MICHAEL GORDON: “Dystopia” = Dystopia, Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony—Los Angeles Philharmonic/ David Robertson/Bamberger Symphoniker/ Jonathan Nott—Canteloupe CA21105, 52:23 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Maybe the best way to describe Michael Gordon’s (b.1956) music is to use his words: “There’s a characteristic sound to what I consider the “outlaw tradition.” It’s unpolished, raw and different-sounding. I think in Europe they think it’s the “Wild West” or it’s these American barbarians who have come to tear down this glorious history of classical music. It’s more of a kind of freedom than anything else.” Of course, there’s the ubiquitous Alex Ross who describes Gordon’s music as “the fury of punk rock, the nervous brilliance of free jazz and the intransigence of classical modernism.”
Gordon is no stranger to the new music world. He’s received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He’s one of the founders and artistic directors of New York’s Bang on a Can Festival, a major source for new music presentations. He’s participated in many innovative multi-media collaborative efforts with video artists and filmmakers, including the opera Chaos, a fast-paced science fiction spectacle in 25 short scenes. He tours with his own orchestra, the “Michael Gordon Band” in Europe and the United States. His musical roots include the underground rock bands in New York City, minimalism, melody, dissonance and a spectacularly creative use of a full modern orchestral palette.
The music in Dystopia begins with a sonic picture of the hustle and bustle of the 21st century urban scene: wailing sirens, repeated trumpet fanfares, and percussive thumps that cut through the massive orchestral chaos. Yet, there is a rhythm—with a boogie-woogie energy—that makes sense out of the bedlam. After about eight minutes, the mood changes dramatically—becoming a mysterious, lovely, impressionistic foggy-noir vision of a nocturnal urban landscape. String glissandos create a sense that something is lurking beneath the quietude— an evocation of the unpredictability of the cityscape. The manic and the creepy follow one another, punctuated by organ riffs and percussive smacks—and that’s only the first fifteen minutes.
Los Angeles was the inspiration for Gordon and his colleague—filmmaker Bill Morrison. “The goal was to start at high speed and never slow down, like a ride on the freeway at 90 mph with few detours,” Gordon comments. Here’s a link to Bill Morrison’s film that provides visual images to the music.
In the program notes, Gordon asks the question: “Is it [the ride] beautiful or ugly?” Dystopia is his vision of how an orchestra can sound. “Musically I explore the gray areas between harmony and dissonance, where pleasure meets pain.” He clearly is a master of exploring the creative possibilities of what a huge orchestra can sound like. The ending is an exciting amalgamation of chaos that would have Charles Ives cheering. Lovers of contemporary music need to hear this work.
In Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony Gordon asked the question, “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 reveled in its power. I forgot about these questions in my mind. I forgot about Beethoven.” He takes one theme from each movement and manipulates them as if they were his own. The opening chords of the first movement are repeated with wailing string glissandos that become sirens. Each time he repeats the beautiful melody of the slow movement it has “spiraled harmonically so that it is one tone higher.” He also adds “other instruments play the theme just slightly ahead or behind the one before.” It becomes a round. The effect is disorienting, and the theme becomes distorted and hard to identify. The result is the chaos so prevalent in Dystopia, with the familiar chugging chords. The third movement’s background accompaniment becomes primary with glissandos above the rhythmic percussive chords. It builds to a dissonant but thrilling climax. The fourth movement’s main theme transforms into swirling woodwinds, string glissandos and a pulse-quickening, sudden ending.
There’s a temptation for the Beethoven lover to dismiss a work that screws around with a beloved composition by an acknowledged master. But using motifs from past works is hardly a new device for composers. At the premiere of this work at the Beethovenfest Bonn in 2006 the festival erected computerized overhead projectors that allowed the audience to voice their reactions. “I got pans and raves. I was booed and I was called a prophet,” the composer relates. And there’s at least one boo in the applause after this live recording.
This is a valuable recording as a document of what is happening in orchestral compositions in the 21st century. What’s especially impressive is Gordon’s grasp of the sounds of today’s urban life and his ability to use the modern orchestra to create a sonic tapestry that conveys the multiple emotions that city dwellers experience. The live performances are well-recorded and played with the usual competency that we expect from our professional orchestras today. Anyone who cares about music in the 21st century will benefit from hearing Michael Gordon’s music.
Of note is the cover by Copenhagen-based graphic designer Denise Burt. It is part of a new book called “Seeing New Music,” in which Burt creates covers for new music CDs. She dialogues with each composer to make a meaningful design that represents the music and the composer’s ideas. Look carefully at the cover, and you will see a birds-eye view of buildings in Los Angeles.
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