Behind the Perverse Pandemonium of HK Gruber

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HK Gruber, with his instruments, in the Q2 Music studio this past December.

Heinz Karl Gruber (or HK Gruber, depending on your program) isn’t afraid of being called silly. One of the Austrian composer’s most notorious pieces, Frankenstein!! (yes, with two exclamation points), is formally described as a “pan-demonium,” and takes as its text some would-be Austrian children’s rhymes penned by an absurdist-minded pal of Gruber’s.

The text invokes a variety of characters − Dracula, John Wayne, Batman and Frankenstein among them − and mixes it up into a post-Histoire du Soldat stew (complete with chanson-singing narrator). The orchestration similarly represents a detournement of arranging technique; though scored for a full orchestra, the sound rarely rises above the unamplified clatter of one of those John Zorn collaborations with a Japanese noise artist, like Yamataka Eye. Relentlessly fart-cushion jokey, it’s not to everyone’s taste − especially not to every experimentalist’s taste, so distinct are its gestures in the direction of the naïve − but it stands as an undeniably original work.

And while plenty of Gruber’s music is shot through with this kind of perverse, expectations-upsetting wit, that’s not the only move the composer has in his toolkit. Rough Music may sound like a challenge that’s never actually delivered to the audience (compared to other contemporary percussion pieces, it’s actually pretty smooth going), but its jazzy syncopations and kaleidoscopic juggling of moods are rather impressive. Fans of Gruber’s quasi-jazzy voice will also want to check out his Manhattan Broadcasts diptych (the latter portion of which, titled "Radio City," gets pretty brassy).

Some of Gruber’s least comical writing comes in the course of Zeitfluren (Timescapes). After feeling uncharacteristically settled in its bracing, somber register during the opening largo section (“Nightdust”), one knows, perhaps, that Gruber won’t keep up that grim façade for another quarter hour. But even when the tempi begin to high-step in the second and final movement (“Another Day”), and the moods begin to feel jump-cut together in the manner of a French New Wave film, there’s more than a trace of the Second Vienesse tradition that Gruber grew up absorbing in the harmonies. Anyone who thinks the composer is all about frivolity should check the composition out, along with Gruber’s Cello Concerto.