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 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.