Composer to Watch
profile of Portland composer Jack Gabel
Jack Gabel is unique among Oregon musical artists. He writes mostly for classically trained musicians, but doesn't share the typical pedigree, e.g. grew up in a musical family and played whatever instrument form age 3 or 5, composing since age 6, taking first prize in whatever at age 8, etc., etc. No, Gabel's folks are all poorly educated and don't play nuttin' but pinochle. He's a self-taught guitar player, worked in blues and as a double-bass jazz man, then got a formal education in his late twenties after discovering the on-the-fringe-for-their times art music of composers like Stravinski, Varese, Crumb, Ligetti, Penderecki, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, Boulez et al.
Born in 1949 and growing up in a pretty typical pop-rock-blues-&-jazz milieu where Coletrane and Hendrix were the ultimate outsiders, he says, "those modern classical cats just blew me away! When I heard what they were up to, it opened every door in the house to musical vistas I couldn't even imagine before. The first time I heard that stuff, probably Stravinski, I knew this is what I had to do."
By that time Gabel had traveled half way around the world, a half decade bumming around Europe, on the road with an old girlfriend, working summers in Northern Europe and coasting around the Med to North Africa, the Middle East and overland to India -- once back to England from Madras on a Cypriot freighter. Before returning to the US in the late 70s he'd heard and jammed with dozens of world musicians before there was even a name for it in the US popular music milieu.
He then worked his way through to a Masters in Music from the U of O, with the help of grants and competitive scholarships in 1981. His thesis recital included a post-modern piece for narrator/percussionist, processes double bass and tenor sax, with a beat poem that would have made Keroac weep and got dozens of performances before getting onto The Third Angle's "Junkyard Concert" CD release (1999).
In the last decade Jack Gabel has released 3 full-length CDs "Turtle Island Dreams / Turtle Island Dances" (1994), "Dog Star - Twenty Years of Electroacoustics: (1993) and "Jack Gabel - Spring Quartet and selected works for strings performed by fEARnoMUSIC" (2005). About the last, The Oregonian's David Stabler wrote, "Jack Gabel is the most unpredictable composer in Portland. No one else mixes humor, theater, dance and electronics with live, acoustic music in quite the same chamber combinations."
Gabel is perhaps better known in the local music scene for his record label North Pacific Music, with nearly two dozen releases in the classical, avant-garde and world genres, most notable five full-length CDs of the chamber music of Tomas Svoboda. His engineering skills stand out on titles such as "Tomas Svoboda - Nine Etudes in Fugue Style, Vols. 1 & 2" (2002).
Others might know him best from his work with his choreographer wife Agnieszka Laska and her dance company Agnieszka Laska Dancers. A number of his scores are now soundtracks to much of the company's repertory. A notable recent work is "Hellenic Triptych," which portrays the Narcissus myth through its three principal accompanying personae: Hera, Nemesis and Echo. It's premiere with score rendered live by Oregon Symphony principal violist JoŽl Belgique in Laska's fall 2004, Songs of Eva show at PSU's Lincoln Hall was a veritable show stopper, and recently on festival tour in Mexico it was the hit in every venue.
Writing for dance seems to be his focus for the time being, but with fine orchestral works in his catalog (e.g. "Whale Hunt Dream" for solo viola and orchestra, on the 2000 release "Karen Dreyfus - Viola Concertos Vol. II" MMC2079) and impressive chamber pieces for unusual combinations (e.g. "Through a gentle rain" for flutes and koto, on the 2005 release "Glass Sky - Tessa Brinckman & East West Continuo" NPM-LD-021), don't be surprised to find him popping up just about anywhere in the art music scene -- a composer to watch for sure.
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