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THE HARLEY GABER INTERVIEWS
PART ONE

Interview by Robert Reigle
August 23, 2012

Composer and visual artist Harley Gaber wrote music with a unique ear for timbre, creating a monumental work that had until recently gone relatively unnoticed. During the late 1960s and early 70s, a zeitgeist of timbral exploration was taking root around the world, with composers exploring the inner components of sound more or less independently of each other. Harley’s work constitutes a vibrant, yet unheralded component of this history.

Harley had suffered emotional difficulties for a long time. After an extraordinarily active period in the modern composition community, he stopped composing in the late 1970s, just after his great success with Pierre Boulez conducting his magnum opus in New York. He only returned to music composition around 2008, after Robert Zank had reissued his long out-of-print album on CD. Harley Gaber took his own life on June 16, 2011, just two weeks after releasing his fourth album. I recorded several interviews with him in August, 2010. Here is how our meeting came about.

Jump back to June, 1983; New York Public Library at Lincoln Center — a Composers Recordings Inc. album with three composers I’d never heard of: William Hellermann, Harley Gaber, and Paul Zonn. Gaber’s “Ludus Primus” and “Kata” sounded beautiful, even more exciting than the double album of electronic music on Mercury I had checked out on the same day, featuring the likes of Xenakis, Ligeti, and Maderna. I made a cassette copy to listen to until I could purchase the LP.

A bit later I came across an intriguing blurb written by some insightful soul at New Music Distribution Service, the great independent record distributor of the 1970s and 80s, about a double album by Gaber called The Winds Rise in the North. So on November 4, 1983 I purchased a copy at the wholesale price of $7.85. What a fantastic album! The music sounded different from anything else I had heard, its closest cousin perhaps being that of Giacinto Scelsi. The gorgeous Buddhist painting on the cover and an excerpt from the score printed in the gatefold deepened my connection to the music (http://harleygaber.com/winds_rise_in_the_north.html). Here was a composer I had to learn more about.

Precious little of Gaber’s music could be had in those waning years of the LP, and I developed a habit of checking for Gaber every time I visited a record shop. Ten years passed until I spotted the CRI album in a record shop. Then another sixteen years passed, and with the flame of my interest still burning, I was delighted to see that Robert Zank (Edition RZ) reissued The Winds on CD, and lo and behold, there was a NEW Gaber album as well (Indra’s Net). When I bought it, I checked the Internet and found that Gaber had made a fantastic “Archive-Website” (www.harleygaber.com), which revealed what he had been up to all those years, that he had made a name for himself in the art world, and that he could be contacted.

I called him up expecting to tell him how much I loved his music and to hear about his contact with Scelsi, which he had mentioned on his site. We talked for two hours. He told me about music, but also about the depth of his personal problems - despair. He said that just the day before, he had thrown away his tape recordings of electronic compositions done in the 1970s. I was flabbergasted and worried. A few days later I found myself on a plane to Hillsborough (near San Francisco) to meet Harley and talk about his music, with the intention of writing an article from an ethnomusicological perspective.

He picked me up from the airport, and we spent a few days recording our conversations. I stayed with him in a beautiful estate in the richest zip code in the United States, where he was house-sitting and taking care of the dog in exchange for accommodation. We listened to some of the music he was working on, for a second album on Innova. I made a few critical suggestions, for which he later thanked me in the liner notes to his final album. I recorded our conversations on an Edirol digital recorder, which he gave me as a present when I left. He seemed to enjoy our conversation very much, and when I left I felt that I had made a new friend.

Here is the first interview I did with Harley, on August 12, 2010. It is unedited and lasts 71 minutes. When I recorded it, I had the intention of recording all of our conversations and then extracting the most interesting parts to form a coherent text. Now that he’s gone, I want to make the interview available in its entirety. Perhaps I will find a way to edit the entire series in the future. Meanwhile, I think you may find many fascinating insights into an unjustly neglected composer and highly respected visual artist. Harley, we miss you.

DISCOGRAPHY

“Ludus Primus,” and “Kata.” On Gaber/Hellerman/Zonn. New York: New World Records, NWCRL299. Reissue of 1972 LP on Composers Recordings Inc. 2010. http://www.newworldrecords.org/

The Winds Rise in the North. Berlin: Edition RZ, ed. RZ 4008-9. Reissue with additional notes, of 1976 LP on Titanic. 2007. http://www.edition-rz.de

Indra’s Net. Berlin: Edition RZ, ed. RZ 1022. 2010.

I Saw My Mother Ascending Mt. Fuji. St. Paul, MN: Innova Recordings, 231. 2010. http://www.innova.mu/

In Memoriam 2010. Minneapolis: St. Paul, MN: Innova Recordings, 243. 2011.


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