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     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Nolan Gasser

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column from January 19, 2007
(Material from Classical Music Columns of August 15, 2008, and January 16, 2009 added below.)

I see a small but potent ray of hope attempting to pierce through the gloom clouding the world's 21st-century horizon.

Yes — even amid all the seemingly endless strife in the Middle East, the dark unknowns of predicted global climate change and the looming threats of resource shortages — I see reasons for optimism.

Here's why.

During a telephone conversation last week, Petaluma-based composer Nolan Gasser uttered the golden words, "I believe that a good composer should be able to connect with his audience and what's important to them. I want to be able to speak to them where they live!"

Wow. What would early- and mid-20th century composers like Webern, Varese and Stockhausen have said to that? Composers like Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin and their ilk would be broadly smiling at Gasser's words.

Gasser is the composer responsible for Black Suit Blues, the main event on the Oakland East Bay Symphony's program tonight at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.

So, why does this all send shivers of delight through my psyche?

Here goes:

The Arts, with a capital A, have customarily been quite prophetic, or at the very least, reflective, of the times in which they are, or were, created. Germanic literature has a term for this phenomenon: "Zeitgeist," which translates as "spirit of the times."

Besides hosting two bloody world wars and countless revolutions and atrocities, the past century reflected a Zeitgeist that spawned a fragmented, abstract painting style with few humanistic references, as well as a spate of angular, impersonal glass-and-steel "modern" architecture.

The dominant literature of the times was similarly grounded in objective, abstract ideas, as 19th-century Romantic and humanistic narrative fell by the wayside with works such as T.S. Eliot's fragmented Wasteland and pieces that followed.

And what became of the so-called serious, "classical" music?

It became mathematical, fragmented and atonal — and was often more interesting on the paper score or in theory books than it was when falling on human ears. From its former happy home in the hearts of the people, so-called concert music retreated to the remote ivory towers of academia.

But, according to Gasser, "I think music should have a narrative thread in it that can take the audience from point A to point B. This 'narration' should point to and frame some outstanding, important moment in the music."

Gasser, who has his doctorate in medieval and Renaissance music from Stanford University, explained that Black Suit Blues is his musical setting of a poem by Robert Trent Jones Jr. that refers to Martin Luther King's final speeches, his assassination and its immediate aftermath.

"In setting Jones' text," Gasser said, "I fashioned a detailed story line that begins with a brief fanfare foreshadowing a central motive of the work, which is eventually sung by the chorus. While the piece features a baritone solo voice, it is actually the tenor saxophone that musically symbolizes the voice and spirit of Dr. King."

The opening sax solo includes a textless setting of several passages spoken by Dr. King during his final sermon, given at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on the eve of his assassination. The final sentence of the sax "sermon" musically quotes the opening line of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. But just before the final word, "Lord," a symbolic gunshot breaks off the sax song, which, in turn, leads to an intense and dissonant passage rife with "screams" in the chorus and general chaos in the orchestra.

The chaos subsides and the chorus segues into the text of Jones' Black Suit Blues, beginning with the line, "Wanna go home and burn my black suit" (the black suit is the mourning suit worn to funerals). The mourning needs to stop as the poet admonishes, "Don't sink into a sea of despair/Pray with me and I'll be there/And we will overcome."

According to Gasser, it is about this point in the work when the spirit of Dr. King, embodied in the reaffirming voice of the tenor saxophone, is revived to join in the hymn being sung by the chorus and the grief-stricken young observer, portrayed by the baritone.

Gasser actually used a device, common within the Renaissance Mass cycle, utilizing the somewhat slow, fermata-held chords that customarily accompanied the affirming lines, "Ex Maria Virgine" and "Jesu Christe."

The Black Suit Blues piece is just one of four segments that Gasser and Jones are writing to epitomize the essential spirit of the United States. "Our idea is to create a cycle for large musical forces, using four of the quintessentially "American" holidays as reference points: July 4, Martin Luther King Day, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving."

The July 4 segment has already had its critically acclaimed premiere with the Charleston Symphony, featuring Sam Waterston as its narrator during the Spoleto Festival. Black Suit Blues was appropriately premiered by the Memphis Symphony last year. The just-completed "Memorial Day" segment, featuring orchestra, chorus, mezzo-soprano, violin, trumpet and bagpipes, is set to be premiered on Memorial Day weekend by the Arkansas Symphony at the Riverfest Festival, with General Wesley Clarke introducing the piece to an anticipated audience of 25,000.

Gasser hopes that the completed cycle, amounting to about an hour of music, will become a chronicle of the American experience.

"But," he added, "it's not just all flag-waving. It's really questioning who we are and what are our responsibilities as Americans, including, as Ben Franklin said, to question our leaders through the difficulty of wars and the difficulty of our own past with civil rights and race issues, and ending with the gratitude and brotherhood of Thanksgiving.

"Perhaps it will someday be sort of an American 'Ode to Joy.'"

Maestro Michael Morgan will conduct the OEBS and the Oakland Symphony Chorus, with Lynne Morrow as music director, in Black Suit Blues at 8 tonight at the Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland. Soloists will be Robert Sims, baritone, and David Henderson, tenor saxophone.

Other works on the program will be the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde and Schubert's Symphony No. 9, "The Great."

Nolan Gasser at the piano with colleagues for his Christmas Carol Christmas by the Bay: lyricist Clark Sterling and singer Tim Hockenberry.

Lyricist Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Nolan Gasser, in New Mexico.


From August 15, 2008 Column:

MUSIC'S MAN ON THE MOVE: Armed with a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance music from Stanford University, rising young composer Nolan Gasser has been providing some significant thrust into the music vs. words debate lately. His NASA-commissioned GLAST Prelude for brass quintet accompanied the launch of the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last June 11.

However, his latest piece, American Festivals, might have the potential to become our own home-grown, thoroughly colloquial ode to joy. A joint effort of Gasser and librettist-poet Robert Trent Jones Jr., the work received its rousing world premiere in July at the opening event of Napa Valley's Festival del Sole.

Described as a symphonic oratorio, each of its four movements — "Independence Day," "Memorial Day," "Martin Luther King Jr. Day" and "Thanksgiving" — includes words imaginatively set for full orchestra, chorus, soloists and/or orator.

However, according to Gasser, his intention was to go further than perfunctory flag-waving, by relating to the people and problems of our own times.

"The words," he says, "explore our national identity as well as our responsibilities as Americans — including, as Ben Franklin said, questioning our leaders through the difficulty of wars and civil rights and race issues." The massive indoor and outdoor Festival del Sole audience reacted with exuberant cheers, whoops and lengthy applause to the piece's premiere performance. Gasser's music brilliantly related to the poetry with relevant, inventive references such as an evocation of the pealing of the Liberty Bell on its original pitch of E-flat; the use of a tenor saxophone playing a sometimes bluesy but ultimately inspiring theme to represent Martin Luther King; intricate counterpoint passages recalling early liturgical music; the use of the haunting Native American flute, mourning bagpipes, and appealing snippets of familiar tunes and hymns reminiscent of the style of Charles Ives.

His latest commission is to create a piece he's calling Cosmic Reflections, a major three-movement symphony for full orchestra scheduled to premiere in October 2009 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.


Nolan Gasser's GLAST Prelude received mention in the July 11, 2008 issue of Science. Further information can be found at


World Concerto Premiere. From Cheryl North's Column Published January 16, 2009.

The Oakland East Bay Symphony's upcoming concert, dubbed by its organizers A Global Celebration, can almost serve as a metaphor for our national identity -- e pluribus unum.

Scheduled for 8 p.m. Jan 23 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, with a repeat performance at 8 p.m. Jan. 24 at the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco, the highlight of the concert will be the World Premiere of Bay Area composer Nolan Gasser's World Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, with Israeli-born Maya Beiser as its primary soloist.

Petaluma resident Nolan Gasser, who has his doctorate in medieval and Renaissance music from Stanford University, has been providing some significant thrusts into the contemporary music world lately. His NASA-commissioned GLAST Prelude for Brass Quintet accompanied the launch of the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last June 11 and his American Festivals, composed to a poetic libretto by Robert Trent Jones Jr., received its rousing world premiere in July, 2008 as the opening event of Napa Valley's Festival del Sole.

Gasser's musical style has strong ear appeal to modern sensibilities and the 21st century Zeitgeist. During a telephone conversation we had a few months back, he told me that he definitely strives to connect with his audience and to address things that are important to them.

"I want to be able to speak to them (his audiences) where they live!" he stressed.

In addition to his background in Medieval and Renaissance music, he is a master of jazz, pop music, music for the stage, and music written in a solidly classical style. While his World Concerto for Cello and Orchestra utilizes the classical three-movement symphonic concerto format, Gasser incorporates diverse elements of eastern and western music in into its structure.

Another significant commission is a work Gasser is calling Cosmic Reflections, a three-movement symphony for full orchestra scheduled to premiere in October 2009 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Beiser, who has been called "a cello goddess" by no less an erudite publication as The New Yorker magazine, has gained fame and acclaim for musical virtuosity as well as her daring performance style. She has commissioned new works from some of the world's leading composers, including Tan Dun, Brian Eno, Osvaldo Golijov, Philip Glass and more.

In addition to Beiser, there are other glamorous and/or exotic performer-soloists whose talents will be featured in Gasser's new work. One of these is the petite but powerful Erhu virtuoso Jiebing Chen, who was born on mainland China and whose life story could provide a perfect script for a rip-roaring movie epic.

Her family, headed by her history professor father, was ordered to a "re-education camp" during China's infamous 1966 Cultural Revolution purge of its intellectuals. While in the camp, he took the dangerous risk of continuing the music education of his five children.

Tiny Jiebing was especially talented and progressed rapidly. Four years later, when recruiters for the Chinese Navy conducted auditions for the military's elite performing arts groups, little Jiebing, who at nine years of age was too young to try out, insisted upon being heard.

After she had played only a few measures on her Ehu, a two-stringed violin-like instrument, the astonished officials agreed to make her a member of the military, thus changing her family's formerly grim situation. Eventually, she graduated from the Shanghai Academy of Music, became an instrumental soloist with the Shanghai Opera Company, and in 1989, won a scholarship to further study music at the State University of New York in Buffalo. After earning honors there, she moved to the Bay Area, which she now considers her "home."

Another of these unique world performers will be Aruna Narayan Kalle, who was born in Mumbai, India. Kalle has the distinction of not only being one of the few existing virtuosos of the dauntingly difficult Sarangi (an ancient bowed North Indian lute-like instrument), she is the only woman to do so professionally. One of the Sarangi's unusual characteristics is that it combines both melodic strings which are actually bowed, along with a set of sympathetic strings, which are not actually played, but rather vibrate in "sympathy" with the bowed strings.

A third exotic instrument Gasser has employed in his new world work will be the Arabic Oud, a fretless 11-stringed, plucked instrument that resembles a lute. It will be played by the Lebanese-born composer, conductor, and instrumentalist Bassam Saba, one of the major figures working in classical Arabic music today, and a participant in the Silk Road Project championed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

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