ANTHONY GILBERT, unclassified composer
J. McL. Glover
Bells and birds, poetry, painting, puns and political crisis, stained glass and secret messages, the art and music of the orient - these are the kinds of things that set Gilbert’s whacky musical imagination in motion. It is forty years now since he had his first public performance, and over that time the music he has produced has remained resolutely modernistic, but also startlingly varied. To be sure, the earliest works - those written in London in the 1960s - were largely abstract in character, having no particular extra-musical associations. They observed certain principles of advanced serialism, leaned strongly towards the European avant-garde and in consequence tended to be performed at the international festivals. Their titles reflect their character: Regions, Sinfonia, Spell Respell, Treatment of Silence; there were, too, a Symphony and two Piano Sonatas. One might be forgiven for imagining they embody stern, fierce, unyielding music, and of course they do, to a greater or lesser extent. Spell Respell for electric basset clarinet and piano is an extreme example, taxing players and listeners alike with its rigorous structural logic, its engagement with maximal contrasts. You might say these works show the composer enjoying his technical skills to the utmost. But they also contain a breadth of expression which allows room for stillness, humour, colour, even sensuousness. The middle movement of the Sinfonia, for instance, has a dark, throbbing intensity which betrays the composer’s admiration for the music of Tippett, and the finale of the Symphony, a powerful elegy to Judy Garland, comes close at certain points to the blues. In among this series of works, framed by them as it were, are anomalies - striking departures from the tightly-controlled forms and structures of those around them. In 1967 two such appeared: Brighton Piece, for percussionists and ensemble and Nine or Ten Osannas, a chamber work in, in fact, 14 movements. Both contain hidden messages. The movement titles of Brighton Piece: ‘Introit’, ‘Gradual’ and two Chorales suggest liturgical connections (perhaps as interludes in a performance of Gilbert’s Missa Brevis); the music is wild, improvisatory and brilliantly anarchic. The titles of Nine or Ten Osannas are even more enigmatic: ‘Osanna for C’, ‘for the colours about some people’, ‘for one wild grey ghost’; what can these mean? The composer assures me that they do represent the emotional states, events, objects and of course people that the music celebrates, but that the listener does not need to know who or what they are. The music encompasses extremes of stillness, violence, colour, pace, brevity (one movement is about 2.5 seconds long), while the longest takes up about a third of the work’s time.
The move away from the supportive environment of London’s contemporary music scene in 1970 seemed to loosen Gilbert’s already fairly elastic ties to the European avant-garde. For the first time, too, he began to consider words in relation to music. Two commissions made it possible to explore the relationship between poetry and music: Love Poems, written for Jane Manning, show how metaphor in a text can be matched and elaborated musically, so that the music itself becomes a metaphor, even a vehicle for the poet’s half-hidden feelings. All the metaphors are of trees and birds, an early indication of much that was to follow in the succeeding decades. The one-act opera The Scene-Machine, with its verse libretto by George MacBeth, is likewise a metaphor for life, and for what can happen when one sacrifices principles for success. One London critic missed the point entirely, and was unimpressed by the deliberate surface banality of the story of protest-singer turned pop-star, and the inclusion of a rock-band. Words reappear in other works of this period, either as text as in the wonderfully dreamy Inscapes, embodying Gerard Manley Hopkins’ private meditations on natural phenomena, or increasingly as an inspiration for purely instrumental music, such as Crow-Cry, a chamber orchestra piece reflecting upon one of Ted Hughes’ sombre, troubled Crow poems. Alongside this growing involvement in poetry there came a more evident application of the techniques, though not yet the idioms, of Indian classical music. Modes, row-like melodic shapes, cyclic and cellular rhythms, games with time, all these things began to dominate Gilbert’s technical vocabulary. Put together with poetry they produced The Chakravaka-Bird, a wholly unique work, a 77-minute meditation for radio based upon the actual words of its protagonist, the 13th-century Carnatic poet and mystic Akka Mahadevi written during her life-long quest for union with the god Shiva. The music, in 3 closely-related cycles, alternates dialectic and inner contemplation, becoming increasingly dream-like as the poet approaches her moment of apotheosis, and reaching a level of spiritual intensity found in few other living composers.
In 1978 Australia called, and the possibility of living in a wholly different cultural environment presented Gilbert with the means of realising an abiding, deeply-felt need to divorce himself entirely from European compositional concerns and explore fully the things that music of the East had to offer. The results were interesting, to say the least. First came Towards Asâvari for piano and orchestra, a plangently beautiful raga-inspired work paralleling The Chakravaka-Bird in its exploration of longing and fulfilment, but this time in the terrestrial domain, with suggestions of birdsong, the sound of wind, trees and water and above all physical movement; then Long White Moonlight, settings of Eastern poetry for Jane Manning’s and Barry Guy’s virtuoso soprano and double-bass combination. This cycle took a backward look at Gilbert’s expressionist idiom of 15 years earlier and blended it effortlessly with idiomatic and technical ideas from Korean, Indonesian, Thai and Indian classical music. Further than this he could not go without perhaps engaging in cultural theft. At all events, the influence of Eastern music, which had helped define Gilbert’s technical language for the whole of that 15 years, seemed to have peaked with Long White Moonlight and thereafter the works, superficially at least, begin gently to turn in other directions. The sounds of indigenous Australian tradition provided a new inflection to the existing language. Moonfaring is perhaps the first major work in which this can be heard - ritualistic, pulsing, dream-like music following its own powerfully mysterious laws. A whole series of shorter works in similar vein followed among which String Quartet II predominates. The second half of that work remains one of my own most haunting musical experiences. But something else was needed, as Gilbert readily admits, before he could complete his explorations of this area. Aurally and visually the Australian experience had been intense, but where was the poetry to parallel all this? Gilbert devoted the first half of 1988 to seeking it out. The British-born Australian Sarah Day’s connected, with its celebration of the light and sound and rhythms of that world. A door opened and works flowed, perhaps not obviously ‘Australian’ but nevertheless inspired by the poet’s and his own perceptions. Dream Carousels for wind, a reflection upon Day’s poem Cycles, the orchestral song-cycle Certain Lights Reflecting, Tree of Singing Names, ...into the Gyre of a Madder Dance, again for wind, all these are full of the vibrancy and rhythm and music of the Day poems. His latest setting, Handles to the Invisible, has yet to be heard.
Now, after 16 years spiritually exploring the other side of the world, Gilbert’s imagination has again returned to Europe. At 60, in 1994, he began what was to be the major work so far of this latter period. A violin concerto bearing the title On beholding a Rainbow, it explores for virtually the first time in Gilbert’s output the implications of classical form. As in many of the works that precede it, there a hidden message, though this message, perhaps also for the first time since the comparative naivety of The Scene-Machine, appears to concern life as it is now - in this case social and political oppression. The work, even within the canon of Gilbert’s often highly expressive output, is of an unprecedented intensity, written in an idiom which brings together for the first time virtually the whole gamut of Gilbert’s rich linguistic vocabulary without in any sense losing focus. Modality relates illuminatingly to serialism, rhythmic modes relate to rhythmic cycles, harmonic movement to sustained pedals, formal control to a near-improvisatory freedom, dialectic to obsessive repetition, all nearly but not quite breaking the bounds of the work’s clearly-defined structural premisses. Social and political oppression, and also war, lurk between the bars of several succeeding works. Another Dream Carousel springs from Gilbert’s early, vicarious experiences of pre-war Vienna recounted to him by a young refugee; Unrise takes this further. Here there is a poetic connection: a posthumous fragment by Viennese refugee Avraham ben Yitzhak tells of a cock’s empty crowing for no dawn. Terror predominates. In String Quartet IV a complex of similar feelings, predominantly anger at political and religious hypocrisy, is half-hidden within music of a strangely ironic quality: highly expressive at times, but held in check with the musical equivalent of wry half-smiles. However, not all of Gilbert’s later music is dark and pessimistic. The Cathedrals of Chartres and Bayeux, or specifically the rose windows and labyrinth, provide him, in Rose luisante, Réflexions, Rose nord, Sinfin and Worldwhorls with ideas that glow and dance; Os in its turn has much of Gilbert’s early crazy fantasy. Terror there is, but it’s the terror experienced in a morality play rather than at a 3 am banging on the street door, or a street kidnapping or suicide bombing...