(Pictured: Bob laughing during the taping of an interview in 2006)
In Memoriam: Bob Gilmore (1961-2015)
It’s never easy to say goodbye to a loved one. In writing this, my eyes swelled and my heart fluttered and I felt that selfish feeling of wanting more time with Bob that simply won’t happen—and that dissipates as logic takes over and I take solace in the fact that he was relieved of his pain.
This is a new music blog and for a number of reasons, this site and this project wouldn’t exist without Bob Gilmore. His numerous accomplishments merit a page of their own, so I’d like to use this platform to share some of my memories of this unique and wonderful man, who was equal parts teacher, scholar, writer, musician, father and partner.
The first time I was in contact with Bob was in 2004. I had just settled on the idea of going all-in and beginning the process of producing a feature-length documentary on the composer Harry Partch; reading Bob’s amazing biography on Partch was the tipping point for me with that decision. So, of course he was one of the first people I reached out to, not only to solicit help from, but also to receive the blessing of, for lack of a better expression. A few months later while I was living in Paris, I made arrangements to travel to Dartington College of Arts in Totnes, in the south of England, to meet with Bob in person to discuss Partch and my plan of action. Once I arrived he arranged a room for me at a local bed and breakfast since he had no guest room, and offered to treat me to dinner to make up for it. We began that afternoon and worked most of the next day together. He made time for me, a relative stranger who was wet behind the ears, and he shared research with me that he’d compiled over the years. In subsequent years, I would take the Partch land deeds he photocopied for me and track down the family land, shooting film in that desert far away from the British Isles. Later, I videotaped interviews with people he never had the time to track down. I wanted to do justice to his research, but more than that, to the eloquent manner in which he told these stories. He showed me a VHS tape of a BBC doc on Partch and we talked about the faults of their representation of the man and his work (as well as sharing a laugh at the fact that they had backlit him so poorly that he looked like some kind of hidden-identity informant!)
From my journal:
“Bob shows up, shakes my hand, grabs his mail, and we head off to his office. We start by talking about what I’m doing in Paris, and how he got started on Partch. I tell him the story of how I was introduced to the work of Partch. He starts showing me all of his Partch archives. We look through documents and photographs first.”
After I finished thumbing through piles of notes and re-photographing prints he’d collected, we took a few pints together with two of his mates (Chris Pressler and Michael Bassett) at an old pub on campus. We broke bread together and shared stories about music, travels and his homeland of Northern Ireland. Afterward, we went back to his friend’s flat and when they asked what to listen to, Bob exclaimed, “Let’s listen to Partch!” But even with our two votes for Partch, Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts won out, and we sat, drinking red wine while the hours slipped away as the conversations fluidly progressed back and forth between serious bits and observations and moments of levity. For the record, Partch’s The Bewitched played next.
We met up again the next morning after breakfast. From my journal:
“Bob pops in the door. We are both right on time. We walk a couple blocks to take a taxi. Bob knows the driver and small talks him. “How’s the tooth?” and the British driver is like “ooh, iss like wonna dem absess bu du doccta say, it’aint nuthin, just gimme woonna dem injections…” blah blah blah. On like this for 5-10 minutes. Bob pays for the taxi as well, refusing my money. We get to school and he fixes coffee and tea. I take tea and smoke a cigarette outside. He writes some emails while I photograph the rest of the pictures. Then he copies me the rest of the interview cds. We talk more about plans, personalities involved and such things. He gives me a list of contacts for the project, emails, numbers, addresses. He also gives me a lead about some research he couldn’t finish. We make copies of the Partch land deeds because I want to find the land that they owned in Arizona when Partch was a boy. By this time, it is almost time to leave. My 24 hours of Totnes is coming to an end. He arranges a taxi to pick me up at the school. I thank him as he walked me outside. I tell him of my plans to return there, perhaps in March when I can fly direct into Exeter. We shake hands and I take off on a ridiculously long day of traveling.”
I left Totnes with not only his approval to proceed, but also with his encouragement and support, and most importantly—his friendship.
The only other time I was able to visit Bob was during the summer of 2006. He wrote to me before I visited:
“Life is good, very good. Playing the piano quite a lot these days – whatever would Harry think of me!”
I made my way back to Totnes and was proud that I could present evidence that I had successfully followed up on many of the leads he put me onto previously. Once again, even though he was deluged with work, students, his own music and personal life—he made time for me again, and welcomed me as a guest in his home. This time, the camera would be pointed at him—as I wanted to go through the entire narrative of Partch’s life. He agreed, and in two short hours we reconstructed all of Harry’s life with nary a note between us. He didn’t balk at the fact the airline had lost my luggage and I had to jury-rig a tripod out of boxes from his office. During the taping, we were interrupted several times—and one of those times was the delivery of a package. The package contained proofs for the book he was putting together: Maximum Clarity, a collection of writings on music by the composer Ben Johnston. I began looking through the proofs and stopped to look over Ben’s lattices. He remarked something like “makes Partch look like Kindergarten, huh?” Even though I had been working on Just Intonation theory, it still intimidated me—but Bob just encouraged me to pursue it. We finished the shoot and hustled away to the English Riviera to have dinner with the composer Frank Denyer.
When I wrote to him during the early stages of my research, he wrote back to me:
“Get cracking on Harry’s theory - it’s not possible to have a true sense of what he was about, or what all the fuss was about, unless you understand his tuning system.”
And he was absolutely right. So much so, that, thanks to his encouragement, I tracked down Ben Johnston and was able to not only study tuning, theory, and composition with him, but I began to collaborate with him as well. Even though I’d conducted hundreds of interviews over the years with musicians, movie stars, and high level politicians—I was actually intimidated to reach out to Ben for the first time. But Bob had a direct and poignant way of describing Ben that made me realize that beneath that massive intellect was a beautiful and flawed human being. Ben was a Georgia boy who loved numbers and playing cards—just like myself. So Bob once again helped guide the direction of my life. And when I was trying to expedite the processing of Ben’s archives, Bob didn’t hesitate penning a strong letter in support of the cause. He didn’t stop helping Ben once he finished the book. He didn’t lose interest in Partch after he published the biography. He didn’t discount me all those years back when I only had an idea. And it seems like he didn’t give up one damn bit when he got sick.
I had heard Bob was ill a while back but I wanted to respect his privacy. I never asked and he never said anything. The last time I heard from him was a month ago, when he wrote asking me to send him an essay that Ben wrote—and I sent him a video with Ben reading it. I told him that I had been in a motorbike accident and was still healing. I wasn’t responding to many emails at all at that point, but I did for him. And he didn’t write back saying that he was dying…he was just…working, still working.
I’ve lost a lot of friends and family relative to my time on earth, and I know there is not one of us out there that hasn’t had our lives poisoned by this terrible disease—but I know one thing: I’m lucky that I made sure to tell Bob how much of an inspiration he was to me and how much his hard work had changed my life—while he was still here.
I will always remember those piercing eyes, those fiery Irish red locks, those fingers dancing across the piano, that laugh that spread like wildfire, and that incredibly bright mind of his. He always spoke so lovingly of his young, talented progeny Ben and his dear Elisabeth–who truly seemed to define “partner” as he always proudly declared her to be. My thoughts and love go out to them…so much more than any of these words can express. And to Bob, you brilliant, lovable bastard: Thank you. Here’s hoping one day we’ll raise a glass together again in Valhalla.