Jon Gibson, a composer, multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and collaborative musician who had a profound effect on the creation and dissemination of what would come to be known as “minimalist” music, died Oct. 12 at a hospital in Springfield, Mass. He was 80.
The cause was complications from a brain tumor, said his son, Jeremy Gibson, also a musician.
In a career spanning almost six decades, Gibson wrote music for solo instruments, electronics, dance, music theater and opera.
His most ambitious creation was “Violet Fire,” a 90-minute opera about the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla for six principal singers, chorus and chamber orchestra. It received its world premiere in Belgrade in 2006 and was brought to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Next Wave Festival that year. An evening-length work, “Relative Calm,” in collaboration with the dancer and choreographer Lucinda Childs, was presented at BAM in 1981.
Gibson played in the world premiere performances of three hugely influential works that changed the musical zeitgeist in America — Terry Riley’s “In C” (1964), Steve Reich’s “Drumming” (1971) and Philip Glass’s “Music in 12 Parts” (1974). “Whether you’re drawing a straight line or zig-zagging through the history of American Minimalist music, there is one person you’re bound to meet,” composer Britton Powell wrote of Gibson in 2016 for Bomb magazine.
He was a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble from its first concert in 1968 until 2019. He played in every performance of the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson opera “Einstein on the Beach” around the world and made two separate recordings of the work.
“Jon Gibson was one of the people responsible for the new musical languages which came out of the 1960s and ‘70s,” Glass said this week, recalling his friend as gentle, self-effacing and highly skilled. “Jon brought the technique of circular-breathing to the music, and to the Philip Glass Ensemble. To put it bluntly, the music wouldn’t have happened without Jon. His aesthetic and technical ability was essential for new music. That’s why everyone wanted to play with him. He brought the music to life.”
The son of educators, Jon Charles Gibson was born in Los Angeles on March 11, 1940, and grew up in El Monte, a suburb. His initial musical interests were in what was known as modern “cool school” jazz, and he heard many of the leading artists in the field, including pianist Dave Brubeck, saxophonist Paul Desmond and trumpeter Chet Baker.
Gibson and his family moved to northern California, where he studied at Sacramento State, San Francisco State and the University of California at Davis. There, he grew increasingly interested in the avant-garde, experimental music of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cornelius Cardew and helped form a group called the New Music Ensemble, which made two albums.
He moved to San Francisco, where he met Reich, who was studying music with the Italian experimental composer Luciano Berio. Reich promptly asked Gibson to play saxophone in a new piece.
He worked with Reich through the early 1970s and came to know many other soon-to-be-prominent Bay Area musicians, including Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros and Phil Lesh.
One night he gave Lesh a ride to Palo Alto, Calif., for a rehearsal of a new group called the Warlocks, which would soon change its name to the Grateful Dead. “He had just started playing bass and was very turned on. I drove him down, and there was Jerry and the group,” he told Powell. “They asked me if I brought my horn, but I had not. Who knows what might have happened if I had!”
Over the next decade, he worked as a jazz musician, studied South Indian singing, and played with a circus band across the United States. Eventually he ended up in New York, where he rejoined Reich and Riley who had also moved East, and joined a burgeoning arts community that was taking shape in the grand and inexpensive lofts of Lower Manhattan.
Gibson finished his first mature work, “Visitations,” in 1973. “I bought a good quality portable tape recorder and started recording natural sounds like creeks, oceans, crickets, etc.,” he told Powell. “I also had a like-minded sound engineer friend who also had some nice sounds that I incorporated. I added cymbal, wooden flutes, and other percussion sounds — sometimes slow-mo-ing them and treating them in different ways.
“My engineer friend Kurt [Munkacsi] was working with John Lennon at the time and had access to his 24-track studio,” he continued. “We were able to get in there during hours and lay down all of these tracks, then make two different mixes of basically the same material.”
The album was brought out on Chatham Square, Glass’s first label, and later reissued.
He married a longtime friend and collaborator, choreographer and dancer Nancy Topf, in 1973 and they had a son, Jeremy. Topf was killed in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 over Nova Scotia in 1998.
In 2018, Gibson married choreographer Cornelia “Nina” Winthrop, with whom he also collaborated. In addition to his wife, of Manhattan, and son, of Brooklyn, survivors include a sister.
In recent years, Gibson had played and toured with his son Jeremy’s playful ensemble Sir Jarlsberg, which offers an idiosyncratic mixture of Renaissance music and hip-hop that they called “Hark Hop.”