Alarm Will Sound
Alan Pierson, conductor
In Van Gogh, Michael Gordon takes his inspiration and his text from letters that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo. Gordon grafts Van Gogh’s intimate, direct words to the sort of post-minimalist/post-rock music (here performed by Alarm Will Sound) with which Gordon initially made his name. Indeed, Van Gogh is a bit of a musical time capsule. Though this is the first recording, work began on the piece in the late 1980s, with Bang on a Can still in its infancy.
It speaks to Bang on a Can’s influence that there are moments throughout Van Gogh that wouldn’t sound out of place on a heavily-orchestrated indie rock album released today. Several times during the six songs, Alarm Will Sound even gets rocking harder than lots of indie bands manage. There’s definite groove here, though perhaps not the kind Sasha Frere-Jones would approve.
This rockishness is sometimes a virtue and sometimes a vice in Van Gogh. At its best, there’s a nervous, itchy energy in the music that connects deeply with the subject matter of the letters. In another life, maybe Van Gogh could’ve fronted an arty emo band. Often, though, I couldn’t help wishing that Gordon had asked the strings to kick on a distortion pedal, or needled the three vocalists into scratching up their voices a bit. Similarly, the drum kit writing tends to drag the music down (except at the end of “Borinage”) instead of pushing it forward like in a good rock record.
Accordingly, the best parts of the disc for me come when the intensity steps back a bit. The last two songs, “Arles” and “St. Remy,” subdue the itchiness by backing off the tempo and stepping up the melodic and orchestral prettiness. Here it’s easy to appreciate Gordon’s lyricism. Now, did he get that from the rockers or the minimalists?