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Californian, Dreaming

'The Floating Bubble'
by Ron George -
recommended by

'... subtle long-range structures shaped with minimal scoring ...'

Ron George: The Floating Bubble. Music by Ben Johnston, John Bergamo and Ron George. © 2008 American Composers Forum

There are three works on this disc, which was released in 2008. All of them feature Ron George as soloist and ensemble leader and he composed the longest and, to my mind, most successful of them: it is clearly his disc. Sadly, it is also his memorial, since he passed away in 2006 after a distinguished career. Californian by birth, he studied with Kenneth Gaburo and others and was a prominent performer/composer of the US West Coast new music community. His theoretical and instrument-constructing interests align him with other innovators: Harry Partch, Lou Harrison and Warren Burt come to mind immediately. He was also an educator, teaching at all levels from elementary to tertiary, and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest.

John Bergamo wrote Gupta Sloka Chand (1978) for George but dedicated it to his own first teacher of tabla drumming. It is in three movements of about five minutes apiece, Peshkar, Khyal and Jhala -- respectively introductory, lyrical, and fast and rhythmic. It is scored for five percussionists playing mallet instruments and a soloist, George, who is free not only to choose his instruments but also to improvise his entire part.

Listen -- John Bergamo: Gupta Sloka Chand (end of 'Khyal' and start of 'Jhala')
(track 1, 9:41-11:51) © 2008 American Composers Forum

George's own The Floating Bubble (1995) was composed for the Tambellan, his modular 'American gamelan'. A soloist (here the composer) leads seven other percussionists through 'a very slowly evolving rhythmic/timbral structure. It is a process piece where only a very basic rhythmic structure is given. The composer simply demonstrates for the performers what is to be played in each section,' to quote the liner note. Such an approach is a recipe for tedium or disaster in the wrong hands but it is very successful here, so successful in fact that it made this listener/composer wonder how such subtle long-range structures can be shaped with such minimal scoring. As in Gupta Sloka Chand, one senses the importance of a well established and mutually respectful relationship between composer and performers which allows an unusual amount of collaborative synergy.

The work opens quietly and builds, not too directly or obviously, to a climax at the mid-point, whereupon a brief solo re-starts the process on a smaller scale before ending even more ethereally than it began. The aural spaces are generously proportioned; low gongs, softly struck, provide a mellow ambiance supporting the shorter-lived sounds of higher-pitched wooden and metallic instruments.

Listen -- Ron George: The Floating Bubble
(track 5, 9:20-12:33) © 2008 American Composers Forum

The middle work on the disc is part of the reason for my delay (inexcusable, I know, and I do apologise to innova) in submitting my review. Given that I enjoyed the other two pieces, I wanted to enjoy Ben Johnston's Sleep and Waking as well. I tried, several times over a span of some months, but have to admit failure. There are occasional pleasant timbral combinations but too many that are jarring; and there are intriguing layers of rhythmic counterpoint but they are almost completely buried under a cluttered surface.

Still, if this is your kind of music then two good pieces out of three may make the disc worthwhile. Recommended, with only that caveat.

Copyright © 1 October 2009 Malcolm Tattersall,
Townsville, Australia






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