Music For Writers: Michael Gordon’s Wild Ride Called ‘Dystopia’


No Brakes

Feeling a little sluggish on that work in progress? Struggling to get from the current chapter of your six-year marathon manuscript to something nearer, my God, to “The End”? You’re in luck.

Composer Michael Gordon’s new album Dystopia from Cantaloupe Music is here to shove you right to the last punctuation point.

And thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music — a 24-hour Internet stream of contemporary classical music — the CD has been featured as an Album of the Week entry at Q2 Music and is thus part of our #MusicForWriters series here at Thought Catalog.

Under the direction of David Robertson, the LA Phil drives this thing home like a rubber-burning chase down the Sana Monica Freeway. And based on the composer’s notes, that’s exactly what Gordon wants:

The goal was to start at high speed and never slow down, like a ride down the freeway at 90 mph with few detours. Through the delirium of the ride the question arises: Is it beautiful or is it ugly?

I say beautiful. And by all means jump into the comments and tell me if I’m crazy.

This is not the piece for you if you’re revising that tender love scene — but that’s not to say that there are no quiet moments. There are, but they work like weird lay-bys strafed by careening headlight beams.

At eight minutes, 14 seconds into the piece, the bottom simply drops out, and suddenly you’re in a neighborhood you didn’t expect and have never seen. Harp and surreal chromatic shadows swing and sway in the strings, under a spooky bit of woodwind tick-tock, the whole sequence finally surfacing on massive bass undercurrents, menacing and majestic.

But when moving at full tilt, you may find yourself thinking of the “city music” of George Gershwin and others. You’re hearing bright flashes in the trumpets reflecting off stop-and-go glissandi in the lower horns. The strings rush up and down streets of chiming clamor and along wide avenues of sound, proud chords are held by warm brass amid siren-sprays of edgy piccolo.

What Gordon is doing here is part of a series of city-based compositions in cooperation with filmmaker Bill Morrison. Two other works are in the series to date, Gotham for New York and El Sol Caliente for Miami (where Gordon was in high school). You can hear and see another of the Gordon-Morrison collaborations, Dacasia — about the vulnerability of silent film — at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston on June 1.

What you get in Gordon’s Dystopia is almost touching, in a rambunctious, no-hands way. Writing about the piece, he concedes that many of his influences are so thoroughly spun together that you may not be picking them out as you listen:

I have slurred into a great blender disparate sounds taken from a palette that stretches from the Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem to drum-and-bass (a ’90s dance music characterized by very rapid tempos). Don’t be disappointed if you don’t recognize any of these influences.

Not long after this live performance gets underway, you aren’t as worried about finding scraps of recognizable references along the roadside as you are in feeling the wind on your face. The work is a visceral, exuberant understanding of a great city absorbed in its gleaming life and unstinting energy.

In the commanding crush of the strings’ closing — such insistent, big moments — you hear something that sounds almost regal. A kind of dignity overtakes even “the delirium of the ride.”

Every population and urban culture has its glory, Gordon seems to be saying. And if speed and volume are the hallmarks of LA, then get out of the way: he’s coming through.

The City of Ludwig

The album also features the meticulous work of the Bamberger Symphoniker under the baton of Jonathan Nott, in Gordon’s masterful reconsideration of Beethoven’s towering Seventh Symphony.

What occurs when Gordon turns his understanding of the orchestra’s sheer power onto a study of something so iconic as this masterpiece is that you find yourself in another place. He makes an environment, even of another man’s music, as if he’d tackled a fourth city.

This may be why Gordon’s city symphonies are so compelling: you feel that you visit them, experience them in some unique way, all in sound. And in the same way that those works plunge you into soundscapes of logic and its challenges, Gordon’s way of hearing and re-hearing the Seventh creates a place, a destination both unnerving and addictive.

I agree with violist Doyle Armbrust, who writes up the album this week for Q2 Music: the second symphony’s riveting, harrowing theme is probably the most effective in Gordon’s hands. The main line fights to find its footing in a deeply embattled rescoring, militant percussion and Holst-Mars strings challenging its stately progress.

But I find that in the third movement, the battle takes on even more depth and urgency. For me, these pounding snares and staccato trumpet sorties are the album’s high point, hurling themselves forward as strings wail and spin off on a high axis of alarm.

‘Did this “rewriting” transform the music, or did the music transform me?’
Michael Gordon

By the time the fourth movement of Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony has rolled around, that famous romping theme sounds almost happy in Gordon’s hands — almost. Violent echo effects in the strings make it clear that no matter how upbeat this moment may be in the canon, we’re not hearing Beethoven any more. Gordon has more conflicted things to say to us and something that might sound like the cracking of a whip pulls this big work into a final, raging gallop.

Gordon’s work is not, I grant you, easy listening. But what some might say is merely loud and unruly sounding is precisely designed and sensitively performed here so that its emotional impact has something to do with that Marshall McLuhan line about new media. I quoted it earlier this week:

All media work us over completely.

Michael Gordon’s music, like the technologies McLuhan foresaw, works us over completely. It seems, in fact, to have had a similar effect on him. In his notes on the Beethoven, he asks, “Did this ‘rewriting’ transform the music, or did the music transform me?”

You hear two audiences applaud on this album, one crowd in Los Angeles, the other (for the Beethoven performance) in Bonn. It’s hard to blame them. By the time they’ve heard the last notes of their respective pieces, these audiences have been worked over completely.

And that’s worth applauding.