes, drenches the performance.
The work lasts three to four hours. Composer and vocalist, Gibson is there to slow down. And to slow you down. With the help of Steven Swartz at DotDotDotMusic, we can let you hear and see some of Gibson’s 2015 doing of Apparitions of the Four Pillars get started. He’s been working on Apparitions for seven years. Novelists can relate, speaking of slowing down. His music is ritualistic, spacious, luxuriantly unhurried, intensely focused.
By contrast, a chat with the personable Gibson is fun, easy, full of laughter. If, as composer Yoichiro Yoshikawa’s Shijima tells us “The Darkness Calms Down In Space,” Gibson-the-guy is lively good company: this composer of trance-like frequencies lightens right up in conversation.
‘I Like To Say Things Slowly’
Thought Catalog: When you come into performance of your own work, it looks to me as if this is almost a form of meditation for you and the other musicians. Is that right?
Randy Gibson: Each time I perform something from that world, I learn more about what it really means. This year, it’s a new experience for us performing it because it’s a much slower piece even than it has been in the past. It encourages us as performers to really, deeply listen to what everyone else is doing and to understand what exactly it is that our sound can contribute to the entire composite waveform of sound in the room.
I was at a rehearsal of [minimalist composer] La Monte Young’s The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (1962), and can’t tell you what a life-changing experience that was. It was music that forced me to rethink everything. That work is only four notes and about 90 minutes long. By really carefully listening to exactly what those four notes are doing, you’re able to go to places that are much further afield. La Monte talks about this “drone state of mind” and having the complete experience, you can move yourself to a higher plane.
The musicians I’m most drawn to working with are the ones who can [tolerate] a meditative aspect to it. They don’t mind sitting onstage for three hours.
I was working with a performer a couple of years ago on one iteration of the piece [Apparitions] and I realized that he’d been playing one note, the same note, for about 20 minutes. After the rehearsal, I said, “You know, it’s okay to change notes, you don’t always have to do that same note.” And he said, “Oh, no, I was happy with that one.”
It’s very close, very intense, very powerful kind of communication. It can really inspire.
‘There’s A Universality To It’
TC: And unlike traditional meditation, your work is interactive. You’re working with other consciousness, your fellow performers.
RG: I think so. That’s one of the things I find interesting, and it’s one of the reasons I show my music with video and in these extreme lighting environments is that it gives an audience member who isn’t primed to be able to go there, a way in. There’s something to look at. You can go on that journey.
I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how long audiences are willing to stay with it. How often people have come up to me afterward to say, “You know, I wish it could have gone on forever.”
TC: That has to be the best compliment you could get, Randy.
RG: It really is. Because that’s really what I’m after. This feeling of eternity. That time is no longer what we need to be concerned with. Especially in the way that people in general interact these days. Everything is so fast, rushing from one thing to another. This work forces people to slow down. It forces us as players to slow down, and I think it forces the audience to do that, too.
TC: And there’s an element of place. Partly through the installation—the lights, the visuals. But there’s also a sense of something liturgical to it. A sense of arrival. I’m sure that some of this for me is just relating the sound to the drone of Nepalese chant. But that helps us feel a sense of walking into a holy space, a sacred ground on which we do want to change the way we relate to the world. You’ve talked of being from Colorado and the effect of the big skies there. Does your understanding of this music have to do with a spiritual mode?
RG: I’m not sure if spiritual is the right word. But I feel like there’s something sacred about it. Does that make sense? Spiritual is definitely a better word than religious. For me, I definitely feel like there’s a universality to it, something that is higher than me and the work, you know? Something greater than the sum of its parts, I hope? And if that’s related to spirituality, that’s okay.
TC: Maybe in the way that John Luther Adams experiences something of that kind in his work that’s so close to the impact of Nature.
RG: Yeah, Nature is really powerful and you know I work with this natural overtone series. In the world, when you start looking close enough, you start to see these patterns, things line up in an ecosystem, they make sense within it.
TC: Consider that you’re being read by people who rarely think or talk about waveform and tone durations and shifting tonalities. How would you describe what this is in your music?
RG: [Long pause, and then:] Simplicity. I think what I’m interested in is making everything as clear as possible. Yes, I’m using a complex tuning structure and I could rattle off a whole string of weird and interesting numbers, but what I’m interested in at the end of the day is a sort of pure, visceral response from someone. I think the intervals I use and the way we use them are able to elicit that in ways that a more traditional approach can do.
TC: You’ve said that the more people are playing—and you’re using a sextet this year—the longer the work becomes.
RG: Even though time is something I’m very interested in as a medium, it’s not my primary concern. What I’m interested in is the sound-world and what I like to say. I like to say things slowly, so it takes a long time.
This piece we’re doing is a chord, a transition, and another chord. And then it all reverses. And it takes about three hours. There’s a lot to work with in these chords.
And it takes time.