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Robert GIBSON (b. 1950)
Twelve Poems (2004) [15:14]
Soundings (2001) [13:45]
Night Music (2002) [3:53]
Flux and Fire (2006) [11:13]
Night Music (2002) [3:52]
Offrande (1996) [9:11]
Night Music (2002) [3:48]
James Stern (violin)
Audrey Andrist (piano)
Robert Oppelt, Richard Barber, Jeffrey Weisner, Ali Kian Yazdanfar (double basses)
Eric Kutz (cello)
Katherine Murdock (viola)
Aeolus Quartet
rec. 2001-16, Dekelboum Concert Hall, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland, USA
INNOVA 993 [60:54]

Robert Gibson wasn’t a familiar name to me, but he has a fine and long-standing reputation as a jazz and orchestral bass player, and he is School of Music Director at the University of Maryland. His electroacoustic music has been used for National Geographic’s ‘Explorer’ series. Flux and Fire focusses on his music for stringed instruments inspired by poetry, a literary influence that has become a strong thread that runs through much of his music.

Gibson’s own comment on Twelve Poems: “I was seeking an analogue for the ability of the poet to capture a particular moment and, further, an idea—more or less abstract—about the materials of the art and its forms.” There are some specific references to poets and poems in the booklet, but the music is more a translucent evocation in sound of atmosphere and mood than an analogue of text in a programmatic sense. These elegantly succinct pieces are superbly crafted, with occasional hints towards Takemitsu or Messiaen and others, and in at least one case an acknowledged Hommage to Debussy. Beautifully performed by its dedicatees, Twelve Poems is a collection any professional violin/piano duo would do well to explore.

The title of double bass quartet Soundings refers in part to the nautical term for measuring the depth of water, the association in turn referring to the double bass as the lowest sounding orchestral string instrument. As “a personal exploration of the instrument that is closest to me in my life as a musician”, Gibson has taken the opportunity to showcase various qualities of the bass, avoiding the muddier depths in a movement such as Diaphanous, that quietly develops flageolet or harmonic notes into a strange-sounding but ultimately nicely reflective piece. Expertly played by four bassists from the National Symphony, intonation and balance is excellent throughout each of the five movements, the music at times sounding like intimate conversations, elsewhere seeking out lush harmonies or quasi-theatrical forms, the tensions and resolutions of musical development and contrasts created by a wealth of ideas that always keep us involved.

Night Music was written as the required work for a string players’ competition for young performers, and composed to be playable on cello, violin or viola. As you would expect there is plenty going on here, with virtuoso technique present but always in the service of a clear musical narrative which has expressiveness at its core. The differences in timbre turn the work into something new each time, and the composer’s desire to catch “a fleeting glimpse of lyricism and technical virtuosity arising from a soloist inspired by the mystery and poetry of the night” is certainly most effective.

The string quartet Flux and Fire is Gibson’s second in this genre, the title derived from a fragment from Heraclitus that translates as “All things change to fire/and fire exhausted/falls back into things.” The dramatic and almost expressionistic aspects of this single-movement work are also connected in the composer’s mind with an account of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, so that the age-old struggle of humanity between good and evil is always close to the surface – the fragile balance between tragedy and transcendence holding us enthralled throughout. Offrande marks the lives of the composer’s sister-in-law, lost to cancer, and that of Toru Takemitsu – the poetic reference here being to “the dark but transcendent imagery of the last stanza from Alain Bosquet’s poem ‘Regrets’”, a text quoted at the start of the booklet notes. The resulting piece is both eloquent and comparatively simple, with space for melodic arcs that never resolve in a conventional sense, energy that is resolute rather than explosive, and always holds back from being melodramatic. The final coda is really beautiful.

Very well recorded and superbly performed, this is an attractive and worthwhile programme of fine music for strings. It wins plaudits for sheer variety, but Robert Gibson’s voice is distinctive and memorable whatever the instrumentation.

Dominy Clements


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