The Avant Music Festival, a 5-night event being held at The Wild Project in NYC between Friday, Feb 10th and Saturday the 18th, promises to be a compelling series of shows of music in the vein of avant-garde. Along with music by living composers Randy Gibson (whom you are about to hear from), Eve Beglarian (Songs From The River and Elsewhere) and Jenny Olivia Johnson (After School Vespers), there is a performance of Schoenberg‘s ground-breaking work Pierrot Lunaire and a 2-part show on Saturday the 11th celebrating the 100th Birthday of John Cage at 4 PM and 8 PM respectively (This concert, by the way, features Vicky Chow performing the great Sonatas and Interludes on prepared piano). Randy, who is one of the curators of the event, spoke briefly about the festival as well as himself.

CM: How did you get started and what brought you to the world of contemporary music?

RG: I began playing percussion when I was very young, and the Marimba became my main instrument for many years. Of course, with percussion, you’re almost immediately exposed to contemporary music because there’s very little written before the 20th century, especially as a soloist. I was playing a lot of modern Japanese music that had been written for Keiko Abe, and I had been exposed to Steve Reich a bit, working up Marimba Phase… It wasn’t, though, until I heard Cage’s Ryoanji that I began writing music. The listening experience was revolutionary for me and changed my whole concept of what music could be. I began writing almost immediately after hearing it for the first time, and just completely delved into Cage’s conceptual world.

CM: Who were the people that helped shape your identity as an artist?

RG: John Cage was the first one, for sure. Early on my works were sort of Cage rip-offs, experiments with chance, extended techniques, space=time, that sort of thing. As I began to develop an identity of my own, I grew extremely interested in the Minimalists. With the music I write, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with rhythm, I think because of my history with percussion. Early on I would work with extremely slow tempos, or overlapping rhythmic cells like those found in Riley’s or Reich’s work. When I moved to New York, I contacted the people I most respected, and, as fate would have it, began studying with La Monte Young.

This is when everything changed for me. Little tendencies that had existed in my work (static notes, sine waves, glacial tempos, &c.) were all suddenly free to grow and live their own lives. Since 2005, I’ve been studying raga performance with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, and that has had a truly profound influence as well. The work I’ve been doing the last few years draws heavily on both the extreme sine-wave compositions using prime numbers pioneered by Young, and the rich, codified raga tradition, but it also harkens back to those early experiment with chance and rhythmic cells. I often use delay lines now to both create denser textures and to subvert rhythm.

CM: When and how did the Avant Music Festival get started?

RG: We did a performance of a piece of mine (Doleo Æternus) at The Wild Project in the fall of 2009, and just fell in love with the venue. Since it’s used primarily for theatre projects, they luckily had two weeks free that next February, and Megan Schubert and I decided to put on a festival. That first one was pretty cobbled together, and a little bit insanely ambitious. Since then we’ve really honed in on what we want to present, which is composer-driven evenings of work where an audience can really get into the mind and ethos of the particular composer.

CM: Can you talk about your two works that will be presented on Friday the 10th and Saturday the 18th?

RG: The piece that came to define my contribution to the Avant Music Festival is Apparitions of The Four Pillars. Since beginning writing this work for the first festival in 2010, I haven’t written anything else. All of my work now examines facets of this very small series of tuning concepts built around stacks of identical pure harmonic intervallic relationships over a single fundamental (a 72hz D).

Circular Trance Surrounding The Second Pillar with The Highest Seventh Primal Cirrus, The Utmost Fundamental, and The Ekmeles Ending from Apparitions of The Four Pillars, the work that opens the festival this year, on Friday February 10th, is a sort of choral-raga journey into the seventh harmonic. It draws a lot on my raga studies, bringing these techniques, to a somewhat traditional choral setting. The singers, from the remarkable Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble (who commissioned the piece) are accompanied by Sine Waves built out of the harmonic series and the septimal pitches they must sing. It’s really very traditional in form, with a long alap introduction followed by a bandish with all its associated parts, but it’s all amplified and presented in a very ritualistic way with video, lighting, and incense that speaks to my ongoing interest in the ritual aspects of musical performance.

The piece that closes the festival (Saturday, February 18th) is something I’m really excited about, it’s be far the most ambitious, bonkers thing I’ve written. The trombonist William Lang, who I’ve worked with for a few years now, will premiere a new three hour solo trombone composition entitled The Third Pillar in Primal Imperfect Palindrome with The Souvenir of The Second Pillar, The Floating Cirrus over the Pumping Slush, and The Highest Moving Chordal Motif from Apparitions of The Four Pillars. This piece examines the pure 9:8 relationship and all its constituent parts. It’s going to be a truly mindbending experience. The Sine Waves for this composition move through a few different areas, examining first the stack of 9:8 intervals, then associated prime-numbered harmonics, and finally the extremes of range presenting high pitched primal sine waves over extremely low trombone tones. It’s a rich and enveloping tapestry, and the video artist I work with, Oscar Henriquez, has created a really stunning new video that will accompany it.

CM: What is it about the new music festivals that make them important to the audience?

RG: I think a festival like ours really presents an unusual opportunity for an audience to really deeply hear an artist’s work. It’s not often that a composer gets to present a whole evening of their work, and I hope that presenting the festival the way we do, where each composer is given free reign over a night, can lead to deeper and more focused interest in an artist’s work. We include the full programming of the whole festival in the printed program, and it’s our hope that, if you’re attending one night, something that one of the other composers is doing can spark a new interest, and the concentration of all this music into such a short time frame I think makes it more and more possible for an audience to discover something new.

CM: The highlights of course are the works by John Cage for his 100th birthday and the performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which is also seeing its 100th year. Would you say these two composers continue to have such a lasting effect on today’s music?

RG: Absolutely! I think you find very direct examples of this lasting influence all over the place. Interestingly enough the first things that come to mind are in “pop” music – an album like Aphex Twin’s Drukqs with all its prepared piano samples, or a few years ago Björk singing Pierrot Lunaire. I think in the classical world the influence has maybe become a bit more subtle over time, but just look at how much is being done for Cage’s centennial, and you can tell it’s still there, strong. I think as a performer, or as a composer perfoming, Cage is absolutely vital. It opens your ears to new sounds, and new possibilities, and if you can really accept the true ethos of his chance operations, you learn to embrace the unexpected, and that’s what the most fun.

2012 Avant Music Festival Preview from Avant Media on Vimeo.

2012 Avant Music Festival
Feb 10, 11, 15, 17, and 18 at 8 PM (also Feb 11 at 4 PM with a composer roundtable at 5:30 PM)

Wild Project
195 East 3rd Street
New York, NY 10009
p. 212.228.1195
f. 212.228.1154

Click here for schedule and tickets for the Avant Music Festival