87. Interviews – Composer Greg Robin on his “Gestures III”
The second annual Sugarmill Music Festival is now only a week away. For three amazing days from May 19 to 21, musicians and music lovers alike will gather at the historic Rosalie Sugarmill, a short drive south from Alexandria. Eight concerts will bring life to these rustic environs as we hear chamber music, both old and new including works by several Louisiana composers. Among the Louisiana composers whose works will be performed is Greg Robin, a Lafayette-based composer and music educator. Dr. Robin’s new work Gestures III for solo cello will be performed by Paul Christopher on Sunday, May 21 as part of the grand finale concert with the Rosalie Piano Trio. I had the chance to talk with Dr. Robin recently and hear some of his thoughts on his new piece. Here are some of the insights he shared with me.
How did you and Paul Christopher meet? Did he ask you for the piece, or did you approach him? I met Paul at the high school where I teach. He comes down every year and works with our string students and does recruiting for Northwestern State University. I heard him perform at last year’s New Music on the Bayou. My impressions were that he was 1) a phenomenal player with great sensitivity and 2) perhaps an advocate for new music. I believe that I just emailed him and asked if he’d be willing to look at my music. I was already working and revising Gestures III and thought that if he’d be willing to perform it that I could add in some elements that would work to his skill set.
What is the significance of the title Gestures III? How does this title relate to this composition, and can you talk about the other works in this series? The title refers to individual, one-movement, unaccompanied solo works that are compositionally based on an opening gesture. Gestures III is the third work of these solo compositions. Gestures I is for solo cello and was the first work I completed as a doctoral student. It centers around a simple intervallic set. Gestures II is for solo euphonium and was written for Demondrae Thurman. It exploits the gestures of percussion and multiphonics.
I read in your biography that Tristan Murail, a founder of the French spectral movement, was one of your teachers. Can you talk about your time studying with Murail and the influence of spectral music on your compositions? When Murail came to the University of Alabama, I was assigned to be his graduate assistant. I was very unaware of his music. He did group lectures on his works and lectures on how he used the computer software Open Music to compose. He also did some talks on the work of Messiaen and Giacinto Scelsi. He mainly discussed how he thought of sound and how that would flesh out into his compositions. As far as spectralism’s influence in my work, it is in the periphery. I always think of timbre and its effect on every note and that is a guiding principle in my thought processes but I don’t consciously or meticulously analyze sound with software programs. Well, at least not yet.
Can you discuss the significance of the recurring pizzicato passage, bowing techniques, and the process of expansion and contraction which you mention in your notes? The recurring pizzicato passage is the “gesture.” I compose in terms of “seeds.” For me the gesture is a seed, the seed breaks the surface and grows into a plant or tree with different branches. Often, it may stray far away from the seed but, like any living breathing thing, it can always be traced back to its seed. Bowing techniques are part of my idea of repetition without direct copying. Subtle changes of bowing bring a new element to the old and allow the listener to become reacquainted with an idea but the idea has slightly evolved or changed. It is like the gardener checking his vegetables every day. Subtle growth each day leads to new forms that have grown from the old. Contraction and expansion for me usually involve the idea of adding or removing elements from the compositional seed. This can be a pitch-based expansion/contraction, rhythm-based expansion/contraction, or a timbre/ articulation-based expansion/contraction.
How do elements like these help the average listener navigate this piece? Conversely, how did they help you write the piece? To me, if you tell a general audience to listen for slight changes in the opening idea, it allows them a listening task—a “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego” hunt. I feel that explaining the compositional process in a non-theoretical fashion to an audience, especially an audience with little “new music” experience, helps them hear my ideas. As far as how they help one compose, it gives me musical form. For me, form and rhythm are my elements of struggle. I see my strong skills as counterpoint and harmony. Knowing that these gestures will recur with variation helps me plan the musical form based solely on the gesture itself.
What is the future of this composition? Will there be other performances, and do you plan to write additional Gestures? Other performances are always the hope of a composer. Outside of the upcoming performance at the Sugarmill Music Festival, there aren’t any scheduled. I submit recordings to various calls for scores and hope my work gets selected. I see Gestures as a series of works. I see them as a growing collection, something akin to the Berio Sequenzas but not quite as virtuosic.
Is there anything else you would like to say about this composition? I am very excited that Paul Christopher has taken on this piece. It is always a great feeling to hear someone dedicate their time to a great interpretation of your work.
Another piece of yours, Far Beyond the Dissonance, will be performed at New Music on the Bayou in a few weeks. Could you also briefly comment on this piece? Far Beyond the Dissonance is a duo for a horn player with himself. The vocal line creates the multiphonics of the work. I view the work as a duo with oneself so the multiphonics are a byproduct of melodic counterpoint between the “vocal part” and the horn part. It was written for a colleague, Travis Bennett. He premiered it at a Faculty Composers concert at Western Carolina university when I was Visiting Assistant Professor of Music Theory and Aural Skills there.
Don’t miss the performance of Greg Robin’s Gestures III, part of the Rosalie Piano Trio’s concert next Sunday, May 21 at 3:30 PM. In fact, don’t miss any of the excitement of the second annual Sugarmill Music Festival! The Rosalie Piano Trio will also play works by Joseph Haydn and George Frideric Handel, as well as the rarely-heard Piano Trio of Darius Milhaud. The festival will also feature performances by guitarist John De Chiaro, the Pineywoods String Quartet, I-49 Brass Quintet, 2x2 Percussion, and other leading classical musicians from across the region. Tickets available here! Also, watch for updates at my website as I add program notes throughout the week!
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a music scholar, composer, and advocate of music. Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College located in Natchitoches, Louisiana in May 2013 after completing his undergraduate thesis “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” As series director of the successful Abendmusik Alexandria chamber music series from May 2014 to April 2016, Jackson played a vital role in the renewal of interest in chamber music across Central Louisiana. This interest has encouraged the creation of the annual Sugarmill Music Festival and the new series Nachtmusik von BrainSurge, both of which Jackson remains active in as concert annotator and creative consultant. He also blogs at MusicCentral where he shares concert experiences, gives listening recommendations, posts interviews with contemporary composers, and offers insights into his own compositions. As a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into pieces which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. In fall 2016, Jackson began graduate studies in musicology at the University of Louisville where he has recently been awarded the Gerhard Herz Scholarship in recognition of his accomplishments. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He also sings with the University of Louisville Chorus and participates in the School of Music Composition Seminar. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.