The final night of the seventh annual Avant Media Festival, which took place on March 5, 2016, was mellower than one might expect. One blanket per audience member was distributed as we crossed the threshold into the theater at Wild Project, where Kryssy Wright’s lighting installation glowed red and purple and incense burned in thick magenta-scented waves. The heating had been cut off earlier that day, so that its vibrations would not interfere with the sine waves of Randy Gibson‘s four-part composition, Apparitions of the Four Pillars in the Midwinter Starfield Symmetry under the 72:81:88 Confluence in a setting of Quadrilateral Starfield Symmetry A:L Base 11:273 in the 181 Profusion (2015-2016). Gibson’s 190-minute work combines his own wordless vocals and sine wave drones with video and light environments, as well as acoustic performance by cellist Meaghan Burke, trombonists Jen Baker and Will Lang, clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro, and saxophonist David Lackner. These elements coalesce and melt against each other in continually new vibrations and just as many moments of stasis as of radical change and progression.
After the listeners filed into the chilly (but thankfully not frigid) space and burrowed under their blankets, the performers likewise filed out and began layering their sounds and rhythms with the ongoing drone and the lighting installation designed by Kryssy Wright. The combination of the visual with the aural overlapped in smooth pulsations that quickly lulled the audience into a communal state of peacefulness. Initially, it was difficult to distinguish the sounds from one another—I could see the cellist moving her bow, but did I hear a cello amid all the pulsating electronic timbres? How to parse the seen from the heard? It was only when I closed my eyes against the dimly glowing illuminations that I was able to recognize the unmistakably warm, low resonating timbre of the cello. Subtracting the visual elements allowed me to hear the microscopic similarities and differences between instrumental and vocal sound, between electronic undulations and the inescapably human (and undeniably La Monte Young-tinged) aspect of Gibson’s voice.
It is no wonder that Gibson’s vocals might sound reminiscent of La Monte Young; Gibson has studied music and composition with Young for thirteen years. Like the Dream House, a collaborative sound and light installation innovated by Young and his wife Marian Zazeela, Gibson’s composition illustrates change through a lack of change, encouraging shifts in perception through the negative fulfillment of static, symmetrical sound. As he writes in the program notes, “the sine waves as you walk in the door are the same as those when you leave, it is our relationship to them that has been changed.” It is not only the gradual evolution of the live performance but also the linear passage of time that allows the audience to perceive the vertical, intervallic relationships within the drone. Over the course of the three-plus hours, each listener’s relationship to the symmetrical harmonics oscillated just as unexpectedly yet subtly as the oscillations of the instrumental and vocal sounds. The resulting timbral tapestry wove itself into forever new patterns of resonance on top of the static sine waves of the drone.
The apt description of the drone work as an “epic” seems to imply more than “huge” or “super long.” Rather, Gibson’s work engages with rhythms and temporality existing outside of our socially-constructed rhythms, offering a glimpse of time outside of time. The swirling drones swallow one whole, so that the “normal” markers of space and time become nullified by its magnification of the infinitesimal. The ticking of a clock, the metronomic existence of the outside world, and even one’s own heartbeat were subsumed into the rhythms of the drones, which have been going on before the concert and will continue, at the same frequencies, long after the last audience member has made their way bewilderingly to the exit. Gibson’s resulting sound world embodies either eternity or the apocalypse or both. Individual movements—like Baker’s and Lang’s trombone slides inching their way from one pitch to the next, or Burke’s cello bow gracefully drawing sound and duration across space—seemed not to lead from one moment to the next, but rather to exist outside of linear time. Adding to this effect expertly throughout the 190 minutes, the musicians seemed aware of each other’s resonances—the essences of each other’s sounds—but not of physical space or time or even each other’s bodily presence.
Gibson’s work existed so much in the vein of Young’s and Zazeela’s work (particularly their Just Alap Raga performances, which provided the original impetus for Gibson’s composition) that at times it felt as if there were not enough departure from their long-established compositional techniques. However, considering the glacial processes this music illustrates, perhaps this is fitting. It is only through stasis, layered with gradual changes in perception, that one can become aware of microcosmic change itself. By refusing to draw attention to itself, Gibson’s composition allows the audience to hear sounds—and see light, and smell incense—more fully and deeply. And that is something for which I would gladly trade a functioning heating system.