Natural History was commissioned by the Britt Music & Arts Festival in celebration of the 2016 National Park Service centennial. Writing the piece took me on a journey through Crater Lake National Park at the height of summer and dead of winter, and to Chiloquin, Oregon to work with the members of the Klamath Tribe’s Steiger Butte Drum. It led me to the naturalist writers Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, among others. This is not the first work in which I have focused on location. I have written pieces about New York (Gotham), Los Angeles (Dystopia), Miami Beach (El Sol Caliente), and Beijing (Bejing Harmony) - all urban settings. When the Britt Festival commissioned me to write a piece for Crater Lake I wasn’t quite sure where it was. The commission included an invitation, “You’ve got to come and see it." In the summer of 2015, with conductor Teddy Abrams, I went to the site.
Superintendent (head ranger) Craig Ackerman was our guide. Ackerman talked about the lake in terms of ‘Deep Time’ - change happening over thousands of years. This sense of time was a great contrast to the "New York minute" back home. Crater Lake was created by an explosion - a volcano that blew up and then collapsed close to 8000 years ago. The rim of the caldera falls almost straight down two thousand feet to reach the purest, deepest, lake in the United States. That destructive act, which scientists say was more explosive than the world’s nuclear arsenal detonating all at once, wiped out all life for miles around, leaving a spectacular natural wonder.
What do people think about wilderness? This was a question I pondered and studied. The native people who lived at the lake at the time of the explosion still live there today. This place is sacred to them. The first white settlers who came upon the lake in the late 19th century understood that this remarkable place should remain untouched. Park Historian Steve Mark and local journalist Lee Juillerat were important guides to understanding the history.
With Teddy Abrams I circled the rim looking for the perfect spot for the performance. We chose Watchman Overlook for its natural “stage” of panoramic views. Through the course of the day we talked over the forces for the work - the orchestra, a chorus, 30 additional brass players and percussionists stationed out on the cliffs. The spatial setting was an important aspect of the work - sound coming from all sides and from different distances, sound moving through space. We discussed the importance of having the Klamath Tribe in this piece.
I returned to Crater Lake in the winter of January 2016 for 10 days in the desolate beauty of a completely white landscape - 16 feet of snow. Only the rangers were on site, with an occasional snowshoer up for a walk. This trip included a visit to the Klamath Tribe to hear the Steiger Butte Drum. The members of the Drum Group are a part of an extended family. They sit in a circle, beat loudly on one drum, and sing. The singing is a fast sophisticated syncopated yodeling. It is amazing. Though they had never played with classical instruments they were game for joining the orchestra. Taylor Tupper, the tribe’s representative, taught me about the Klamath Tribe’s relationship to the lake, which they call ‘Giiwas’. For the Klamath the lake is a house of worship. Tribal members go to the lake for spiritual purposes only.
On July 29th, at the premiere, the audience gathered around the rim. Elders from the Klamath Tribe came to listen. Afterwards Don Gentry, Chairman of the Klamath Tribe, said a few emotional words, "I could almost envision the sounds of our ancestors reverberating through the ages’. The weaving of musical worlds and a shared love of the natural wonder inspired the writing of Natural History.
In creating a work for classical bassoonist Peter Whelan and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment I drew upon the Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air - a treatise by the Age of Enlightenment British scientist and radical theologian Joseph Priestley. Credited with the discovery of oxygen and the concept of the ecosystem, along with a myriad of inventions (including soda water), Priestley was the rare combination of a free-thinker and man of faith.
Priestley first came in contact with London resident Benjamin Franklin and other Enlightenment figures in 1765 at the biweekly meetings of the Club of Honest Whigs. The club was a free-wheeling alcohol-infused gathering of philosophers, dissenting theologians, and amateur scientists. I can imagine the energy and excitement of these gatherings - the sense of discovery. Observations on Air is an homage to Preistley. The bassoon takes the lead as the other instruments join in conversation. We are in the London Coffee House with the Honest Whigs - the exchange of radical thoughts spinning into music.
With El Sol Caliente we return to the City Symphony, a form we have explored in two earlier pieces, Gotham and Dystopia, which were based on New York and Los Angeles respectively. Our collaborative process is unusual in that the music was written first and the film, while conceived and researched in tandem with the music, was edited to the completed score. El Sol Caliente was designed to take advantage of the New World Center’s exquisite multi-media facilities. In addition to the five overhead sails that are part of the venue’s singular projection design, we have added three additional screens over the orchestra seating terraces, surrounding the orchestra with eight total projection surfaces. The orchestra is specifically arranged on stage to highlight the use of an architectural movement of sound that runs throughout the music. These sound waves, ebbing and flowing, are a constant reminiscence of the forces of nature enveloping the magical strip of land called Miami Beach.
El Sol Caliente incorporates archival footage from the early and mid-20th century culled from newsreels, tourism films, home movies, as well as original contemporary footage. The tropes remain familiar throughout the century - bathing beauties, hurricanes, and families vacationing in Art Deco hotels. We see men wrestling alligators and manatees, symbolically wresting South Florida from the swamp and into the world's imagination as a tourist destination. Yet this fragile barrier island lying off a continental peninsula at sea level will probably not survive this century without a drastic intervention on its behalf. How will we wrest Miami Beach from nature in the 21st century?
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