A New York minimalist reaches into his archives, turning up solo pieces for piano and saxophone along with shape-shifting ensemble performances featuring Arthur Russell and Julius Eastman.
Jon Gibson’s saxophone, flute, and clarinet are the connective tissue of the 20th century American minimalist canon. He appeared on a number of Philip Glass’ key recordings, including Music With Changing Parts, Einstein on the Beach, and Koyaanisqatsi, as well as Steve Reich’s Drumming and Phase Patterns; he also spent time as a member in La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music and worked with Terry Riley. Yet Gibson’s own music has been relegated to the footnotes of the period.
But, like Arthur Russell and Julius Eastman—unslottable artists whose output resisted the easy categorization of minimalism, and suffered accordingly—Gibson has belatedly begun to receive his due, although he is still alive, and able to reap the benefits of his rising profile. You can hear the influence of his distilled and detailed pattern music—like his 1977 album Two Solo Pieces—filtering down to a new generation of composers like Kali Malone, Ellen Arkbro, and Sarah Davachi.
After reissuing his 1970s albums, Superior Viaduct now goes into the archives for Songs & Melodies, filling in the gaps between 1973’s Visitations and Two Solo Pieces. What they’ve gathered ranges from Gibson’s solo recordings to minimalistic pattern music rendered with an 11-piece ensemble. The former suggest multitudes; the latter moves as a single entity. Some of the selections gathered here falter, struggling to break out of the strictures of minimalism, while other moments approach the transcendence of his better known material. Both Russell and Eastman appear, on cello and piano, respectively, and just as Gibson disappears completely in the work of others, so do his friends here. If only the release included notes of some sort to help illuminate Gibson’s thought process during this era and better situate him in the New York scene, like the excellent 1992 set In Good Company did.
“Song I” pits Gibson’s soprano saxophone against a backdrop of violin and cellos; its opening section is deeply hypnotic and evocative, firmly aligned with early New York minimalism. But when it suddenly breaks into “song”—something strangely like an Irish jig—it has the jarring effect of a car veering off into the ditch. Deliberately following repetition with moments of rupture could make for a bracing and effective strategy, if only the melody were strong enough to pull it off. By contrast, “Song II” is smoother in its transitions, adding marimba and contrabass to the strings to create a piece at once fidgety yet as enveloping as early Philip Glass. In “Melody,” a tape experiment from 1973, Gibson nudges a steady pattern of piano figures toward a more expansive view of minimalism. But unlike Gibson’s dense, percussive, gamelan-like “Visitations,” also from that year, the 15-minute “Melody” meanders rather than immerses. The live “Solo for Saxophone” sits in a similar purgatory: Gibson moves through numerous lines and figures in its concise four minutes, but it never coalesces, instead coming across more like a player warming up.
But it’s worth it all to arrive at the banks of the gorgeous “Melody IV,” scored for 11-piece ensemble. Performed in Buffalo in 1977, it’s one of Gibson’s most moving compositions, hushed and slow blooming, anticipating by a few decades the sort of assured pacing you hear in composers like Jóhann Jóhannsson or bands like Stars of the Lid and Natural Information Society. The strings—with quivering accents courtesy of the vibraphone—are drawn out, invinting listeners to luxuriate in their suspended tones, and imparting an air of wistfulness. It’s not memorable in the same way that a pop song is, yet that emotional resonance lingers in your heart long after the composition draws to a close.
Buy: Rough Trade
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