Robert Gross: Penumbra

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Composer Robert Gross releases his second album on New Focus, highlighting his deft electro-acoustic writing for live instruments with Absynth 5 synthesizer and his post-serial approach to pitch class, all integrated into a stylistically hybrid aesthetic approach.


Robert Gross’ music reflects a unique amalgam of influences. On one hand, Gross’ pieces evolve in a manner one might call Germanic, presenting his chosen material early in his pieces and then developing each component idea as the structure unfolds. On the other, his reliance on repetition and rhythmically driven ensemble machines points to the minimalists. By choosing to focus his electronic palette around the Absynth 5 synthesizer, he evokes the sound world of the early electronic composers who spun complex webs from limited timbral materials. Yet his works tend to treat material modularly, moving sound objects around within the structure in a manner that echoes contemporary electronic collage approaches.

Gross’ vigorous title work Penumbra, performed by the Cordova String Quartet, opens with declamatory unison statements that are intensified when the articulation is doubled with repeated notes. The rigorous uniformity of the ensemble writing quickly splinters as Gross introduces a heterogeneous texture of swirling lines, brusque accents, and pizzicato interjections. This alternation between homogenous and heterogenous textures frames the piece, as Gross moves through a broad range of characters, from angular to fluid, and transparent to mysterious. His pitch language is chromatic with tonal references; he writes that the “tonal centers attempt to emerge but are obscured by densely chromatic outlines… outlining each like a penumbra.” After a driving climax, the piece ends with hazy, disembodied chords.

The musical material in Essay for Autoharp and Electronics is reminiscent of Gross’ Chronicles series (FCR301) for live instrument and Absynth 5 synthesizer, though it is a purely electronic work that incorporates autoharp samples, without the human component of a performer. Gross opens the piece by placing the two sound profiles in dialogue with each other as he might in an electro-acoustic work, with the Absynth 5 synthesizer articulating fleet passagework and quirky melodic fragments, answered by splashes of autoharp glissandi and chordal punctuations. As the piece develops, he increasingly combines and obscures the two distinct timbres, resulting in a hybrid texture, a souped up autoharp or a tightly strung synthesizer.

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Gross tips his hat to Stravinsky with the title of the next work, Symphonies of Electronic Instruments. Here, his timbral sources are the Absynth 5, the Aperture Stack synthesizer, and string samples filtered through a flanger, using these resources to generate sixteen virtual instruments to create the diversity of a symphonic texture. Once again we hear Gross’ personal balance between motivic development and modular repetition, as ideas are both mined for their potential for incremental manipulation but also reordered within the piece as fixed musical entities.

Five Movements for Flute and Electronics is one of two works on the recording that explores the relationship between soloist and a prevailing musical environment. In the opening movement “Gracefully in Spite of Everything,” we hear some of Gross’ characteristic tritone centered passagework passed between the flute and electronics. “Icily” is more lyrical, with a graceful flute line floating over and between gentle waves of electronic sound and computer noises that evoke R2-D2 from Star Wars. Rhythmic imitation between a dulcimer sound in the electronics and flute drives “Always With Some Forward Motion.” In “On the Brink” the flute plays lithely on top of washes of electronic harmony. “Easily” takes on a ritual hue, with unison phrases between the flute and a xylophone sound in the electronics framed within a moderate dance tempo.

Here We Call it Pop engages with justice topics through a text written by Gross that addresses the ways in which propagandist framing can shape public perception. The setting, sung by soprano Shana Oshrio, is stark and direct, with the voice written in gentle phrases that indict through their simplicity. The electronics are similarly understated, created by samples of Gross blowing on soda pop bottles, and wisely opting to establish a haunting sonic environment as opposed to painting the text sounds with semantic meaning.

The final work, Concerto for Saxophone and Nine Instruments, returns to the all-acoustic format of the opening string quartet. But even from the outset, we hear some of Gross’ characteristic electronic gestures — geometric arpeggiated figures, accumulating block chords, and a concise, ordered approach to rhythmic presentation. The work unfolds in a fast-slow-fast structure, though the internal “movement” leans towards a moderato tempo. Gross gives soloist Drew Hosler plenty to sink his teeth into, with virtuosic passages culminating in a cadenza that explores several key areas.

– Dan Lippel

Penumbra (2015) Recorded April 29, 2016
Recording Engineer: Forrest Culotta, Stinson Studios, Austin, TX

Essay for Autoharp and Electronics (2021)
Recorded December 15, 2021 by Robert Gross in his home studio, Anderson, IN

Symphonies of Electronic Instruments (2022)
Recorded July 31, 2022 by Robert Gross in his home studio, Anderson, IN

Five Movements for Flute and Electronics (2022)
Recorded on various dates by Anne McKennon in her home studio, Jacksonville, FL

Here We Call It Pop (2022)
Recorded June 6, 2022 by Edmond Charles in Edmond Charles Studio, Bowie, MD

Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Nine Instruments (2022)
Recorded June 4, 2023 by James Kananen, Bad Racket Studios, Cleveland, OH

Cover Image: “Hinode Observes 2011 Annular Solar Eclipse” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video Licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Photo of Robert Gross (p. 5) by Rebecca Morris, used by permission

Design, layout & typography: Marc Wolf,

Robert Gross

Robert Gross received his DMA in music composition at University of Southern California where he also received a graduate certificate in Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television. He also received an MA in Music for Film, Television and Theatre from the University of Bristol; an MM in Music Composition from Rice University; and a BM in Music Composition from Oberlin Conservatory. He has taught graduate and undergraduate level music theory at Rice University.

He was half of Blind Labyrinth, with the late Kenneth Downey, an experimental electroacoustic music duo, whose album Blasted Light was released on the Beauport Classical label in 2014.

Awards and honors include winner of the Project Extended Composition Competition for Variations on a Schenker Graph of Gesualdo for flute and electronics; winner of the Arch Composition Award for Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments; co-recipient of the Harry Warren Award for Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television from University of Southern California; special recognition award, First Music Competition of New York Youth Symphony; Winner, tri-annual Inter-American Music Awards Composition Competition for Sonata for Solo Unaccompanied Violin, with the winning work published by C.F. Peters and featured on the cover of Pan Pipes magazine; orchestra work Halcyon Nights selected for Whitaker New Music Readings by American Composers Orchestra; twice ASCAP Victor Herbert Award recipient; Young American Composers’ First Hearing Finalist with Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

He has presented papers at the national Society for Music Theory conference, the Texas Society for Music Theory Conference, the West Coast Conference of Music Theory and Analysis, and both national and regional chapters of Society of Composers, Inc. His post-tonal analyses have been published in Perspectives of New Music and Journal of Schenkerian Studies.

He is a Board Certified Music Therapist, with an MA in Music Therapy from Texas Woman’s University. His music therapy articles have been published in Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy and in Qualitative Inquiries in Music Therapy.

Cordova String Quartet

The Cordova Quartet was the Young Professional String Quartet in residence at the University of Texas at Austin from 2014-2016.

Anne McKennon

Anne McKennon is a freelance flutist and composer in Jacksonville, Florida. She can be found playing anything from orchestral music to rock-n-roll and Irish jigs, tin whistle included. As a performer and a composer, she has a special affinity for programmatic works that tell stories or paint pictures. Of all the flute chamber works she has written, there are only two she has yet to perform herself: Flamingo! and Rival. Her favorite ensemble is a duet: “The clarity of two voices can bring both simplicity and intricate complexity. It is a fascinatingly malleable medium.” McKennon’s work has been featured by Jacksonville University, Civic Orchestra of Jacksonville, First Coast Pops Orchestra, Tualatin Valley Symphony, and the 2017 Australian Flute Festival. Her flute quartet Flamingo! was released on the flute album Aviary in 2023. She holds a Bachelor of Music in Composition from Jacksonville University and a Bachelor of Arts in Business from the University of South Florida. Her teachers include Dr. Jian-Jun He (composition), Les Roettges (flute), and Mary Ellen Potter (flute). She continues to perform with the Jacksonville University Orchestra as an alumni member.

Shana Oshiro

Shana Oshiro is a soprano in the DMV, specializing in art song, spirituals and sacred music with vast experience in opera, musical theatre, jazz, and more. She has appeared with multiple local theatre companies in featured and leading roles, as well as in major productions with Opera Philadelphia and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Shana is a versatile performer, presenting classical works as a soloist and ensemble member with chorales and ensembles throughout the region– as well as theatre, jazz and rock with bands and the award-winning barbershop quartet, HALO. Shana’s presence as a performer has been described as “ethereal” and “captivating,” offering honest and artistically penetrating renditions of familiar and obscure works for a broad range of audience members. She has a vocal performance degree from Morgan State University and has studied with teachers, coaches, and conductors throughout the United States and Europe.

Drew Hosler

Hailed as “the ideal collaborator for new music” by Brutal New Music Review - saxophonist, and new music curator Drew Hosler (he/him/his) is an advocate for contemporary music. He has commissioned, premiered, and collaborated on over 200 pieces by award-winning composers such as Andrew Mead, Jamie Leigh Sampson, David Heinick, Marilyn Shrude, and Quinn Mason. Drew is an avid performer as a soloist. He has worked with composers such as Griffin Candey, Martin Gaughan, Robert Gross, JaeEun Schermerhorn, and Josh Trentadue on writing new concerti for the tenor saxophone. Additionally, he has performed concerti by Walter Mays and William Albright. He is a saxophonist of the Cleveland Winds and frequently performs with the Lima Symphony Orchestra. In addition, he has performed with the Saginaw Eddy Concert Band, Hyperius Blake and the Sound Experiment, CUSP Improvisation Orchestra, and the Decho Ensemble. He is the saxophonist, and artistic director for the new music ensemble, The Blank Experiment. To date, the ensemble has premiered over 30 works for mixed chamber ensemble. He currently serves as the Manager of Concerts and Events at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He holds a MM in Saxophone Performance, MM in Chamber Music, and a Certificate in Arts Entrepreneurship & Leadership from the University of Michigan. He also holds a BM in Saxophone Performance from Bowling Green State University. His primary instructors have been Timothy McAllister and John Sampen.

Matthew Salvaggio

Conductor Matthew Salvaggio is a dynamic artist dedicated to exploring and promoting new music, reimagining diverse orchestral performance experiences, and creating equitable access to music education. He founded the Cleveland Repertory Orchestra in 2021 to explore the breadth of the orchestral repertoire, with an emphasis on new music and music by historically excluded voices. Additionally, the 2023/24 season marks his first season as Music Director and Conductor of the Bellevue Youth Symphony Orchestra, where he conducts the top-tier Youth Orchestra and manages a team of eight conductors responsible for leading the other BYSO ensembles. Committed to increasing access to music education, in 2022 he announced an initiative to expand the Erie Junior Philharmonic’s Prelude program for beginning students to include opportunities for beginning woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments. In 2019, he established the Tom Baker Young Artists Competition with the Euclid Symphony Orchestra. The annual competition, which has attracted students from throughout the Midwest, awards the winner a concerto performance opportunity with the ESO and a cash prize. An advocate for new music, he has commissioned works for band and orchestra with his ensembles, and his artistic collaborations include members of the New York Philharmonic, Cleveland Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Buffalo Philharmonic, Erie Philharmonic, and more. Upon the conclusion of the 2022/23 season, he completed several successful Music Directorships, including six seasons with the Euclid Symphony Orchestra, six seasons with the University Heights Symphonic Band, and two seasons with the Erie Junior Philharmonic. He has previously served on the faculty at Mercyhurst University, Hiram College, and Lakeland Community College.



Avant Music News

Penumbra, Robert Gross’ second release on the New Focus label, gives witness to the composer’s interest in conventional and unconventional instrumental combinations by presenting acoustic, electroacoustic, and electronic works together. While the differences among these six works are readily apparent from their instrumentation, they do share a common language in Gross’ whole tone-based quasi-tonalism and predilection for composing with a classical clarity of line.

The title composition, a string quartet performed by the Cordova Quartet, opens the album with a dramatic flourish. The piece is densely textured and maintains a high level of tension through its manipulation of dynamics and pulse; Gross’ tendency to score the voices in rhythmic agreement keeps the composition’s organizing motifs clearly legible throughout. In a radical change of instrumental means the track following Penumbra is the all-electronic Essay for Autoharp and Electronics, a composition for autoharp samples and the Absynth 5 synthesizer. The sound is delightfully reminiscent of the classic electronic compositions of the 1950s and 1960s – a kind of look back at what the past thought future music would be like. Although its soundworld obviously contrasts with the acoustic string quartet, like the quartet it coheres by presenting its motifs in multiple voices moving together.

The album’s most engaging piece is the electroacoustic Five Movements for Flute and Electronics, performed by Anne McKennon on flute and Gross on electronics. Like the Essay for Autoharp and Electronics, this composition features sounds reminiscent of electronics past, most notably from the 1970s. Gross sets up a semi-independent relationship between the two voices with the flute being left in its natural state as it moves within the electronic ambience. The first movement turns around a predominantly whole-tone pitch set expounded on flute, with answering gestures from the electronics; the second movement is a lyrical soliloquy for flute against a backdrop of futuristic washes and a portentous synthetic choir. For the third movement flute and electronics-as-synthetic-harpsichord fall into a more-or-less conventional relationship of lead and accompaniment, a relationship continued with a contrapuntal twist into the fourth movement; the concluding movement binds the two voices more closely together in rhythmic unison. Gross employs a similar architecture, but on a larger scale, in his acoustic Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Nine Instruments, the album’s final piece.

Penumbra also includes the electronic Symphonies of Electronic Instruments, and the vocal work Here We Call it Pop.

— Daniel Barbiero, 1.26.2024

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