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).