Friday, June 28, 2024

Painting With Sound: The Contemplative Music of Gabriel Vicens

Photographs courtesy of the composer.  Album cover by Krystal Pagan.

“You can’t judge a mosaic properly unless you observe it carefully from a distance." – Hiroshi Teshigahara

Allow me to observe the mosaic of Gabriel Vicens’s music carefully from a distance, and to invite you to do the same. Music is primarily a state of mind. Regardless of whether you listen to classical, blues, jazz, rock, or what used to be termed new music, the essential element is the same: we are transported to another dimension, one possibly inside ourselves, on a journey fueled by a joyful power source evoking the same result from all these disparate style territories. The arrival at an exhilarating and abrupt awakening: that is the same destination, whether it is conveyed by the operatic overload of Pink Floyd or the austere minimalism of John Cage. The joy of being liberated is what matters, much more so than the practical tools utilized for the purposes of that liberation.

Elsewhere I have written about the clearly evident potential for the somatic effects of sonic energy, and the fact that music, certain music at least, can serve as the architectural structure within which profound experiences can be contained and transmitted, virtually across time and space. This notion that music can buttress meditation, or contemplation, or whatever you choose to call the oceanic feeling that arises from losing the illusory sense of an individual and separate self, can most simply be characterized as erecting a sonic building that we can live each inside of for a while. The new album of Vicens music, appropriately titled Mural, owing to what I consider its large-scale panoramic approach to composition and performance, is just such a building of breath and reflection: a temporal dwelling.

As a state of mind, whether it is a sonata by Scriabin or Satie, a rhythmic wave by Reich or Glass, or a jazz solo by Miles or Monk, depending on one’s tastes, the result is tantamount to being identical: release from our earthly bounds and limits via some sort of nearly astral travel through the elegant rooms temporarily crafted by each composer using a unique kind of frozen time, melting within the immaterial space of the listener. One key creative aspect is shared by all the best music we listen to: the collaborative agreement of sorts between the composer and the listener to pay close enough attention, to each other and the music in between them, to permit an unexpected illumination to occur. Vicens has the rare ability to stimulate and share that illumination in quite an open-hearted manner.

In a recent article I wrote for the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar called “Sonic Satori,” I was quite literally suggesting that such a compact, which implies that listening to music is similar to practicing breathing, is capable of achieving that dramatically active equilibrium which some people call meditative awakening. In such cases, the listener vanishes into the composer, and the composer vanishes into the music, to a degree that embodies the sort of intimacy rarely achieved by interacting with another person. Among the best-known practitioners of this conscious disappearance, which composer Karheinz Stockhausen characterized as intuitive music, have been John Cage, Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, Stuart Demptser, George Crumb, Toru Takemitsu, Terry Riley, Brian Eno and Stockhausen himself. Regardless of the surface contours and stylistic permutations of this illustrious name-dropping exercise, they all have a singularity in common: they are the real deal. And so is Gabriel Vicens.

If I had encountered Vicens’s shimmering music prior to penning that article, I would definitely have included this remarkable composer in the ranks of those senior exemplars. Puerto Rican-born, now New York-dwelling, the guitarist/composer Vicens established himself firmly in the upper-echelon jazz idiom with three albums as leader and two more as co-leader of the experimental ensemble No Base Trio. He studied jazz and Caribbean music at the Conservatorio de Musica de Puerto Rico and subsequently taught for four years at the University of Puerto Rico before finding what I would call his rightful place in New York, continuing jazz studies at Queens College and earning a doctorate from Stony Brook University. The ghosts of both Berg and Webern hover in the air above his succinct and succulent music, an observation I mean in the best possible way, and one I’m sure Mr. Vicens will understand.

Yes, this relatively young (b. 1988) but seriously mid-career composer has credentials coming out of his ears, including a parallel practice as a painter. In this respect, I’m reminded of the great Miles Davis’ observation that paintings are music you can look at and music is paintings you can listen to. I myself have often referred to certain paintings as frozen music, and certain compositions as molten images. And this seductive notion, of sounds congealing and images melting, is perhaps, for me, the ideal place to begin addressing how magically meditative the music of Vicens can be when the listener – let’s call that person the right listener – signs the emotional contract with the right composer. The result is a sonic structure, one I would call knowingly impermanent, designed and constructed by the composer for the conscious listener to live in rent-free for a time, until consciousness is not lost but rather is transformed via the process of energetic exchange between maker and listener.

The ensemble of fine players on this expedition into and out of the void are so impressively at one with the Vicens chamber compositions that they deserve to be named here: David Bloom, conductor; Roberta Michel, flute; Raissa Fahlman, clarinet; Joenne Dumitrascu, violin; Adrianne Munden-Dixon, violin; Rocio Diaz de Cossio, cello; Wick Simmons, cello; Julia Henderson, cello; Corinne Penner, piano; Mayumi Tsuchida, piano; Mikael Darmanie, piano; John Ling, vibraphone. And the Nu Quintet: Kim Lewis, flute; Michael Dwinell, flute; Kathryn Vetter, clarinet; Tylor Thomas, bassoon; and Blair Hamrick, horn. Together, in the intimate space of Bunker Studios in summer 2022, they were recorded by Nolan Thies, with the engineers Colin Bryson and Danilo Pichardo, and mixed/mastered by David Darlington. Mural was produced by the composer himself and is presented by the adventurous Stradivarius label. The sheer momentum achieved by Mural, whether forward and back, up or down, and even when standing still in silence, is a powerfully transformative realm realized by very few composers or musicians. Not all momentum is actually moving at all, and this may be the best kind.

To a musician friend of mine, I recently described the mutual experience of Vicens and the ensemble he concocted as maximally immersive, and chose to go even further and extravagantly claimed that the seven pieces, especially the title track and the fifth piece, “Carnal,” felt neo-Baroque, which raised some eyebrows in my interlocutor, until I played her those particular pieces first and explained that I was thinking of a meeting between Scarlatti and Schoenberg. And maybe even more outlandishly, to clarify that aural immersion I invoked a blind date between Colon Nancarrow and Bud Powell. “Ahhh,” she sighed, “now I see what you mean, or rather, I hear what you say you mean.” Indeed, this whole musical travelogue, along the way often encountering a swampy silence only to suddenly burst out in an exuberant jubilation, is clearly in the ear of the behearer (to borrow a tasty phrase from the great Dewey Redman). And the behearers of Vicens will be grateful indeed for this album.

In an observation which further emphasizes Vicens’ parallel painting practice (noting his specific interest in accentuating the two-dimensional aspects of a canvas and how this translates into his music) the composer stated, “I create musical compositions with melody, harmony, rhythm, timbre, register, everything needs to work together. The same principle applies to my paintings, but with colour, form, line and texture instead of musical elements. The conceptual processes are incredibly alike.” But is there really an ‘instead’ here? For me, his insight is remarkably close to both Kandinsky’s notion of spiritual harmony in visual art and Scriabin’s notion of the synesthetic qualities of sound. Which in turn evokes in me Rimbaud’s notion of the colours of vowels in his austere esoteric poetry. In the case of his musical Mural, Vicens invites our interactive cognitive pathways onto a romp all together, all at once, provoking in me both images and words equally charmed.

Indeed, the title of his album arose from his interest in Roman and Egyptian mural paintings, the structures of which in turn made me consider the limen, or threshold below which a stimulus is not perceived or is not distinguished from another, as a primary metaphor for the sonic buildings he composed for us to savour. Hence also my contention that his music in general is subliminal, operating at that intuitive level described by Stockhausen: “I’m fascinated by how Roman and Egyptian frescoes have decayed slowly for centuries and how the cracks and layers of colours have becomes part of the current stage of the work, creating a complex and atmospheric character. Mural is what I have to say at this point in my life; my future cracks and layers will slowly tell what’s next.” Well said.

I’m also naturally put in mind of Michael Nyman’s classic early 70’s piece called “Decay Music,” where subtle sounds are allowed to come and go at a glacial pace of emerging and fading away, under the limen, so to speak. This is not a literal comparison of Nyman and Vicens, but only a sensation I get from what Tim Rutherford-Johnson also astutely noted in his liner notes: “Although his music is often quite flat in its surface relations, in its unfolding over time it admits cracks into that surface, and slow transitions from one colour to another.” Each piece I listened to, I realized, without doing so intentionally, is a stately procession of sorts, a gentle and occasionally fierce parade towards a state I can only call unfettered. To hear the tonal shifts from “El Matorral (The Bush)” for instance, to “Ficcion (Fiction) to “La Esfera (The Sphere)”, is to participate in a profound glacial march, at first slowly struggling uphill and then finally blazing downhill on fire in a whoop of liberation.

This is not, by the way, neo-Baroque in the sense of ornate or exuberant embellishment, although it does decorate time the way paintings decorate space, but rather in its shocking realism and dynamic movement, and as in the original Portuguese meaning of barocco: an irregular pearl. I am definitely looking forward to finding out what irregularly exultant joys Gabriel Vicens will next share with us, what future cracks and layers he will so skillfully excavate from the canvas on which he paints his music: the canvas of silence. Until then, I will continue to savour the splendours of Mural and to extol the many virtues I have found embedded in these cracks and layers.

This album is a virtual mosaic of precious musical moments. Observe it first from a distance, in order to judge it properly, and then close up, as close as possible, in order to be utterly subsumed by its sonic subtlety. The distance I believe Teshigahara (a filmmaker who made opulent use of the austere music of Toru Takemitsu) was referring to is a vast interior distance. When you arrive deep within your own interior distance, that’s the moment the brilliant music of Gabriel Vicens is poised to pounce. All that is required of you is to surrender yourself fully to the hidden silence in between the painted notes: this is stillness personified.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work is a book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, published in January 2024.


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