Randy Gibson: The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of The Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield 16 VIII 10 (Kansas City)
Irritable Hedgehog

This piano-based realization of Randy Gibson's The Four Pillars Appearing from The Equal D under Resonating Apparitions of The Eternal Process in The Midwinter Starfield 16 VIII 10 (Kansas City) is a remarkable achievement on multiple levels. That R. Andrew Lee performed the entire work live in one single, unedited three-and-a-half-hour performance (all electronics realized in real time) is itself amazing, considering the stamina and concentration such an undertaking entails; he must have been thoroughly spent by the time the work's last note sounded on August 10, 2016 at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's White Hall. Lee's no stranger, by the way, to contemporary works of daunting length: prior to The Four Pillars, the pianist recorded Dennis Johnson's five-hour 1959 opus November.

Amazingly, the foundation for the work is a single note, Gibson having oriented the work's design around the overtones produced by the piano's seven Ds and just intonation in this case integrated into the material electronically. Though it might seem that a clear separation would exist between the acoustic and the electronic elements, the lines between them blur during the performance in a way that intensifies the music's hallucinatory effect. There are times, in fact, where the combination of overtones and electronic treatments is so powerful it begins to evoke other instrument associations. During “Establishing,” for instance, the rapid patterning comes to suggest, oddly enough, a small group of banjo pickers, while midway through “Rising” seeming vibraphone and marimba patterns thrum in a manner reminiscent of Steve Reich's Drumming.

The NY-based Gibson, who since 2003 has studied with La Monte Young, acknowledges that The Four Pillars was inspired, at least in part, by his mentor's monumental The Well-Tuned Piano. The cloud-like textures that emerge in that work, for example, are replicated electronically in Gibson's as swirling, multi-note chords. The Four Pillars isn't, incidentally, the first piano-based recording to be released by Gibson, as Aqua Madora, a collection of shorter just intonation pieces performed by the composer, was issued on Avant Media in 2011.

The physical presentation of The Four Pillars is itself something to admire. Three individually sleeved CDs are housed in a handsome box set and accompanied by a booklet featuring liner notes by S. Andrew Granade, composition notes by Gibson, and an essay by the pianist. It wouldn't be overstating it to call the recording a major achievement for Irritable Hedgehog co-founders Lee and composer-producer David D. McIntire, who formed the label in 2010 as an outlet for bold minimal and electroacoustic music.

Indicative of the music's slow unfolding, the first D note sounds, ceremonially, almost a full minute into “Opening,” after which another passes until the next note appears. As this introductory part advances, the spaces between the notes shorten until a structural shape begins to declare itself. An alternate title for this movement could have been “Awakening,” given how the material blossoms every so gradually for half an hour before segueing into “Establishing,” where the pace quickens and rapid repetitions on the piano's middle D produce a dance-like effect. Contrasts of tempo and dynamics are exploited from one movement to the next, such that “Processing” arrests the rapid momentum generated within “Establishing” and replaces it with fifteen reflective minutes of near-stasis, the sound design spacious enough to allow the electronic elements to be heard clearly alongside the piano's notes.

At fifty-two and sixty-three minutes, respectively, the fourth and sixth movements, “Rising” and “Roaring,” are the work's arguable peaks. True to form, the former does steadily intensify, its lengthy introductory rumination marked by oscillations between Ds and notes forming into ringing clusters, with an abrupt increase in agitation and activity ensuing at the nineteen-minute mark. A forcefield of awesome power builds during “Roaring” when Lee's clangorous patterns meet the reverberating frequencies produced by Gibson's laptop, the resultant sound mass so huge the moment of its cessation startles. The slow-motion decompression “Resolving” induces serves as an almost necessary come-down after such intensity.

In his liner notes, Granade makes the very apt point that a new mode of listening is demanded of the listener for a work of this kind: “Gone are the traditional markers of melody and regular metric pulse, and in their place are harmonies and harmonics that extend above and below the piano's pitches. Gone is the moment-by-moment expression of surface emotion, and in its place is the revolutionary power of sound as it moves around and through you, its vibrations literally reshaping your physical and spiritual being.” His contention that after having experienced the work “you might just find yourself not only changed, but truly transformed” proves out to be an eminently credible one.

September 2017