5 Questions to Randy Gibson (composer, co-founder of Avant Media)
Randy Gibson is a composer and performer living and working in New York City. He is the co-founder of Avant Media, and produces the Avant Media Festival, which showcases experimental music from the last 100 years and today. The Fourth Annual Avant Media Festival will take place February 15-23.
As has been mentioned in other interviews, you left the traditional university education route to go to NYC, eventually becoming a student of La Monte Young. Could you talk a bit about the circumstances that prompted the move away from academia?
Well, I’ve always had a difficult relationship with organized education, even from a very early age. I attended Montessori school, and I think the self-guided nature of that was extremely beneficial for me. In high school, I was in a sort of unique situation in that the town where I grew up had this amazing University, and a program where, as long as it wasn’t offered by the high school, you could take classes there. So I took full advantage of that, I studied theory and ear training, I took a fantastic class in 20th Century theory where I was one of only three students, and I took an interdisciplinary performance class helmed by my then composition teacher, Michael Theodore. This was a truly extraordinary class, and I met some amazing people and learned how to collaborate. I founded Avant Media with Ana Baer-Carrillo who I met in this class.
When I went to the university full-time, this freedom was suddenly gone, and I couldn’t pursue the things that I truly wanted to pursue. It was actually an incredibly easy decision for me to leave the composition program there and move to New York and just see what happened.
As you’re coming up on a decade of studying with La Monte Young this year, how would you say your own music has evolved in that time? There are obvious surface-level connections between your music and Young’s, e.g. duration, sine waves, and tuning, but I’m curious about how you’ve incorporated these ideas in finding your own voice.
At that first composition lesson, I was still very much finding my voice. There had been these themes running through my work up to that point: repetition, extremely slow tempo, fluidity, unrepeatability; but they were sort of all just in a cloud, floating around with no real direction. La Monte helped to clarify the situation for me, to allow the space for my sounds to be their own.
I had been working with electronics, but in this very unfocused way. Through examples like The Base 9:7:4 Symmetry… and Just Charles And Cello In The Romantic Chord I began to take these generated sounds I was using and order them according to the rules of just intonation. With Aqua Madora (my just intonation piano work with sine waves), I began to really explore how the vibrations of these intervals could encourage very deep feelings. My interest in purely generated electronic sound has been long-standing; I never wanted to work with “traditional” synthesized sound, and if I was going to work with electronics, I wanted it to be because electronics were the only way to realize something. The purity of sine waves, especially, appealed to me; the simplicity of them, and their potential for great complexity. Through La Monte’s uncompromising example, I feel like I am finally developing my own artistic language, uniquely my own, but deeply rooted in the tradition he pioneered.
The Avant Music Festivals have featured the music of John Cage quite a bit. What do you think draws you to Cage’s music, and how has his music influenced your own writing?
The thing I love about every time I get a new Cage score to begin working on is what a perfect little puzzle it is. Delving into his instructions, trying to unravel their intent, is an absolute joy. And then getting to realize that on stage, with an audience that is totally up for it, is just an amazing experience. We’re working right now on trying to figure out a realization of Variations IV for next year’s festival where the bulk of the material would actually be the set up for an evening performance of Europera V. I don’t know for sure if this will happen, but really seriously considering these sorts of things is what led to our realization of 49 Waltzes For The Five Boroughs; really carefully looking at the intent and realizing it was a way to listen, an impetus to go outside and hear the city around you.
Cage was really the reason I started writing music. I had been a percussionist (and a pretty good one) for a long time, but I heard a recording of Ryoanji and it just completely changed me. This was music that had nothing to do with anything I had ever heard, and I became obsessed. A lot of my early work was very heavily influenced by Cage: I used chance operations, did graphic scores, time brackets, etc.… Now I feel like that influence is still there, but more as an underlying spirit of openness, of letting sounds be sounds. My aims now are definitely different than when I started, but at my core I’m still a believer in Cage’s philosophy.
The annual Avant Music Festival is about to enter its fourth year and has featured an impressive array of performers and composers in that span. What have been some of the difficulties/lessons/surprises that you’ve encountered in that time while starting a festival from scratch?
You know, that first year, Megan and I really had no idea what we were doing, the first festival was put together from scratch in two months, with time to really plan now over the years we’ve honed in on what it is that we want to promote, what we felt was missing in the New York scene. This whole idea of focusing on the composers, the creators of the music, has been a touchstone for us. We really feel that this is something that’s not being done as much as it should be: composer-focused curation with a good dose of multimedia. This has always sort of been second-nature for me – It’s tough to do a multi-composer night when the work is well over an hour long – and my core desire is to create a complete experience for an audience. I think one of the biggest difficulties, but also one of the most rewarding aspects, in doing what we do now is getting this idea across: encouraging people to see a concert completely devoted to a single composer. I truly feel like this gives an audience a deep understanding of what it is a composer stands for, but maybe it’s easier to sell a concert with a bunch of diverse works, sort of something for everyone; I’m not really interested in doing things the easy way though.
I think the biggest surprise, and joy, for me is when a composer learns something about themselves. Last year we worked with Jenny Olivia Johnson as one of the featured composers, and it was the first time she had ever had more than one of her works played on a single concert. That was really rewarding, making that happen for someone. This year we’re working with two composers, Kitty Brazelton and Nick Hallett, who are both a bit more accustomed to concerts of their own music, but it’s really great – Kitty hasn’t really performed on this scale in New York recently, and so this is sort of a great homecoming, and Nick is making a really beautiful concert work that is focused and clever; I think will be a wonderful evening.
What’s next for you? What would you like to see Avant Media accomplish in the coming years?
I’m really excited about the piece I’m performing this year, and the group of performers. I’m hoping to be able to perform this work more and more. Last year I wrote a very large, expansive solo for the trombonist William Lang, and we’re working on finding some new venues to continue to refine and present that work.
For Avant Media, I really want to see us expand what it is that we can offer to the composers we program, to do more off-the-wall projects like 49waltzes.com and release more recordings. I’m hopeful that over the next few years we can continue to build the Avant Music Festival into a must-see event, and can use that to bring exposure to less-known composers who are creating beautiful work.