Thursday, August 04, 2022

Yearning to Be Heard: Kenneth Gaburo, "Five Works for Voices, Instruments, and Electronics"

Kenneth Gaburo, Five Works for Voices, Instruments, and Electronics (New World, 2002)

The tray card for this compact disc is labeled “File Under: Classical/Contemporary: Gaburo, Kenneth.” That might have been helpful in some record stores. Is Gaburo’s work classical music? (Yes.) Electronic music? (Yes.) Something entirely other? (Oh, gods, yes.)

The five pieces on this CD were recorded between 1956 and 1974. According to Warren Burt’s expansive and insightful liner notes in the booklet, Gaburo was not that involved in the “more establishment new-music scenes of the day, such as in New York.” In fact, despite his importance for and influence on later experimental composers (Gaburo associated with Harry Partch and Pauline Oliveros), he became increasingly alienated from his largely academic environment—he taught at the University of Illinois and the University of California, San Diego—and eventually turned to freelance work and semi-desert life before returning to a teaching post at the University of Iowa. There, he led the gloriously interdisciplinary and perplexing Seminar for Cognitive Studies, dying in Iowa City in 1993.

Gaburo composed for instruments, voices, electronics, multimedia, and theater—in the 1950s onward. These early examples of contemporary classical or new music incorporating electronics drew on the resources and research facilities of the academic institutions for which he worked.

The first piece on the CD, “Antiphony IV (Poised),” was recorded in 1967. Featuring a setting of piccolo, bass trombone, double-bass, and voice on tape, the piece showcases members of the University of Illinois Contemporary Chamber Players. The instruments provide an environment for Barbara Dalheim's left-channel vocals, which recite a very brief poem by Virginia Hommel, vocalizing  only the phonemes, the smallest unit of speech, rather than word, phrase (or foot), line, or stanza. The composition effectively stages and deconstructs the presentation of the poem, illegible to human understanding but still extant. I can hardly believe the piece is nine minutes and 34 seconds in length; every time I’ve listened to it, it’s over before I know it. A piece to fall into.

The second piece, 1956’s “String Quartet in One Movement” features the Walden String Quartet performing the most straightforward neoclassical composition on the recording. More traditional listeners of classical music might find this composition more accessible than the others offered here—but still challenging.

1970’s “Mouth-Piece: Sextet for Solo Trumpet,” is performed by Jack Logan. In the piece, Logan strives to play six contrapuntal—independently melodic—lines at the same time with some semblance of equality. Meanwhile, the performer is not playing the trumpet in the usual manner. Instead, he is vocalizing, speaking, and sounding through and with—sometimes against—the trumpet. Brass instrument as voicebox, if you will. The trumpet filters each phoneme vocalized as Logan speaks and sings a poem written by Gaburo. During live performances, the performer was accompanied by three projections: the score, written using non-standard notation; each word being vocalized by way of phonemes as the piece proceeds; and the poem as a whole to represent the entirety of the piece. The result, perhaps even more unintelligible than “Antiphony IV (Poised),” is riveting, surprising, occasionally funny—but never silly. This is serious play. And at not quite six minutes in length, it also seems much too short.

“Antiphony III (Pearl-white moments),” then, is my favorite of the selections. Recorded in 1962, the piece was composed for 16 voices and electronics. Performed by the New Music Choral Ensemble, the piece presents another poem written by Hommel, with the 16 voices vocalizing each word of the poem in order, sometimes out of order, as some voices are presented on tape and others altered electronically. As the piece progresses, non-vocal electronic sounds come into play, as well. Even though the words are spoken, whispered, barked, and sighed, the piece does not result in a comprehensible poem as such. This time, the piece utilizes words as musical notes, voice and breathing body as instrument, and electronic tape as instrument—resulting in a wondrous, compelling, and almost hypnotic music of yearning to be heard, if not understood. Parts of the 16-plus minute piece reminded me of Noh theater without the dance—the presentation of the incomprehensible poem as a whole providing the drama.

The final piece, “The Flow of (u),” was recorded in 1974 and is a setting for three voices. The basic idea of the piece is “one note sung by three singers for twenty-three minutes.” And the result is similar to the Noh-like fugue instilled by “Antiphony III (Pearl-white moments).” Pure sound, almost a drone element, as the three singers—here, Elinor Barron, Philip Larson, and Linda Vickerman—attempt to stay in tune, alternate breathing without breaking the tonal quality of the piece, and navigate the psycho-acoustic elements that come into play. Even while striving to stay in tune, adjacent sounds vibrate, and occasionally one hears overtones or sounds that might not even be there. This is definitely a piece to listen to with headphones, as well as with room sound. It is decidedly minimal music, but maximal at the same time given its need for stamina, dedication, and concentration, even as a listener. (Admittedly, the first time I listened to it with headphones, I drifted off. This time, listening again as I write, I


another state





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