Jon Gibson: 36-Tone Logic May 26, 1975

Most listeners probably don’t worry much about whether a piece of music is logical, but for composers this is one of the most basic problems. Does one believe fully in one’s intuitive processes? Or is it preferable to rely on some higher logic outside oneself? Isn’t it awfully egocentric to feel that one is totally self-reliant and that one’s personal intuitions can produce something profound? But isn’t it a kind of cop out to resort to number systems, dice, or logical formulas?

It becomes almost a religious matter, which perhaps explains why feelings run so strong on both sides, and why the pendulum keeps swinging back and forth. For a long time, most new concert music was written with the help of systems. Most of the composers were caught up in post-Webern serial systems along with Stravinsky, Boulez, and Stockhausen, while many others leaned toward random selection systems with Cage, or statistical systems with Xenakis. Gradually the pendulum began swinging the other way. Stockhausen systematically denounced all his systems, while Carter and Crumb, who never cared much for any systems, now seem to have emerged as the most generally venerated composers in this country, at least for the moment.

It is quite apparent that the 12-tone system will never become anybody’s lingua franca, and it is doubtful that statistical or random selection processes will ever become very popular among composers. But it would be foolhardy to think that music will not eventually drift back to some sort of logical systems. The beauty of numbers and logical truths is just too tempting, and the human mind is far too ingenious not to be able to find new ways of making music out of them.

Among younger composers who have returned to tonal styles, one can already see new kinds of systems emerging, and in most cases the logic of their music is far easier to hear than any 12-tone row ever was. Frederick Rzewski’s ‘Struggle,’ for example, is a six movement work, all derived from a single melody, and one can find many logical formal devices and sets of permutations in the works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Another young composer, Jon Gibson, has been writing particularly neat, orderly music, much of which he presented at the Kitchen on May 16. The feature of the evening was a long new piece called simply ‘Melody.’ This is undoubtedly Gibson’s most successful work, and it is also his most elaborately logical one. Gibson made pages and pages of graphs and tables while he was mapping out this one, and his painstaking approach paid off. The piece has an absolute consistency about it, and it makes those very very smooth gradual transitions which can only be achieved when one employs a strict logical process of some sort. It reminds me a little of one of those systemic gridwork paintings which gradually move from green to yellow or from squares to circles.

But Gibson’s graphs and tables have nothing to do with color, or with tone rows or chance procedures. They are simply concerned with working out variations of a modal melody. The theme has 36 notes, so everybody eventually comes out together whether he plays it in eighth notes 36 times (1 x 36), quarters 18 times (2 x 18) or in several other tempos (3 x 12, 4 x 9, 6 x 6, 9 x 4, 12 x 3, 2 x 18, 36 x 1). His graphs then have to do with how the melody comes together when stated in all nine tempos simultaneously. The tables provide refinements, defining which instrument switches to which tempo as the piece progresses. Eventually everything becomes ordinary notes on ordinary music paper.

The piece has a most attractive reedy sort of sound due to Gibson’s sensitive choice of instruments and registers. With no reliance on microphones, the alto saxophone, electric organ, trombone, vibraphone, and four strings balanced so well that one could pick out any of the lines. The logic of the music became particularly transparent during the last 10 minutes of the piece, as the slower lines gradually dropped out until everyone was playing steady eighth notes. Nowhere, however, was the music obvious enough that I could actually predict detailed shifts.

‘Song II,’ scored for a similar ensemble, lasts only 10 or 15 minutes and involves a simpler system. A short modal melody gradually grows longer by adding a new note at the end with every repetition. The instruments are voiced in simple major and minor chords, with many parallel fifths, which gives the music a curiously medieval quality. It also has an odd choppiness, since each note is reiterated six times before going on to the 1975/richard-teitelbaum-on-the-threshold one. Again the instrumental blend is lush, and it does have a song-like character despite the absence of voices.

In ‘Thirty-Two against Eleven,’ which lasts only a few minutes, Gibson plays quick descending arpeggios on the soprano saxophone while a pianist reinforces the same chords. The harmonies are basically jazz chords, and the piece has a bright snappy flavor, but of course, there is a tight system here too, and one can sense that the sequence of chords is the result of some intricate logical process.