Sounds Heard: Harley Gaber—In Memoriam 2010
Harley Gaber left this world just as a recording of his In Memoriam 2010 was making its public way out into it. Only a few weeks after the release of this beautiful and sometimes terrifying album, Gaber’s friend and colleague at the Innova label, Philip Blackburn, passed on the news of Gaber’s suicide and shared some of the personal struggles and health concerns this composer and visual artist had been battling before his death.
Despite the sadness of the news, Blackburn noted, “Harley’s life and art were one; he and his music shared the same complex personality, uncompromised by marketing concerns or wanting to fit into any scene. His music has a small cult following because it anticipated some trends that happened decades later in the new music orthodoxy, but it is the high level of perfectly realized thoughts in sound, that could only have sprung from his fragile life of outsider-dom, that ensures his stature as one of America’s most important artists. I will miss his voice on the phone but know that it’s all there in his music.”
It is in a way a difficult thing to dig into this new piece and the deeper catalog of work now archived on Gaber’s website knowing that the creator is gone, but of course this is also the way to celebrate the work he left us. The fact that his final musical statement was intended as a memorial has a bit of dark poetry to it. In the illuminating notes that accompany the disc, Gaber references the source materials he electronically manipulated and collaged to generate various pieces of this composition—from Beethoven to Feldman—while also outlining some more abstract points of inspiration and motivation behind the completed work. Though the commission for it came from a family friend, Dan Epstein of the Dan J. Epstein Family Foundation, to honor his mother following her death, the piece is at the same time a much larger meditation, “a postscript or coda to the end of the world” as well as a consideration of some broader and more complex ideas that fascinated Gaber concerning consciousness and existence.
Though broken into six individually titled tracks for this album release, In Memoriam 2010 actually unfolds as a single, continuous, hour-long piece of music. It’s a massive, weighty statement that begins with “Cataclysm and Threnody” completely submerging the ear in a densely layered world of metallic sounds and haunting sweeps. The lines churn around on a current of air—something akin to a chorus of those plastic tubes children whirl around—to create an eerie drone of whistling sound. It’s disorienting and completely enveloping, like being caught up in a blinding storm.
Without pause, the piece shifts into the second section, “Threnody and Prayer,” which turns calmer, more dreamlike and fantastical in its sense of stretched reality. It still maintains that whistling character, but now it’s more distorted, as if a calliope was somehow audible many miles above the earth. In the third section, “Ground of the Great Sympathy: Aftermath,” human voices enter the soundscape, adding snatches of sung lines and gasps of breath.
The final three portions of the work— “In-Formation,” “Coalescing,” and “…With Completion”—develop cohesively in a much more subtle, unhurried way. The sense of anxiety and confusion that has tinted the work up to this point seems to leak away and a patient reflection and resolve moves in behind it. Though the whistling rushes of air, the metallic shimmers, and the non-verbal human elements of the sonic palette carry through, the density decreases and the music spreads out more broadly around the listener. In the end, it drifts away like a satellite fading out of range, sending back only ever-weakening pulses until is disappears completely.