Michael Gordon’s music merges subtle rhythmic invention with incredible power embodying, in the words of The New Yorker‘s Alex Ross, “the fury of punk rock, the nervous brilliance of free jazz and the intransigence of classical modernism.”
Over the past 30 years, Gordon has produced a strikingly diverse body of work, ranging from large-scale pieces for high-energy ensembles to major orchestral commissions to works conceived specifically for the recording studio. Transcending categorization, this music represents the collision of mysterious introspection and brutal directness.
Gordon’s most recent work, Travel Guide to Nicaragua, written for The Crossing choir and cellist Maya Beiser, was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Penn Live Arts. The work tells the story of Gordon’s family’s journey from Poland to Nicaragua — chronicling his grandfather’s flight from Poland to his own childhood in the jungle on the outskirts of Managua.
His Field of Vision, a 60-minute, large-scale, outdoor work for 36 percussionists, was commissioned by the Caramoor Center for the Arts, and was premiered in July 2022. The work is performed on specially-constructed tuned percussion instruments, bass drums, rocks, twigs, industrial metals, and gongs. Field of Vision is part of a series of works for single instrument groups composed by Gordon that use spatial arrangement to explore the physical and perceptual experience of music and sound.
For the 2023-24 season, the Kronos Quartet premieres Gordon’s new work of miniatures for string quartet featuring video-vignettes. Gordon and Kronos Quartet have a collaborative partnership extending over decades. Their most recent collaboration, Campaign Songs, featured songs from the canon of American patriotic music in abrasive new arrangements that reflect the issues and division of American life in the 2020s. Campaign Songs was released this summer on Cantaloupe Music. Other collaborations have included Clouded Yellow (2010), Exalted (2010), The Sad Park (2006), and Potassium (2000).
Deeply passionate about the sonic potential of the traditional orchestra, Gordon’s orchestral works include: Natural History, a work written for Crater Lake in Oregon and the 100th Annivesary of the United States’ National Parks; Observations on Air, a concerto for bassoon for soloist Peter Whelan, commissioned by the British ensemble The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment; and The Unchanging Sea, a piano concerto for Tomoko Mukaiyama with a new film by Bill Morrison. Beijing Harmony, commissioned by the Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts, a work that projects the kaleidoscopic, perpetual sound of the orchestra to form a sonic architecture; Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a radical reworking of the original, commissioned by the 2006 Beethoven Festival in Bonn and premiered by Jonathon Nott and the Bamberger Symphony; and Sunshine of your Love, written for over 100 instruments divided into four microtonally tuned groups. Under the baton of composer/conductor John Adams, The Ensemble Modern Orchestra toured Sunshine of your Love to seven European capitals in 1999. Gordon’s string orchestra piece Weather was commissioned by the Siemens Foundation Kultur Program, and after its tour was recorded and released on Nonesuch to great critical and popular success.
His interest in exploring various sound textures has led him to create chamber works that distort traditional classical instruments with electronic effects and guitar pedals, including Potassium for the Kronos Quartet and Industry for cellist Maya Beiser. Also for Kronos, The Sad Park, written in 2006, uses the voices of child witnesses to September 11th as its subject. Gordon’s monumental, 52-minute Trance, originally written for the UK-based group Icebreaker, was debuted in 1997 and recently performed twice in New York City by the ensemble Signal.
Michael Gordon’s special interest in adding dimensionality to the traditional concert experience has led to numerous collaborations with artists in other media, most frequently with filmmaker Bill Morrison and Ridge Theater. In Decasia, a commission from Europaischer Musikmonat for the Basel Sinfonietta, the audience is encircled by the orchestra and large projections. A large-scale, single-movement, relentlessly monumental work about decay — the decay of melody, tuning, and classical music itself — Decasia has become a cult favorite since its premiere in 2001, frequently performed at music festivals, art museums and film festivals around the world. Gordon and Morrison’s works together also include film symphonies centered on cities: Dystopia (about Los Angeles) in 2008 for David Robertson and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Gotham (about New York City) in 2004 for the American Composers Orchestra. Gordon and Morrison were reunited in 2015 season for the premiere of a third installment of their city pieces, El Sol Caliente (about Miami), commissioned by the New World Symphony.
Works for theater and opera include What To Wear, a collaboration with director Richard Foreman, which premiered at the REDCAT Theater in Los Angeles; Acquanetta, about the 1940s B-Movie starlet for Oper Aachen; Lost Objects, an oratorio for baroque orchestra in collaboration with David Lang, Julia Wolfe and director Francois Girard, which was seen at the 2004 Next Wave Festival at BAM; and Van Gogh, vocal settings from the letters of Vincent Van Gogh, recorded by Alarm Will Sound. Most recently, Gordon again collaborated with Ridge Theater on the multi-performer song cycle lightning at our feet, co-commissioned by Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at the University of Houston and the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the 2008 Next Wave Festival. lightning at our feet straddles arts media, giving Dickinson’s poetry mobility in music while encompassing her words in a world of visual imagery.
Gordon’s music has been featured prominently in the dance works of Emio Greco | PC, Wayne McGregor (for Stuttgart Ballet, Random Dance), Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal, Heinz Spoerli (for Zürich Ballet), Ashley Page (for The Royal Ballet and The Scottish Ballet) and Club Guy & Roni, who co-commissioned Gordon’s percussion sextet Timber, along with the percussion ensembles Slagwerk Den Haag and Mantra Percussion. This work, an evening-length tour de force for six 2x4s, toured with dance throughout 2009/2010 and was premiered in its concert-version in June 2011. The full percussion sextet was released on Cantaloupe Records in 2011 and as a remix album in 2014.
Gordon has been commissioned by The New World Symphony, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Stuttgart Ballet, the New World Symphony, the National Centre for the Performing Arts Beijing, the BBC Proms, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Settembre Musica, the Holland Music Festival, the Dresden Festival and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, among others. His music has been performed at the Kennedy Center, Theatre De La Ville, Barbican Centre, Oper Bonn, Kölner Philharmonie and the Southbank Centre. The recipient of multiple awards and grants, Gordon has been honored by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His recordings include 8 (Cantaloupe), The Unchanging Sea (Cantaloupe), Clouded Yellow (Cantaloupe), Sonatra (Cantaloupe), Natural History (Cantaloupe), Timber Remixed (Cantaloupe), Dystopia (Cantaloupe), Rushes (Cantaloupe), Timber (Cantaloupe), Weather (Nonesuch), Light is Calling (Nonesuch), Decasia (Cantaloupe), (purgatorio) POPOPERA (Cantaloupe), Van Gogh (Cantaloupe), Trance (Argo/Cantaloupe), and Big Noise from Nicaragua (CRI). Formed in 1983 as The Michael Gordon Philharmonic and renamed The Michael Gordon Band in 2000, Gordon’s own ensemble performed across Europe and the United States at venues as diverse as Alice Tully Hall and the punk mecca CBGB, on the Contemporary Music Network Tour and at the Almeida Festival in London.
Born in Miami Beach in 1956, Gordon holds a Bachelor of Arts from New York University and a Masters of Music from the Yale School of Music. He is co-founder and co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective Bang on a Can.
Michael Gordon is known for his monumental and immersive works. Decasia, for 55 retuned spatially positioned instruments (with Bill Morrison’s accompanying cult-classic film) has been featured on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Minimalist Jukebox Festival and at the Southbank Centre. Timber, a tour-de-force for percussion sextet played on amplified microtonal simantras has been performed on every continent, including by Slagwerk Den Haag at the Musikgebouw and Mantra Percussion at BAM. Natural History, a collaboration with the Steiger Butte Drum of the Klamath tribe, was premiered by the Britt Festival Orchestra and Chorus on the rim of Crater Lake (Oregon) by conductor Teddy Abrams and is the subject of the PBS documentary Symphony for Nature. Gordon’s vocal works include Travel Guide to Nicaragua, an autobiographical choral work for The Crossing; the opera What to wear with the legendary director Richard Foreman; and the film-opera Acquanetta with director Daniel Fish. Recent recordings include Clouded Yellow, Gordon’s complete string quartets performed by the Kronos Quartet.