HK Gruber's (b. 1943) all-embracing musical sensibility combines elements as disparate as pop, cabaret, and jazz with the rigors of serial techniques. His works often employ a wide range of instruments with great effectiveness, and Zeitfluren, his chamber concerto, is no exception. It is scored for an ensemble that includes a wide battery of percussion - a drum kit consisting of bass drum, 5 tom-toms, side drum, hi-hat, suspended splash cymbal, suspended Chinese cymbal, floor tom-tom, two suspended cowbells, suspended tambourine, and two suspended bongos, as well as a large Chinese gong, crotales, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimbaphone (a marimba-type instrument whose sound resembles a glockenspiel), and xylorimba (a close relative of the xylophone with an extended downward range that encompasses notes normally assigned to a marimba; both this and the marimbaphone were popular in the 1920s and '30s, though the xylorimba has been used by several other composers, including Berg, Stravinsky, and Messiaen).
Gruber dedicated Zeitfluren to the memory of Austrian poet and writer H. C. Artmann, who died in 2000 and with whom Gruber collaborated on several works, including Frankenstein!! (1978). Zeitfluren was co-commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group; one of the other co-commissioning groups, the London Sinfonietta, conducted by the composer, premiered the work as part of the European Music Month in Basel, Switzerland on November 9, 2001. The work is in two movements, slow followed by fast. According to Gruber, in an interview with his publisher prior to the premiere, he did not specifically set out to compose a two-movement work, but there are several advantages to the approach:
"It provides the strongest possible contrast, rather like a slow upbeat and a fast downbeat, as if energy is being collected and then released. The first movement, entitled Nachtstaub ("Nightdust"), starts on a journey without a clear destination, like the way H. C. Artmann created poetry, using the sound of a word rather than its sense, then another word, then the two words copulating to produce a third. It is like a body being revealed with the open notes and harmonics on the strings offering the bare bones while the wind and brass provide the flesh. Gradually elements coalesce until there is something of the mood of a funeral march, with shadows of Mahler or Berg accompanying the procession. The solo melodic lines in the wind lead the way in an increasingly macabre fashion, rather like the Pied Piper. After this darkness, the second movement, Anderntags ("Another Day"), bursts in with reaffirming light, a reminder that life goes on."
Because it combines these popular elements with the systematic approach that Gruber inherited from his Viennese predecessors, Zeitfluren provides a good introduction to what the composer calls his "musical philosophy." "Both system and freedom are important to me and, though they seem to be opposites, they act together to provide my musical philosophy," Gruber explained in the same interview. "For instance, in the first movement the pitches are worked through systematically yet simply, rather like a child constructing with building bricks. There may be a couple left over whose colors initiate the next idea, in the spirit of free fantasy. So the system, whether twelve note or rhythmic, just provides the bedrock which is not necessarily discernible to the listener. What is more important is that I always let the ear lead me on when I glimpse interesting new territory."
The second movement shows Gruber at his eclectic best, fusing strong rhythms with popular elements reminiscent of 1920s music. "Last year, I worked with the Berlin Palast Orchester on a Weill album and this was an amazing experience," Gruber recalled. "They play all that dance band music by composers like Ralph Benatzky and Robert Stolz who are more familiar for their Viennese 'silver operettas' which were removed from the repertoire by the Anschluss. But it was something that the orchestra's singer Max Raabe said that really struck home. He said that they were trying to achieve a high intellectual level like the Dada movement. That reminded me of Weill saying that you could entertain without being stupid. It was the orchestra's aim to create a good mood, full of positive energy, that I tried to capture in this movement."
-- John Mangum is the L.A. Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.