AMN Reviews: Robert Gross – Chronicles [New Focus Recordings FCR301]

One of the exciting new musical territories opened up by the technical advances of the postwar era was that of electronic and electroacoustic music. Whether in the guise of purely electronic works created for early synthesizers like Princeton’s RCA Mark II or the San Francisco Tape Music Center’s Buchla, or works for fixed media and acoustic orchestral instruments, electronic technologies for sound production, storage and reproduction gave composers and performers access to vast new sound worlds. The music on composer Robert Gross’ fine album Chronicles situates itself firmly within this now-venerable tradition.

Gross has a broad-based background that includes television and film soundtrack work, music theory and analysis, and composition for orchestra as well as for electronic and electroacoustic instrumentation. On Chronicles—the title is taken from a series of electronic and electroacoustic works Gross has composed, several of which are included on the album–Gross’ instrument of choice is the Absynth semi-modular synthesizer, which he plays solo as well as paired with piano, guitar, horn and voices.

Gross’ solo work is featured most forcefully on Chronicles XIV (Charles Wuorinen in Memoriam), a monumental thirty-minute-long memorial to the late composer who in 1970 was the first recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in music for an electronic work, Time’s Encomium, which was realized on Princeton’s Mark II. Gross’ piece is a tour-de-force of pitch-oriented music that recreates some of the classic timbres of early electronic music while still maintaining a contemporary profile of its own. On Chronicles XIII for classical guitar and synthesizer Gross creates a truly dialogic encounter for acoustic guitar, given a subtley etched performance by Daniel Lippel, and electronics. The work is tightly choreographed, with each instrument completing the other’s lines or complementing the other’s rhythmic accents. Like Chronicles XIII, Chronicles VIII for piano (Jeanette Louise Yaryan) closely winds the two separate parts together into a complex tissue of sound, in addition to fomenting a rapid exchange of foreground and background functions between the two instruments. Both Chronicles XV for horn (Christopher Griffin) and synthesizer, and Chronicles XVII for mezzo-soprano (Lori Joachim Fredrics) and synthesizer, play largely on the timbral contrasts between the Absynth and its duet partners. On all of the electroacoustic pieces Gross’ writing achieves a sublime balance of voices that makes every pairing seem perfectly natural, and indeed inevitable.

The album closes with Dissonance, a forty-minute, one-act opera for synthesizer, baritone (Brandon Gibson) and mezzo-soprano (Brooke Clark Gibson), which consists of a dialogue in a funeral home between the daughter of the deceased, a piano teacher, and her former student, now an employee of the funeral home.

Daniel Barbiero