issue 15 :: July 2008

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REVIEW: Kenneth Gaburo

“Maledetto” / “Antiphony VIII” CD [Pogus]

reviewed by Josh Ronsen

The American composer Kenneth Gaburo was one of those artists who took advantage of many of the experimental forces of the 1960s, combining a scholarly interest in language, adventurous non-narrative theatre, electronics and a deeply personal style to create a number of highly original works. His mature works do not follow any style or school, and as a professor at the Universities of Illinois, California and Iowa, he spread not only adventure but a dedication to precision far from New York City. As a publisher, his Lingua Press published scores and writings from him and others; his compendium ALLOS is indispensable as a collection of creative writing, on the level of the Fluxus publications. Most of these works are still available from Frog Peak. The New Music Choral Ensembles he formed performed many of his vocal works as well as the works of Luigi Nono, Mauricio Kagel, Samuel Beckett and others.
The third incarnation of the NMCE performed and recorded “Maledetto” in 1973. Originally issued on LP by CRI records, the performance finally makes an appearance on CD. Scored for seven virtuoso speakers, “Maledetto,” the second part of a six hour performance called LINGUA, takes as source material numerous texts on the screw (the ubiquitous fastener). Is a screw a groovy-shafted nail, or is a nail a smoothly-shafted screw? What is the etymology of the word screw? Its historical significance? After a short introduction of quiet, nonverbal sounds, Alan Johnson’s calming narration recites an encyclopedia-like entry on the screw addressing these issues. The other voices slowly creep in, adding more and more layers of information and confusion, at times engaging in a furious call and response of poetic noises, and then overlapping flashes of incomprehensible bursts of text. The narration sometimes joins in, sometimes drops out and sometimes speeds up to what must be the limits of human speech. The spoken text works of John Cage, Alison Knowles and Chris Mann are the closest examples to this work, and just as enjoyable as those works. “Maledetto” was one of the first pieces of extended techniques in speaking (as opposed to singing) that I came across, and I am overjoyed that it is now easy to get: I’ve only seen the original CRI release in libraries.
Like Berio’s series of fourteen Sequenzas for solo instruments, Gaburo’s Antiphonies are for tape and live accompaniment from solo, ensemble, string quartet and so on, each with a different grouping of voices/instruments. Coincidentally, both composers started their series in 1958. “Antiphony VIII” combines a tape of mostly indistinct human voices and percussion, ably played by Steven Schick in this 1984 recording. Mumbly voices become more and more buried by vibes, trap set, chimes and other percussion instruments. Partly a theater piece (with the movement of the player among the instruments) which is lost in an audio recording, the increasingly complicated drumming begins to sound like multiple players or overdubbed parts.

Since his death in 1993, more and more of his works have been released or rereleased on CD, so far about two dozen of his works on some five CDs (including pieces on a Musicworks compilation), leaving more than fifty of his works hidden from public view, which is a shame. Composer, performer and publisher (the Innova label) Philip Blackburn keeps a webpage on information concerning Gaburo. Blackburn, a former student of Gaburo, sums up the composer:

“Kenneth (not "Ken"—he wanted people to recognize "more of him") Gaburo was one of the most penetrating musical thinker-doers of the 20th century.  He expanded the notion of "musical composition" to include all processes of human cognition, language, and how the brain makes sense of the world.  He could therefore talk to anyone, in any field, and draw them into alternative approaches regarding how they made stuff; a true teacher.  As another mark of a fine teacher: none of his students sound anything like each other, they are not stylistic clones, as so many are.  His own output was similarly diverse; he did not exempt himself from his ideal of composing being rigorous self interrogation. He stands as an example of multi-disciplinary American creative intellectual artist who speaks, in a fresh language, straight to the heart.”


You can listen to a 1979 interview with Gaburo here.
photos of Kenneth Gaburo (not Socrates) provided by Philip Blackburn
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