I wrote Beijing Harmony as part of Composing China, a project in which I (along with four other composers) was asked to compose a work that reflected upon my first hand impressions of China. I live in a very big city, New York City, and I was certainly dazzled by Beijing, an even bigger city. Every city produces its own set of harmonies. We tend to think of these harmonies as raucous but cities also have meditative spaces. In Beijing, I was enchanted by Echo Wall, a part of the Temple of Heaven in which voices echo from one side of the structure to the other.
Echoes and reverberations play a big role in Beijing Harmony. While writing this piece I thought about the majesty of Beijing’s architecture and how the past reverberates into the future. I envisioned a modern orchestra performing at the Temple of Heaven in the 15th century. Because of the expansive spaces in these ancient structures I imagined that the sound would bounce off the stone floors and buildings creating a fanfare of echoes, an acoustical rebounding and ringing that would slowly grow in zeal and fierceness. Because echoes move in space, the sound of the orchestra is constantly moving in a sonic architecture.
The following seating takes full advantage of the spacial elements in Beijing Harmony:
Strings seated in traditional formation from Stage Right to Left in the following order: Vlns. 1-4, Vla., Vc., Cb.
Winds and Brass seated so that Player 1 is Stage Right, Player 2 is Center, and Player 3 is Stage Left.
The 4 French Horns should be similarly spread out from Stage Right to Stage Left.
Tuba, Percussion and Piano do not need special placement.
Capturing the aura of cities is an ongoing project I have with filmmaker Bill Morrison. With Dystopia we turned to Los Angeles for inspiration. The goal was to start at high speed and never slow down, like a ride down the freeway at 90 mph with only a few detours. The question we ask ourselves about the ride is, ''Is it beautiful or is it ugly?''
I've tried to translate this question into musical terms by asking, ''Do I want to hear an orchestra that is neat and well manicured or frenzied and chaotic?'' Musically, I explore the gray areas between harmony and dissonance, where pleasure meets pain. I thought about the sound of a phonograph record speeding up and slowing down — that point where you hear the beauty of the music but also its altered state. I have slurred into a great blender disparate sounds taken from a palette that stretches from the Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem to contemporary Drum and Bass (a 1990s dance music characterized by very rapid tempos). Don't be disappointed if you don't recognize any of these influences.
Bill Morrison's visual material is a combination of new footage shot in Los Angeles and archival footage. From the Library of Congress comes the first film ever shot in Los Angeles, ''South Spring Street, Los Angeles,'' by Thomas Edison in 1898 and featuring horse driven carriages.
Like in Decasia, Gotham, and our other collaborations, the music was composed first, and then the film was cut to the score. —Michael Gordon
Beethoven's brutish and loud music has always inspired me. At the time it was written, it was probably the loudest music on the planet. The raw power of his orchestral writing burned through the style of the time.
A commission by the Beethoven-Fest Bonn gave me the opportunity to ask this question: What if someone, while writing a piece of music for orchestra, just happened to stumble over the same material that Beethoven used? What if someone unknowingly used this material in the course of writing his or her new work?
In Rewriting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, I retained one essential musical idea from each movement of the original work. From the first movement, I couldn’t resist working with the huge barbaric opening chords. From the second movement, I took the divine and other-worldly theme, adjusting it slightly so that when it ends, it is in a key one half-step higher. The theme continues to cycle around and slowly spirals up. From the third movement, I lifted the background accompaniment and brought it to the foreground. From the fourth movement I used the main theme.
Did this “rewriting” transform the music, or did the music transform me? Throughout the process I questioned, Who am I to take these precious notes and mash them into clay? But at a certain point I simply got lost in the material. I revelled in its power. I forgot about these questions in my mind. I forgot about Beethoven. —Michael Gordon
Gotham is the first piece of an ongoing collaboration I have with filmmaker Bill Morrison. The idea of the series is to capture the aura of a city through music and imagery. In this case, the city is our city where we both live –– New York.
Everyone who lives in a big urban place has a special spot that they have found where their soul relaxes. In the first movement of Gotham, I was thinking about the places we go to escape New York while being in New York. The spare opening music, which starts with solo violin and piano, slowly becomes majestic as the strings, winds and then brass join in. Images of old New York begin with a surprising scene of a man tending sheep. As the camera pulls back, the surrounding urban landscape is revealed, and the viewer realizes he is tending sheep in what is now Central Park.
In this collaboration, the film footage has been cut to the music. The film is primarily vintage black-and-white footage in Bill Morrison’s signature style, where the celluloid has decayed to the point that the film provides an ongoing commentary of psychedelic splotches and graffiti on top of the visual imagery.
The middle movement captures the daily assault of the city, with a hyper-intense pulse in the orchestra and blaring glissandos in the trumpets, almost reminiscent of sirens and carhorns and the industrial howls of New York life.
The third section is a wild jig, with rhythmic violins setting the pace and all the other instruments piling in until there is a huge mass of sound – an ecstatic dance gone wrong.
Gotham looks at the underside of the city –– the sidewalks, manhole covers, the construction –– what goes on in daily life here. Living through 9/11 made me think about where I live with fresh eyes and fresh ears. I wondered, Why am I living here? One doesn’t live in New York City because it is beautiful or an easy life. Those aren’t the reasons. It’s intense, it’s noisy, it’s exciting, it’s dirty. It really juices you up. In Gotham, we took a fresh look. ––Michael Gordon
Decasia was commissioned by the Basel Sinfonietta for the occasion of European Music Month, which was held in Switzerland in 2001. The piece was conceived as an environmental symphony. Wanting to control the experience completely, we built a concert hall with an enormous, installed set and multimedia design by Ridge Theater in a cavernous, empty warehouse in Basel. Directed by Bob McGrath, the production included projections by Laurie Olinder, a set by Jim Findlay and a film element by Bill Morrison, which was later edited into an independent film with the same title.
Decasia now exists in two formats. The staged version completely alters the performance space, with musicians sitting on a multi-tiered set behind hanging scrims, which provide a surface for the projections and film. The audience stands or sits, surrounded by the set, engulfed in a barrage of sound and imagery.
In the concert version of Decasia, Morrison’s film is projected on a scrim, which can hang behind or in front of the orchestra.
Early in our collaboration, Morrison showed me damaged archival film that he had discovered. It was marred by corrosion and riddled by pockmarks –– the mottled remains of celluloid images. While imagining the music that might complement this film, I thought of a piano that hadn’t been tuned in twenty years. It’s a beautiful sound. Once you’ve heard that sound you never forget it. What’s the orchestral equivalent? I wondered. I set out to make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated, and the musicians happen to come by, pick them up and play. What would that sound be?
I decided to re-tune the instruments of the orchestra. For example, there are three flutes. One flute plays completely in tune; a second flute is tuned an eighth of a tone higher; and the third flute is tuned an eighth of a tone lower. When all three flutes play in unision, the sound they produce is thickened. The whole orchestra is retuned in this manner. So, here are fine classical musicians who spent their whole lives trying to play perfectly in tune now trying to play perfectly out of tune, which is quite a task.
The first sound you hear is that of eight brake drums. The brake drum is a percussion instrument that is exactly what it sounds like –– an automobile part from a junkyard completely covered with rust. The percussionist scrapes it slowly with a metal beater, creating the hiss that is heard at the beginning of the piece.
Throughout Decasia, you hear music that is very simple, but it is covered up. It’s like something very beautiful that’s been layered with mud and junk, but you can still see how beautiful it is –– you can still see that it is shining.
The resulting sound changes one’s bearing to tonality, melody and harmony. The music becomes unstable. You enter a realm, like standing at the gates of heaven, wondering if there are 500 choirs of angels singing, because the overtones and the out-of-tuneness creates a massive complexity of sonorities.
There is a lot of music about love. I am not sure why most of it is soft and gentle. Love is one of the world’s most powerful forces. One cannot touch it or even be precise about what it is. To me, making a statement about love is to make something loud and mysterious and huge.
I wrote Sunshine of Your Love for the Ensemble Modern Orchestra. I knew that it would be on a program with Ives’ Fourth Symphony and a new work by John Adams, Naïve and Sentimental Music. John was to conduct, and I asked for every single instrument available and a few more to boot.
The orchestra is divided into four groups consisting of violins, high winds and brass, each tuned one-eighth of a tone apart. Each of these groups is supported by a keyboard tuned similarly. The four groups trade off a melody that ascends and descends in eighth tones. The lower instruments, along with percussion, two electric guitars and two electric basses, support the upper instruments with insistent and driving rhythm. The title comes from a song by Cream. As a boy, I listened to their album, Disraeli Gears, over and over while trying to decipher the psychedelic cover. The dark, moody, raw music that accompanied this love song was a revelation to me.
Weather was commissioned by the Seimans Foundation for the German-based string orchestra, Ensemble Resonanz. Inspired by the chaotic scheme of weather patterns, I wondered how these might transfer musically, as if the past several hundred years of musical ideas were swirling around, and I could just grab things I liked and build on them.
I imagined history as being not so much like a timeline, but like an elevator where I could stop at whatever floor I wanted, and everything was going on simultaneously. The elevator went up to eight, where I found Vivaldi, who of course wrote a massive string piece based loosely on the same subject. Then I went down to the fourth floor, where I found Jimi Hendrix, back up to nine for some 1990’s London club music, then to five for the noise of battleship sirens.
In Weather Two, I put the entire string orchestra through a fuzz box, a distortion unit associated with electric guitars, which I first used in my solo cello piece, Industry. It’s a sound I continue to go back to. Weather Three is constructed from a recording of a siren blast. I harmonize the blast with the string orchestra, slowly transforming this dangerous and edgy warning into a friendlier and calmer sound. Weather One and Weather Four do not use electronics, and can be played unamplified as well as amplified.
The original production of Weather was created in collaboration with filmmaker Elliot Caplan and toured Germany in 1995 as a multimedia production. Soon after, Ensemble Resonanz recorded the piece for the London-based, “drum-and-bass” dance label, Arthrob. The instruments were miked closely, and the sound is up front and aggressive, almost rough.
The connection with Arthrob gave me the opportunity to go into the studio after the work had been recorded and add a layer of drum beats and synthesized sounds. These exist only on the recording. I like to think that Weather does with a string orchestra what a composer in 1723 would have wanted to do had he access to the technology. —Michael Gordon
In 1992 I was given the opportunity to write my first orchestral work for the Yale Bach Society Orchestra. I modeled this piece on the compact nature of the short symphonies of J.C. Bach, adding a fourth movement typical of the later classical period –– all squeezed into nine minutes. ––Michael Gordon
In Hyper I attempt to create the musical equivalent of an impossible object, an optical illusion in which an impossible geometry is represented. Impossible objects fall up, open in and out, and twist irrationally in space. One impossible object is the Penrose Stairs – stairs that climb upward but somehow loop in a circle, so that no matter how far one climbs they always return to the same place. Similarly, music can travel through keys and end up where it began. These types of illusions, which are common in the art of M. C. Escher, are taken to absurdist ends in literary works like Alice in Wonderland: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” In Hyper I create quixotic geometries without concern for the laws of physics. It has been a thrill to write for the wonderful musicians of DC8 for their inaugural concert.
What is it we talk about when we talk about music? Melody, Harmony, Emotion. These are things that add warmth to a piece of music. I wondered what it would be like to take the warmth away — to approach the music from a different view — like walking out into the tundra. I imagined making a piece of music cold.
Who By Water is inspired by a prayer from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, the service marking the Jewish New Year. The prayer opens as follows: On Rosh Hashanah their destiny is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be brought into existence; who shall live and who shall die; who shall come to a timely end, and who to an untimely end; who shall perish by fire and who by water. Bill Morrison's accompanying film features distressed black-and-white images of people on the great old ships that crossed the sea before airplanes became the popular mode of travel.
I first experimented with microtones in XVI (1993), a piece for 16 voices, and in Vera, Chuck & Dave I returned to thinking about the notes between the notes. Charles Ives was inspired by two marching bands playing different tunes in different keys simultaneously, and tried to recreate this effect in his music.
In Vera, Chuck & Dave, I imagine that those two bands are actually playing the same tune in the same key, but the bands are out of tune and out of step with each other. In order to get this effect, a subset of the ensemble –– clarinet, trumpet, trombone, violin and electric guitar –– tunes a quarter tone higher. I later expand on this 'acoustic chorusing' of pitch in Sunshine of Your Love and Decasia.
In Love Bead, the ensemble of 13 musicians is divided into two forces that continuously pull and tear at each other and then, like lovers, meet up furiously. The piece is built on a pattern of 25 beats. During the first 20 beats, a low, rumbling cluster of instruments, comprised of electric guitar, trombone, contra-bassoon and bass clarinet, play harsh, industrial rhythms. Simultaneously, a second cluster of keyboard and strings plays blunt, attacking strokes.
The clashing forces come together during the last five beats, closing off the pattern, which then begins again. Love Bead is constructed like a set of beads strung together. As the piece progresses, each “bead” changes slightly, like the rough and jagged wooden “Love Beads” that I used to wear growing up. Love Bead was written for the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern.
Trance began after a dream I had in July 1994 while I was in residence at the Djerassi Foundation just south of San Francisco. In the dream I brought my music to an older composer for his comments. The composer was a combination of Gyorgy Ligeti, Louis Andriessen and my own teacher Martin Bresnick. The older composer looked through my scores, one by one, and I could hear in my head the music that he heard in his head as he looked at my compositions. It all sounded like Mozart. After each score the composer shook his head in a discouraging way. Finally he turned to me and said, “You need to work with large forces.” I woke up startled.
That day I received a message from Andrew Cornall, Executive Producer at Argo/Decca Records, who asked me to write a CD-length piece for the London-based ensemble Icebreaker, to be recorded on the Argo label. I had already written Yo Shakespeare for Icebreaker, and I was excited to write another piece for this great group. I started work on Trance. Thinking about my dream, I decided to add eight brass players to the core group of 14 musicians. In addition, two sections of the piece, “Trance Drone” and “Trance 5”, include electronically made audio playback.
The rehearsal process with Icebreaker allowed experimentation with rhythmic figures that were beyond the scope of rhythm as known in Western music. These rhythms were complicated yet could be understood as a groove or feel. The openness and flexibility of Icebreaker allowed me to imagine music with a strong rhythmic pulse, written down, with no one playing on the beat. I imagined several interlocking units going on simultaneously –– like the different thoughts in one's head that go on at once, or, in this case, like being able to hear different kinds of music in one's head at the same time.
I met James Poke, founder of the London-based ensemble Icebreaker, in Amsterdam during the intermission of the premiere of Louis Andriessen's De Materie in 1989. I was standing right next to James, and Louis came over and said, “You and you are friends.” We found a lot to talk about, and, some time later, James called me in a bit of a panic: Icebreaker was making a recording and some of the music hadn't been completed. Would I be willing to write a new piece for them –– quickly?
I was living in Amsterdam at the time and started writing immediately, using a primitive musical notation program called HB Engraver. HB Engraver didn't have barlines –– you put them in yourself. It also allowed me to write odd numbers of triplets, one or two triplets by themselves. I started experimenting with these oddly numbered triplets, finding some joyful, exuberant rhythms that sounded great but looked impossible to play. I discovered, however, that I could put barlines into the music and make measures in which the three triplet notes are split into groups of one and two, and it would all still add up.
This is the origin of the split triplet, which I use throughout Yo Shakespeare, as well as in Trance, Love Bead and other pieces. In Yo Shakespeare, I was able to achieve something that I first attempted to create when I wrote Thou Shalt/Thou Shalt Not!, which is to have a jagged, interrupted rhythmic plot that at the same time feels pulse based and moves forward energetically. I wanted to write visceral music, and I thought of Yo Shakespeare as three salsa bands playing simultaneously, at different but related speeds. I divided the 13 musicians into three groups, one playing the 16th-note pulse, one playing eighth notes and split triplets and, finally, one playing dotted eighths and quarter notes.
One of the oddities of working with Icebreaker is that they sent over a list of rules, a manifesto of sorts, that they asked me to follow, including a rule that the band has final approval of the title of the piece. For fun I submitted three titles and asked them to choose. Yo Shakespeare was a title I came up with because a friend of mine had begun calling me Shakespeare as a way to connect me in his mind to “culture.” I also thought the title was a nice nod from an American composer to a group of UK musicians.
I often use syncopation as a way to not only make rhythm intense and jagged, but also to find out how far away musicians can get from each other rhythmically while still staying connected to the beat. When I began writing Four Kings Fight Five in 1988, I was thinking about how most music of the world is clearly connected to a pulse. But there also exists music that is extremely complex rhythmically and not pulse based at all. These were two approaches that I wanted to meld.
What I did in Four Kings Fight Five is to have a common pulse among the nine musicians, so that the music is always pulse based, but, at the same time, to make the rhythmic connections very distant. I did this by forming a chain of simple rhythmic syncopations that spread out in sub-divisions of both 2 and 3, so that over the course of a 9-beat measure the rhythm is subdivided into 6, 8, 9, 12, 13.5, 24, and 27. Although it sounds complicated and builds up a frenetic texture, the instrumentalist playing 27 beats per measure is subdividing against 13.5 beats per measure, which are quarter-note triplets against 9 beats per measure.
I thought of he nine instruments as the scene of a battleground, although it is unclear who is fighting whom. I like the biblical reference of Abraham going to battle against four kings who have triumphed over five kings. The battle of the four kings against five is unimportant in itself –– it is related in Genesis only to let you know how strong the four kings are that Abraham defeats, that is, they are strong enough to have beaten five others.
Perhaps at the same time that these nine insruments are battling it out, they are also working together to create a texture that is more mysterious then all of these numbers I mention here.
Acid rain is a type of pollution that attacks plants. It might seem strange to write music about acid rain, but the idea disturbed me so much that I couldn't help but imagine what plants must feel like being covered with unpleasant chemicals. The music has several layers of harsh rhythmic chords that attack simultaneously.
The piece was written for Spectrum, a British ensemble whose American keyboard player, Yvar Mikhashoff, commissioned the piece in 1986. ––Michael Gordon
Years ago I pursed my lips and blew into a bassoon, and felt the entire instrument buzz as I droned on the very bottom note, a B flat. I held the long conical piece of wood in my hands with admiration — it was covered with what looked like a New York City subway map of shiny metal keys running every which way. The bassoon had heft and it was primal — the two reeds vibrating against each other produced a poignant and mournful sound.
It all came back to me on a cold sunny Thursday in January 2011. Five bassoonists set up in my living room. Along with 25 other bassoonists from far and wide, they had banded together and asked me to write a new piece. I’m not sure any of them imagined that my response would be an hour-long work for seven bassoons.
In earlier conversations with Dana Jessen, the American bassoonist who initiated this project, I had asked to look at all the influential bassoon music written in the 20th century. Dana showed up with just a small pile of music. I felt a little bit like Magellan. I knew there were worlds to find if I could just set sail.
During that Thursday afternoon, we explored a myriad of sounds and my living room was filled with an exquisite buzzing of dark tones. I was particularly drawn to the short percussive attacks by all the bassoons in counterpoint with each other. The texture had the aural effect of a Seurat painting, and I began to write for the instruments as if they were participants in an extreme sport — a non-stop barrage of ethereal rapid-fire points of sound that seamlessly shifted from one instrument to the next. This architectural movement of sound, which runs throughout the entire piece of music, is a technique that I first used in Timber, a percussion work for six amplified simantras. I imagined entering these waves of moving sound and embarking on a journey through a stark monochromatic landscape that slowly revealed its hidden colors.
The score, with tens of thousand of notes, looks a bit like an Escher drawing or a very long weaving pattern for a loom. In June 2012, in Edisto Island, South Carolina, I met with the seven bassoonists of the newly formed Rushes Ensemble. As we rehearsed, I thought that the piece had become like the thick river winding its way through the marshes and reedy growth surrounding us. I had already settled on the name Rushes, both for its reference to the reeds and to capture the mental state it produced. Now, with the seven bassoonists fully immersed in the music, I felt the primordial flow of sound harkening back to the very first reeds.
Working on this string quartet, I found myself thinking about the Clouded Yellow. This butterfly takes part in mass migrations that are referred to in England as “clouded yellow years.” I love the image of a cloud of bright yellow butterflies, and I think the word “clouded” describes the blurred harmonies and melodies of this piece.
I imagined the opening harmony to be accordion-like, a syncopated vamp played by the viola and cello. The rhythm, a tugging three over four, flits in and out. I heard some high sighing sounds floating above all of this and gave them to the violins. It was as if I could hear the flapping of butterfly wings. I imagined I was flying around on a butterfly, gliding in the air, the air dense with moisture, like in a rainforest. It was all very free and fanciful, like a travelogue around a garden.
I tried to feel the thickness of the atmosphere and create a reverberant sound texture. The raw sound of open strings drones in accompaniment to the melody. The C, G and D strings can be heard vibrating in almost all parts of the quartet. And the C string on cello, its lowest note, is used as a pedal point throughout. While I was creating this string quartet I thought about each of the members of Kronos. Their personalities and talents were never far from my consciousness.
I spent most of 2009 going in and out of synagogues to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, for Madeline. Of course she wouldn’t have approved. She was a communist. Madeline lived in a different world, a world of transplanted Yiddish secular culture. I realized all of this only much later. There’s plenty of time to think about these things in synagogue because there are numerous prayers and who can concentrate on so many of them? Madeline loved music and she would take me to concerts when I was little. I would fall asleep but that didn’t deter her. She wanted me to love music as much as she did but she certainly did not want me to be a composer. Madeline, are you listening? I dedicate this piece to your memory.
I began working on Timber in 2009 at the invitation of the Dutch-based dance group, Club Guy & Roni, and the percussion ensembles Slagwerk Den Haag and Mantra Percussion. I had written many orchestral works over the decade, beginning with Decasia in 2001 up to Dystopia in 2007, and I wanted to clear my mind of pitches and orchestration.
For that reason, I decided early on that Timber would be for non-tuned percussion and that each percussionist would play one instrument only. I thought of composing this music as being like taking a trip out into the desert. I was counting on the stark palette and the challenge of survival to clear my brain and bring on visions.
I imagined that the six instruments would go from high to low, and that, through a shifting of dynamics from one instrument to the next, the group could make seamless and unified descending or ascending patterns. After working on rhythmic sketches with Mantra Percussion in early 2009, I went to Amsterdam in June to workshop my ideas with Slagwerk Den Haag. I had the plan but I was searching for the right instruments.
After some experimentation, Slagwerk's Fedor Teunisse brought out a set of wooden simantras. These slabs of wood, which looked like standard building materials from a lumberyard to me, had a gorgeous sound. It was distinct enough so that the clarity of the percussive hits could be heard, and was also extremely resonant, producing a complex field of overtones. With inspiration from this discovery, I returned to New York to finished the music for Club Guy & Roni's extravaganza 'Pinball and Grace,' which premiered in October of 2009.
the light of the dark was written for the ensemble, Eighth Blackbird. In my initial conversations with the musicians, they mentioned the “other” instruments that they play (accordion, guitar, percussion...), and I imagined a chaos onstage, with the musicians grabbing the nearest available instrument and playing music on it. The piece starts with a heavy-metal-esque cello line and builds from there into a kind of out-of-control late-night jam session, complete with unpredictable metallic crashes, swirling virtuosic fiddling and colliding glissandos. ––Michael Gordon
Part 1: Two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came. Part 2: There was a big boom and then there was teeny fiery coming out. Part 3: I just heard that on the news that the buildings are crashing down. Part 4: And all the persons that were in the airplane died. The recordings used in this piece are of children, ages 3 and 4, and were made by Loyan Beausoleil, a pre-kindergarten teacher at University Plaza Nursery School in Lower Manhattan, between September 2001 and January 2002. (My son Lev was in Ms. Beausoleil’s class during this period.) Her ongoing work with these children is chronicled at http:www.youngestwitnesses.com
When I heard these recordings I was struck by the raw tunefulness of the children’s speech. These specific segments were chosen for their musicality as well as for their content. I worked with sound designer Luke DuBois on the post-production of these tapes. In Parts 1 and 3, the sound clips are gradually slowed down to reveal the hidden acoustical properties of the speech. Parts 2 and 4 use an electronic music technique called granular synthesis, in which tiny ''grains'' of sound from the original source are captured and compacted together.
In Idle, three violins play an almost-jig, but each violin plays just slightly after the one before, so that the dance becomes sweet and sour, a jig filled with dissonances and layered textures. Written in the same post-9/11 period as Light Is Calling and Tinge, it is accompanied by electronic loops that were created in my home studio on Desbrosses Street. ––Michael Gordon
I wrote Tinge during the same post-9/11 period as Light Is Calling and Idle. I wanted to cheer myself up and make some fun music, so I decided to work with loops of salsa bands, whose timbre I altered and harmonics I rearranged. I imagined that this fantasy salsa band was playing with a Baroque-inspired coterie of acoustic violins, and that together they played a strange type of hyper Baroque-salsa. ––Michael Gordon
Throughout Potassium I use a distortion unit or fuzz box on the string quartet to create a mysterious and charged sound. Potassium begins with major and minor chords sliding in and out of tune –– very simple harmonies that, with the use of electronics and glissandos, become fogged up like a blur, making you unsure of what you are hearing. This music eventually breaks out into a section which I call in the score, “Frenzied Soul Explosion,” with a wilder sliding accompanied by attacking chords. In some part of my brain I must have known that in the Periodic Table of Elements, Potassium is listed as the symbol K. Potassium is dedicated to the Kronos Quartet.
Weather One is the first movement from my piece for string orchestra, Weather, in an arrangement for string sextet. Weather was commissioned by the Seimans Foundation for the German-based string orchestra, Ensemble Resonanz. Inspired by the chaotic scheme of weather patterns, I wondered how these might transfer musically, as if the past several hundred years of musical ideas were swirling around, and I could just grab things I liked and build on them.
Weather One is influenced by Vivaldi's motoric string writing and use of canons, where the melody played by an instrument is immediately played by another in close succession. ––Michael Gordon
acdc is based on a simple, almost pop, chord progression that somehow found its way into 11/8, the basic time signature that runs throughout the whole piece. I layered oddly phrased melodies on top, with the cello playing a pizzacato bass groove.
acdc was commissioned by the Alternate Currents ensemble, which made me think about electricity. I’m not a scientist or engineer, so I was free to imagine that alternating currents were something like two different speeds or rhythms going on simultaneously.
The legendary Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever” includes a false fadeout –– you think it is the end but then the music returns and is turned upside down. Nothing is as it was. Then John Lennon says, “Cranberry sauce.” His voice was lowered an octave in the recording studio, and all the world believed that Lennon said, ''I buried Paul.'' When the record came out, people went crazy trying to find other clues that Paul McCartney was really dead. DJs played Beatles records backwards on the radio, and, as a result, some very strange music — and a lot of noise — was broadcast. This piece is about that noise.
“How strange that they are quiet,” is what I thought when I was writing this piece with its twisting, hushed melodies. In the first, more introspective section, I wanted to create an eerie psychedelic sound world of overlapping tunes. In the second section, which is loud and rhythmic, the ensemble divides into two competing streams, eventually joining up again at the end in a high-pitched, ecstatic revelry. This was the second piece I wrote for the Michael Gordon Philharmonic. ––Michael Gordon
The Low Quartet is an advocation for the rich, low, reedy register of the bass instruments –– the register that usually carries the flow line that holds up the busier stuff on top. I thought it was time to give them some action –– a clumsy, fast-moving, hard-driving dance, like fat cows grooving. I wrote The Low Quartet for the low instruments of the world.
I started working on the music for Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!in early 1982, at the end of my graduate studies at Yale University. I wrote much of the material at the piano, pounding out a conflict between two stubborn musical forces: a modal melody, anchored by a low E that remains relentlessly in place, and the counter response of four notes (F, A, A, F), which refuse to soften or give in. I continued to work on Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!in New York City, collecting odd assortments of instruments in my loft on Desbrosses Street, trying out various orchestrations.
Eventually I found what I wanted –– an amplified sound that combined violin and viola with electric guitar as the “string” section, a growling bass clarinet (played by Evan Ziporyn) on that low E, and a vintage electric organ (which I played) that supported and meshed these four instruments together. At that time, there were very few pieces, if any, that used the electric guitar as a chamber music instrument and, subsequently, few guitarists who knew how to read music, play with an ensemble and make the guitar sound truly “electric.” Both the violin and viola were re-tuned, with the violin tuning its lowest string down to E and its highest string up to F, and the viola tuning its C down to B. Toward the end of the piece the guitarist must re-tune as well.
The ensemble voices a stark melody that twists into long winding tunes. Opposing the ensemble is a tour-de-force performance for a percussionist, who has to play both tuned drums and marimba simultaneously. The struggle between the ensemble and percussionist continues throughout the piece without resolution –– a jagged, brutal and stark equilibrium of intense battle –– with the percussion playing quarter-note triplets in groups of four or five that consistently interrupt the ensemble’s attempted groove.
Perhaps the conflict in this piece is between classical music and rock music, two worlds that seemingly could not coexist in 1983, which I am trying to force into a single statement. Or perhaps it is the struggle between the sacred and the secular, or anything for which there really is no resolution.
Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not!was first performed in December 1983 at the East Village art gallery, International With Monument. That occasion marked the first public performance of The Michael Gordon Philharmonic. In addition to Evan and myself, the original members of the group included Ted Kuhn (violin), John Lad (viola), Jon Fields (guitar) and, from the second performance on, Michael Pugliese (percussion).
I grew up playing, or miss-playing, the piano. My fear of writing for instruments I can't play is minute in comparison to the fear I have of writing for the piano. But I did finally write this piano piece and I called it Sonatra, less as a tribute to Frank than as an acknowledgment that what I am aiming for is somewhere between sonata and Sinatra.
When I started writing Sonatra I decided that since I would probably only ever write one piano piece in my entire life, I wanted to use all of the keys on the piano and use them often. I constructed long chains or links of major and minor thirds that ceaselessly wind their way up and down the piano. Eventually they start cascading and intersperse with glissandos half the length of the keyboard, sounding to me like the performer has at least four hands.
XY is a percussion solo for five tuned drums. In XY, the right and left hand of the performer get louder and softer in reverse symmetry. That is, while the right hand gets louder and louder, the left hand, which was loud, gets softer and softer, and so on. The performer’s hands do this continually. Eventually, each hand moves at different speeds. For instance, if the right hand plays four notes to the beat, the left hand might play five. As the drumming of the right hand fades away, the drumming of the left hand emerges at a faster rate. Also, the length of time that the hands take to emerge and fade contracts and expands.
I am speaking of the hands of the performer as if they were independent beings, and indeed they practically are. When I was imagining the music of XY, I thought of the double helix of DNA, which wraps around itself and spirals upwards.
When I wrote Industry in 1993, I was thinking about the Industrial Revolution, technology, how instruments are tools and how Industry has crept up on us and is all of a sudden overwhelming. I had this vision of a 100-foot cello made out of steel suspended from the sky, a cello the size of a football field, and, in the piece, the cello becomes a hugely distorted sound.
I wrote this piece for Maya Beiser, and it was an incredible process. I would fax her the music and she'd play it to me over the phone. We did this maybe ten times, trying things out. She was constantly teaching me about the cello, and I was making her play things that were really awkward and dark. —Michael Gordon
I met Robert Black at a music festival in Buffalo, New York, in 1985, where I heard him play for the first time. I realized then that there was a lot more to the double bass than bass. When he asked me to write a piece for solo bass, I wanted to take advantage of the very long strings, the very high notes and the very low notes –– all at the same time. I tried to expand the idea of a solo bass piece: Could the bass play bass to itself? At a syncopated speed? In Paint It Black, I tried to make the bass sound like two instruments. I called the piece Paint It Black as a tribute to Robert.
Lightning at our feet is a song cycle based on poems by Emily Dickinson. I chose twelve poems, many of them dark. Diving into her work, I found that Dickinson's poetry for the most part uses two types of rhythmic schemes: one is a sing-song, almost childlike rhythm that is disarming in its simplicity and lulls the reader into a sense of security, allowing the poet to unexpectedly hit you with an often strange or bizarre thought or image; the second type is closely related except that the rhythm is slightly irregular, the beats don't always add up, the words twist just a bit.
It was the irregular rhythms of this latter group of poems, along with the irregular half rhymes that struck me. It was as if Dickinson was trying to shove the words into a space in which they couldn’t fit. These were the poems I chose to comprise most of the libretto for Lightning at our feet.
Something else I found compelling in Dickinson’s words was that they embrace an anxiety that is very modern. There is no nineteenth-century formality, no distancing for the raw emotion. I think that is one reason that, once discovered in the early 1900s, her poetry played to an increasing anxious twentieth century.
Because I wanted to put her in a contemporary setting with contemporary music, I avoided all poems that had what we would now think of as antiquated English, like thee or thou. In addition, the poems I selected were mostly written during the Civil War. Although none mention the war explicitly, the shadow of death is never far.
It was impossible for me to escape the allure of Dickinson’s life story, and why try? In the course of working on Lightning at our feet, I visited her house in Amherst, Massachusetts and stood in the room in which she spent most of her days. I wondered about the “strange melodies” that were heard emerging from the Dickinson house when Emily was young before she shut herself away. But I was wary of worshipping a mythic figure, and I was wary of the images of Dickinson that I had read about or seen put forward.
The general impression is that she was a witty New England spinstress, baking cookies for children and raising exotic plants. A one-woman play on Broadway depicted her as one’s eccentric Aunt Tillie, full of bon mots and sly humor. But this was a woman who didn't see anyone once she reached her mid twenties. Her withdrawal was gradual –– at first she would run up to her room when strangers came to visit. Then she started staying upstairs during dinner parties. Soon her isolation was complete – even friends and family would have to sit in the corridor outside her room, what she call the “northwest passage,” i.e. uncrossable, and converse with her with her bedroom door, slightly ajar, between them.
I had to re-imagine Emily Dickinson. In my mind I transformed her into a combination of Patti Smith and Janis Joplin. Re-imagining her in this way, I was able to connect to the fire inside her words. Lightning at our feet was conceived as a theatrical presentation, with a cast of four women singing and performing on instruments. I wanted the stage to look like a girl band –– women who would make you believe the words they sang were written by a punk poetess who lived in the cool and edgy part of town.
The original production was designed by Ridge Theater and featured a set of four rolling scrims, panels that at times opened out with the expansive imagery of the words and at other times closed up like the little room in which Dickinson spent her life. The title comes from a letter Emily Dickinson sent to the poet T.W. Higginson as consolation for the death of his infant daughter. The passage reads: These sudden intimacies with Immortality, are expanse— not Peace—as Lightning at our feet, instills a foreign Landscape.
In 1943, a former cheesecake model, known only as “Acquanetta,” lit up the screen in the B-movie horror film and now cult classic, Captive Wild Woman. Stunning and exotic, Acquanetta played the untameable and gorgeous creation resulting from a mad scientist’s experiments on an ape, a role the young actress sizzled in and played so well a sequel was soon in the can. So began a brief career in bread-and-butter films that ended only a few years later when Acquanetta inexplicably walked away from the Hollywood studio system and swanned off to Mexico.
Her past is a mystery. Because of her come-hither stare and sensuous pout, Walter Winchell nicknamed her “The Venezuelan Volcano.” In interviews, she claimed Native American roots, and her obituary in 2004 stated that she was born on an Indian reservation near Cheyenne, Wyoming. Who was Acquanetta, and why did she walk out on her contract with Universal Pictures at the height of her career?
In Acquanetta, the mock serious, campy spirit of horror movies is turned inside out in a bravura, one-act deconstruction of the five minutes that changed Acquanetta’s life forever. The mad scientist Doctor, the insistent Ape, the reluctant Brainy Woman, the visionary Director and the beautiful monster herself, Acquanetta, gather in this re-imagining of that fateful experiment. In soaring, sometimes comic and always indelible songs that perfectly capture the heightened drama of horror films, these vivid characters reveal their inner longings and emotional shadows in what is ultimately a haunting meditation on the meaning of identity, transformation, stereotypes and typecasting, set in the heyday of Hollywood gloss. ––Deborah Artman Librettist, Acquanetta
Cast/Characters: Acquanetta (mezzo-soprano/alto) Brainy Woman (soprano) Ape (coloratura) Doctor (tenor) Director (bass/baritone) Chorus
Scene 3: Musical Interlude Chorus Ohhh… (Gasp!) Strangest of sights! Introducing Acquanetta. Burning fire in deep water.
Scene 4: Doctor: aria
Doctor (urgent and possessed) Who am I today? The mad scientist. I live in the inner sanctum. The fantastic world of my dreams. Who do I play today? I transmutate an ape into a woman. I glandulate an ape into a captive wild woman. I’ll transmutate an ape into a woman.
Scene 5: Ape: aria (+ Female Chorus)
Ape (despairingly) Because I'm inside this costume –
Chorus Ahhh…, ohhh…
Ape Because I’m inside this costume –
Chorus Ahhh…, ohhh….
Ape You can't tell if I'm good or bad. You can’t tell if I’m black or white. You can’t tell if I’m thin or round.
Chorus Would it surprise you if I were a woman? Would it surprise you –
Ape ¬– if I were a woman? Because I’m inside this costume –
Chorus Ahhh…, ohhh…
Ape You don't know if I'm decisive or persuasive. You don’t know if I’m commanding or alluring. You don’t know if I’m enlightened or disheartened. Would it surprise you if I were a woman?
Scene 6: Doctor/Ape Duet
Doctor (obsessively) Gown, gloves, mask, magnifying glass. Razor, drape, forcep, scalpel, hand drill. Bulb syringe, kellies, tweezer, morphine. Blood, more blood, more morphine. Electric coagulator.
Ape Last week I played the Bones from Beyond.
Doctor Transmutate –
Ape Before that the Black Widow.
Doctor Glandulate –
Ape It was so hot I almost fainted.
Doctor Trephinate –
Ape The Demon Without a Face – the mask alone took six hours.
Doctor Evolution, fluctuation –
Ape A hairy tarantula, the Fog Creature
Doctor Plasmatic transfusion.
Ape The Doppelganger, Ooze, a killer bee.
Doctor Gown, gloves, mask, magnifying glass. Razor, drape, forcep, scalpel, hand drill.
Ape Would it surprise you if I were a woman?
Doctor I’ll transmutate an ape into a woman.
Ape Would it surprise you if I were a woman?
Doctor I’ll transmutate an ape into a woman.
Scene 7: Director: aria (+ Chorus)
Director And cut! (with authority, to Acquanetta) Acquanetta, are you ok in there? (to Ape) Ape, you are hungry. (to Doctor) And Doctor, a bit more. (to Brainy Woman) And sweetheart, think of your brain as your first-born child. (dreamily, to Audience) The medium is black and white. Movies are made with shadows and light. I use chiaroscuro, deep shadows that are practically black. We call them bread-and-butter pictures. That’s where the big money is – the B’s. We’ve got to make this movie in ten days. It might gross over a million the first week.
Chorus She had a certain something.
Doctor She had a certain something. (to his cast) Alright, here we go. Quiet! Quiet, please. Roll camera! Sound. Action!
Scene 8: Brainy Woman (+ Ape + Female Chorus)
Brainy Woman Please don’t take my brain. I could be the Queen of Scream. I could be the ingenue. I could be the femme fatale. I could play a real woman.
Chorus (yodels) Ahhh..
Brainy Woman Please don’t take my brain. I could be a bathing beauty. I could be desirable.
Brainy Woman/Ape Ahhh…
Chorus (Gasp!) I want to play a real woman.
Brainy Woman + Ape + Chorus I want to play a real woman.
Brainy Woman I could be the ingenue. I could be the femme fatale. Please don’t take my brain.
Scene 9: Quintet
Acquanetta, Brainy Woman, Ape, Director, Doctor In the celluloid world, once you are cast, or miscast, you are that forever.
Scene 10: Musical Interlude
Scene 11: Acquanetta (+ Cast + Chorus)
Acquanetta I am your beautiful monster. Lovely and shy, I can stop a lion in its tracks.
I am your beautiful monster. The one with an invented past. Who will I play today? The Venezuelan Volcano. It all happened so fast.
I am your beautiful monster. Lovely and shy, I can stop a lion in its tracks.
I am your beautiful monster. My shadow cast upon the wall causes fear in people’s hearts. The secret you want to ignore is inside this costume. (yodels) Ahhh…
Ape + Brainy Woman + Chorus (yodels) Ahhh…
Director ( + Male Chorus + Doctor) I know you want everything to be clear and simple as black and white.
Acquanetta (+ Brainy Woman + Ape + Female Chorus) I am your beautiful monster. Lovely and shy, I can stop a lion in its tracks.
Acquanetta + Ape + Brainy Woman Ahhh…
Doctor + Chorus Once you are cast or miscast, The one with the invented past Burning fire in deep water
Director + Male Chorus + Doctor I know you want everything to be clear and simple
In classical music, it is quite unusual for composers to collaborate, but it wasn't like that among Flemish Renaissance painters –– if the painter in the studio next door did better angels and you painted better flowers, it wasn't unusual for a collaboration to ensue. In my case, however, the requests for collaboration has often come from others, and Julia Wolfe, David Lang and I found ourselves embarking on our third collaborative piece in 2004, courtesy of the Cologne-based musikFabrik ensemble and the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival.
The two other Gordon/Lang/Wolfe collaborative works ––Lost Objects and The Carbon Copy Building–– are made up of numerous short musical movements. With Shelter we wanted to stretch out a bit, and we conceived of the piece in seven longer movements. Once again we reunited with Deborah Artman, who had written the libretto for Lost Objects. Like Lost Objects, Shelter is a staged oratorio, but with smaller forces: three sopranos and a large mixed ensemble. And we reunited also with Ridge Theater and their principal artists, director Bob McGrath, visual artist Laurie Olinder and filmmaker Bill Morrison, our collaborators on The Carbon Copy Building,
I wrote What to Wear with the great American iconoclastic theater personality Richard Foreman, who wrote the libretto and directed the first production at the RedCat Theater in Los Angeles in 2005. What to Wear features a multitude of Madeline X's, who live in a sad, sad world and think about what to wear, and a gigantic Duck that plays golf. Like many of Foreman's scripts, the work is at once incomprehensible and deeply comprehensible.
In the early 2000’s, Richard called me on the phone and asked if I would be interested in working on a piece together. I was a long-time fan of his work and I jumped at the chance. We live within walking distance of each other, and over the next six weeks, Richard dropped off three scripts, each script shorter than the one before. He left me with only one instruction, that I was free to include or not include any part of the script as long as the Duck remained.
In order to better understand Richard's words, I asked him to make me a tape of a read-through of the libretto. Listening to Richard read illuminated his text and gave me the direction I needed to set the words to music. Along with four principal singers –– one male and three female –– the score to What to Wear includes a small woman's chorus and seven instrumentalists.
The Center for New Performance at CalArts and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater with funds provided by the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust. What to Wear is also a Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA commission and was produced with the additional support of the Shubert Foundation.
New Century Players, Richard Foreman, director, Redcat Theater, Los Angeles, September 20, 2006
Lost Objects is a musical exploration of the meaning of memory. With the spine of a baroque oratorio layered with the muscle of modern times, it is a powerful monument to the loss of people, things, rituals, ideas.
In their second major collaborative performance project, genre-defying composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe team up with polyphonic writer Deborah Artman to work a strange and beautiful alchemy of text and sound. The baroque virtuosity of the legendary Concerto Köln is challenged and stretched by the hard-edged electric Bang on a Can Lost Objects Ensemble and the avant-turntables of DJ Spooky. In the same way that oratorios such as Handel's Messiah were intended to be staged, the 3 vocal soloists and 30 voice chorus of LOST OBJECTS inhabit a mythic and beautiful stage world, under the direction of the acclaimed, award-winning director François Girard (''32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,'' ''The Red Violin'').
The result is LOST OBJECTS, a haunting, hallucinatory and humane musictheater piece for baroque orchestra, rock ensemble (electric guitar, electric bass, keyboard and drums), live DJ remix, solo voices and choir. The unique weave of sounds combines the resonance of animal gut and wood with the ethereal blend of soprano and countertenor voices mixed with the edgy force of amplified rock instruments and drums. ''LOST OBJECTS is a prayer hall, a hymn but also an invention,'' writes Ms. Artman. ''There is a narrative, somewhat sacred, but it is a fractured meditation. In the tenuous and hurried climate of the times we live in now, LOST OBJECTS asks us to pause and consider the grace bestowed upon each thing, person, animal and idea, the ordinary and the not-so-ordinary lost objects of our shared and vanishing culture.''
The Carbon Copy Building is a dynamic and visually stunning trip through the gritty underside of urban life. Words and drawings by celebrated New Yorker comic-strip artist and recent MacArthur Grant recipient Ben Katchor (best known for the dark, witty humor of his cult-classic comic Julius Kniple, Real Estate Photographer) are vividly brought to musical life in a completely collaborative effort from Bang on a Can Co-Artistic Directors Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe. The revolutionary show won the Village Voice 2000 OBIE Award for Best New American Work. After several years, the work is finally out on CD - accompanied by Katchor's beautifully illustrated libretto - in a limited edition hard-bound Book and CD case.
This revolutionary new production embraces the dark, witty humor of Katchor, known for his cult classic underground comic, Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer, to look at a pair of buildings constructed from the same architectural plan. One stands on a wide, wealthy avenue and the other on the forgotten alley of a fringe neighborhood. Architecturally, the buildings and their plans are identical, but their uses and the people and businesses that inhabit them could not differ more. Combining the striking projections of Katchor's comics with powerful virtuoso performances by a cast of four singers and four musicians (winds, keys, guitar, and drums), the production inventories the contents of the buildings, explores the parallel yet opposite lives of their inhabitants, and uncovers the strange and hilarious places in which the two worlds overlap - finally bringing together the odd lives of each building over a single piece of cherry cheesecake.
Katchor's stark line drawing reverberates with the jagged angularity of Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe's explosive new music to depict a strange and powerful American urban experience.
Chaos was conceived and written with librettist Matthew Maguire. Loosely based on chaos theory, Chaos is a fast-paced, science-fiction opera in 25 short scenes for five singers and electronic made audio.
Opera synopsis: Dr. Anna Fitzroy is a rogue physicist driven to research chaos. Dr. Lorenz Boleslaw is her partner whose own obsession with their experiment is nearly as great as their love for one another. Years of heartbreaking labor finally pay off when they penetrate to the heart of the Chaos Zone, where Marie and Pierre Curie appear as their navigators and reveal to them the secrets of chaos. Fitzroy and Boleslaw proudly report their results to their mentor, Dr. Aguabone, the head of the Institute of Science, a giant of Los Alamos, and a Nobel laureate in quantum physics.
Within the scientific world there has always been a battle between two forces: those fighting for and those against the evolution of science. Deeply threatened by chaos, Dr. Aguabone, while pretending to defend Fitzroy and Boleslaw, secretly arranges their arrest. They are promised ''freedom'' to work if they recant. Realizing Aguabone’s true nature, the scientists struggle with a moral dilemma that threatens to divide them. They escape from jail and, with Marie and Pierre's help, fight insanity, open a passage to the Chaos Zone, trap Aguabone, and broadcast his meltdown in Chaos on TV. All rejoice. ––Matthew Maguire
Cast/Characters: Dr. Anna Lenehan, a rogue physicist driven to research Chaos. Dr. Lorenz Boleslaw, her partner, whose own obsession with their experiment is nearly as great as their love for one another. Dr. Marie Curie, who discovered radium with Pierre Curie. Brilliant and humble, she avoids personal gain. In the Poland of her youth she worked underground against the Czar and has remained intensely political. Still deeply in love with Pierre, she's now an inhabitant of the Zone of Chaos. Dressed in an old, acid-stained lab coat, she emanates a blue radioactive glow. In Chaos, she is thirty-six, the age at which she was awarded her first Nobel Prize. Dr. Pierre Curie, the co-discoverer of radium. A brilliant but awkward man who lives in bliss with Marie in Chaos where he is eternally forty-four years old. Though less political than Marie, he was a Dreyfus supporter. Pierre feels that Marie is a superhuman being who has escaped human laws. He's dressed in nineteenth century, lab-worn, formal attire that also glows radioactively. Dr. R. George Aguabone, Director of the National Institute of Science, one of the leading scientists to emerge from Los Alamos, a Nobel Laureate in quantum physics
I started writing Van Gogh because of my obsession with the letters Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo. I assembled the texts myself, drawing from these letters, in many cases combining lines from different letters or from different places within the same letter. What attracted me so much to Van Gogh’s writing was the pain, rawness and brutal honesty. I found it hard to believe that anyone could tell another person, even his brother, the raw emotions that Van Gogh experienced — so painful, lonely and humiliating.
I began working on these songs in the late 1980s, making trips to Holland and Southern France to get the vibe of the areas that Van Gogh wrote about. I wrote “Borinage” first and originally sang that piece myself.
Early presentations of the piece were called Van Gogh Video Opera. These included video by Elliot Caplan and were performed in Vienna and in New York City in the early 1990s. In the fall of 2003, the Crash Ensemble performed it in Dublin and for that occasion I re-orchestrated the piece, adding three instruments (cello, bass, piano).
The piece is divided into six parts and it follows the arch of Van Gogh’s life chronologically.
Libretto: 1. London A clergyman’s son who works for a living Has no time or money to study at college Would be happy to find a position related to the Church And besides is a few years older than one usually is I went to school when I was eleven And stayed there till I was sixteen Then I had to choose a profession But did not know what to choose Through the intervention of one of my uncles Partner in the firm of Goupil and Company Art Dealers and Publishers of Engravings I got a situation in his business in The Hague For three years I was employed there From there I went to London to learn English Compelled by various circumstances I’ve left the House of Goupil and Company But as my aim is a situation with the Church Though I have not been educated for the Church Perhaps my travels My experience in different countries Of mixing with various people poor and rich Religious and irreligious Of work of different kinds Of days of manual labor, days of office work Perhaps the speaking of languages May partly make up for the fact that I have not studied at College But the reason I would rather give For introducing myself to you Is my innate love for the Church And every thing connected with it That has slumbered now and then But is roused again and again
2. Borinage There is an old academic school A steel armor of prejudice and convention There may be a great fire in our soul And no one ever comes to warm themselves by it One must tend that inward fire Wait with how much impatience for the hour Dear Theo One of the reasons I am out of employment now That I have been out of employment for years Is simply that I have other ideas Than the gentlemen who give their places To gentlemen who think as they do Dear Theo I would be very glad if you could see in me something other than an idle fellow Because there are two kinds of idleness There is the man who is idle from laziness and lack of character From the very baseness of his nature Then there is the other idle man Who is idle in spite of himself Who is inwardly consumed by a great longing for action Because he seems to be imprisoned in some cage
3. The Hague Part I Then I thought I would like to be with a woman I cannot live without love, without a woman And dear me I had not far to seek I found a woman Not young, not beautiful, nothing remarkable I said to her: listen We need not make ourselves drunk to feel something for each other Just put into your pocket what I can spare When you wake up in the morning And see that you are not alone But see there in the morning twilight A fellow creature beside you It makes the world seem so much more friendly More friendly than religious diaries More friendly than white washed Church walls Sometimes when I walked the streets So lonely and in misery without money I felt that they were my sisters
4. The Hague Part II To work for the market is in my opinion not the right way Rather more trouble on a serious study Than a kind of chic to flatter the public (I heard he laughed at my becoming a painter) Sometimes in moments of worry I have longed for some of that chic But thinking it over I say: No! let me be true to myself The principal reason for my not making water colors Is that I must draw more seriously paying more attention to proportion That is more practical than his practical talks about what is saleable Today I met Mauve and had a very painful conversation with him I asked him to come see my work and talk things over Mauve refused point blank: I will certainly not come to see you At last he said: You have a vicious character Then I turned around It was on the dunes and I walked home alone I have ears Theo If somebody says ‘You have a ’ What ought I do then? Then Tersteeg told me: Mauve and I will see to it that Theo stops sending you money You failed before and now you will fail again, it will be the same old story Of one thing I am sure: You are no artist, you started too late, you must work for a living Theo, if you can, write soon And of course, the sooner you can send the money the better it would be for me I spent my last penny on this stamp.
5. Arles Dear Theo Whole days pass without my speaking to anyone Except to ask for dinner and coffee And it has been like that But the loneliness doesn’t worry me because I have found the brighter sun And its effect on nature so absorbing I have no thought of fatigue I’ll do another painting this very night and I’ll pull it off I am not conscious of myself anymore And the paintings come to me as if in a dream
6. St. Remy I think I have done well to come here For by seeing the actual truth about madness I am losing my fear of the thing And the change of surroundings is doing me good Though there are some who howl and rave continually In spite of that people get to know each other very well I can for instance sometimes chat with one who speaks incoherently A new man has arrived who is so worked up That he smashes everything and shouts day and night He tears his shirts violently too And up till now though he is all day long in a bath He hardly gets any quieter They say we must put up with others So that others will put up with us And help each other when attacks come on They told me of a case where someone had wounded himself as I did in the ear Its almost a whole month since I came here Not once has the least desire to be anywhere else come to me The treatment of the patients at this hospital is certainly easy One could follow it even while traveling For they do absolutely nothing Yesterday I began again something that I see from my window A field of yellow stubble that they are plowing A canvas I am struggling with begun some days after my attack A Reaper The study is all yellow, terribly thickly painted But the subject is fine and simple For I see in this reaper a vague figure fighting like the devil in the midst of the heat To get to the end of his task The image of death in the sense that Humanity might be the corn he is reaping But there’s nothing sad in this death It goes its way in broad daylight Flooded by a sun’s golden light
He Saw a Skull is written for a chorus of 12 voices. The chorus is divided into four groups of three voices, with each group singing major and minor harmonies that are approached by glissando. The text is taken from a short saying by Rabbi Hillel found in the Talmudic tractate Pirkei Avot: He saw a skull floating on the water. He said to the skull, “Because you drowned others, they drowned you. And they who drowned you will themselves be drowned.”
In Eight Parts: Water (Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe) 1. My Soul (David Lang) 2. Water Instrumental (Heavy Water) (Michael Gordon) 3. He Saw a Skull (Michael Gordon) 4. Before Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 5. Give Me (David Lang) 6. Thirst (Julia Wolfe) 7. Roll, Ocean (David Lang) 8. Tephillat Geshem (Prayer for Rain) (Michael Gordon)
Composers' Note: Water is a lover's tears, an unquenchable thirst, a fight for survival, a prayer for rain. Our piece Water is a meditation on the poetry of water: what it means to have it, how we misuse it, and how we struggle for it. Rain falls. Tears flow. A skull is found in a river. A man thirsts.
Water is an exploration through music, staging and projection of how dependent we are upon water in our world, and how uneasy our dependence really is. Much of our dependence is of course physical; at the same time, the hope for water, or the lack of it, can be a spiritual construct as well. Our piece explores the water we have and the water we need, the water we control and the water that controls us.
We have always lived with water in a kind of fragile equilibrium. We have too much. We have none. A rich man calls for ice in his water, next to a poor man who thirsts. It is a precarious balance, between blessing and curse, between life and death, between plenty and scarcity.
In 2007, Francisco J. Núñez asked me to write a new piece for his wonderful children's chorus, Young People's Chorus of New York City. He asked me to pick an urban topic, and I thought, What's more urban than the subway? So I decided to set the name of every stop on the F train, which starts in Jamaica, Queens, and ends at Coney Island, Brooklyn. I picked the F Train simply because I liked the names of the stops. Written for treble voices, the chorus is divided into four groups that sing in a close canon throughout. ––Michael Gordon
I once stayed at a hotel in Geneva and my room was on a high floor right between the bell towers of two churches, each with a wonderful set of bells that were slightly out of tune with each other. I tried to recreate the sound of being between those bells with XVI, written for a chorus of 16 voices. The chorus is divided spacially into two microtonal groups that sing back and forth. The text is a setting of Lecture XVI (1984) by composer Morton Feldman, a rant in which he describes his analysis of a piece by, and subsequent conversation with, Pierre Boulez. ––Michael Gordon XVI was commissioned by The Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust.
Libretto: I got a copy of Boulez first sonata and the slow movement is just two pages and there were different attacks there, and it looked familiar, I don’t know what, I felt something, I couldn’t articulate, I’m looking at it and it’s registering. About three years later I’m looking through all scores and there is a religious song of Webern, also two pages. And I look at it and I get a pencil and I get the Boulez, and I mark the attacks, the kind of attacks, and then I took the Webern, the kind of attacks was exactly the same. So, evidently, that was no accident, so, evidently Pierre felt that if he had the distribution of those kind of attacks in a short piece of approximately the same duration as Webern, he had, almost in a kind of Voodoo, it’s not normal, it’s “spinnst”, the Voodoo kind of sucking the blood of the enemy, you see, you are gonna get a strength, that’s essentially what it is. And isn’t that tradition, if we suck out the blood and the knowledge of the past, we are gonna get its strength, it’s what they refer to Reagan as the Voodoo economics? This is Voodoo tradition. Maybe there is some kind of primeval hangover? Let us talk about these things. We are not talking about history, we are talking about a few people, that’s history. We are not talking about all the Kinder hanging around Darmstadt.
I once had a wild six-hour discussion walking the streets of New York with Boulez, how he is telling me, he is really telling me but he is using Ives, “Oh, Ives, the amateur!” And I think it’s absolutely outstanding, I think it’s absolutely incredible why one would think about Ives as an amateur. No. He wrote fantastic things, like the conception of the 4th symphony, I’m talking about the one with the four pianos, he never changed anything, Mahler was changing things all the time. Why was he an amateur? Because he wasn’t a European? A man does all these innovations, he is an amateur, I, for years, I’m still called an amateur. I’m one of the few original people writing music, I’m an amateur! Is it only that –, I never understood that John Cage is an amateur, I’m an amateur, Ives is an amateur.
But some jerk, some jerk in Budapest, in a sense, copying Bartok is a professional! I never understood this . . . To me the definition of professional is someone who doesn’t have a job. If you don’t have a job in Europe you are professional.
Lecture from Morton Feldman Essays (Cologne, Germany: Beginner Press), 1985.
[purgatorio] POPOPERA is a dance work created by Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten, the principal choreographers of the Amsterdam-based troupe, Emio Greco/PC. When I met Emio and Pieter in New York in 2000, I was taken by their thoughtful intensity. This attraction only grew when I saw their dance. Their work captures an other worldly energy that, when on the verge of cresting, just continues to get wilder and wilder.
We began then a long conversation about creating a new work together. I suggested that the dance company learn how to play electric guitars and perform the music I write for them as part of a new dance piece. Although Emio and Pieter had reservations about this, they were intrigued, and in the summer of 2005 I met the dance company at Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, and we began a 10-day workshop to see if it was even feasible to think that the dancers could learn how to play music.
In Massachusetts I was joined by Bryce Dessner and Katie Geissinger, who coached the dancers in guitar and voice, respectively. Bryce and I went to Guitar World in Albany, New York, and had the pleasure of buying eight new guitars. None of us, I think, were prepared for the intensity with which the dancers committed themselves to playing the guitar. The days consisted of long, grinding morning-to-evening sessions in which they rarely wanted to take a break and never seemed to tire. At the end of the 10 days. we gave a workshop performance to an invited audience and POPOPERA was born.
Over the next three years, I met repeatedly with the company, always in extreme workshop situations, and was assisted by Taylor Levine, who was their principal guitar coach throughout this period. Early in the process, I re-tuned the guitars, tuning the bottom three strings to F and the top three strings to E. This tuning created rich sonorities and allowed me to create dense harmonies. Between the summer of 2007 and the premiere in June 2008 at the Holland Festival, Levine and I met with the company for multi-week sessions in Italy, Amsterdam and again at Mass MOCA.
From the beginning, the dance company incorporated movement into the creation of the piece as well; after they learned a bit of music, they would then workshop the movement that would accompany that music. This whole thing might have seemed crazy to everyone involved in this project, but at a certain point it became clear that they were about to pull off something spectacular. All of a sudden they stopped being only dancers and also became musicians. ––Michael Gordon