In December, 1981 the Brooklyn Academy of Music was the site of the American premiere of choreographer Lucinda Childs’ evening-long dance Relative Calm, a multidisciplinary collaboration featuring lighting by Robert Wilson. The music was composed by Jon Gibson.
Gibson played an important, if not well-known, role in Minimalism’s initial exploratory phase, having performed in a number of pivotal early works by Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, including playing on the premiere of Riley’s In C. A multi-instrumentalist on saxophone, clarinet, flute and keyboards, in the early 1960s he was a member of the New Music Ensemble, an improvising group of composers and performers that released two LPs of completely improvised music. In 1963, he joined Reich’s newly-formed free improvisational ensemble, a group that also included future Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten. (Gibson also tells an amusing story about driving Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh to one of Lesh’s first rehearsals with the group. Seeing Gibson the band invited him to jam—but he hadn’t thought to bring his horn with him.) Gibson also played with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, and in 1968 became a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, an association he maintained for over forty years. During all this time he was composing music of his own and—relevant to the recording under consideration here—working frequently with choreographers. These included Merce Cunningham, Simone Forti, and Nancy Topf, to whom he was married until her untimely death in 1998.
Gibson’s music for Relative Calm is a well-proportioned longer work made up of four sections that have in common a pronounced tonality set out over strong rhythmic foundations. The sections are of roughly equal length and, except for the third section, feature apparently simple, slow-moving melodies on top of a tonal center stated with a steady pulse. The elegance of the pieces’ construction lies in the way Gibson coils a sophisticated rhythmic cycle in the heart of the melody. For example, the melody of the first section sits asymmetrically on top of a hypnotic, briskly pulsating eighth-note drone on keyboard. The second section stretches a melody made up of five note groups into a seventeen beat cycle, layering it on top of a steady piano drone in such a way as to flow smoothly and without calling attention to the unorthodox time signature. The one structural outlier in the set is the third section, which consists of Gibson’s overdubbed soprano saxophone playing brief melodic lines hinting at a recurring harmonic movement between tonic and subdominant.