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Electronic Dialogues/1
Michael Gordon

In this first of a series of e-mail interviews between Sequenza/21 editors and some of the most accomplished contemporary composers,  Michael Gordon, co-founder of the acclaimed new music organization Bang on a Can, talks about his work and the state of contemporary music. Bio

S/21:  In your bio, you mention that you were born in Florida and grew up in an Eastern European community in Nicaragua?  How did this happen and what, if any, impact have these disparate cultural elements had on your work?

MG:  Both my parents are pre-WWII Polish Jews.  By pre-WWII I mean that they grew up in what was Poland, but, in my father's case, is now Belorussia. My father's father served in the Russian army in WWI and was gassed. Upon his return, he and my grandmother split up.  He went to Managua.  My grandmother stayed on in Poland and eventually went to Cuba with 2 of her 3 kids.  After several attempts she succeeded in smuggling in to the US.  My father, Sidney, originally Shlomo, was left behind due to lack of funds. He eventually got a visa - in March 1939 - and came to America. He was drafted at the earliest possible moment, and spent the entire War in the Philippines as a foot soldier.

After the war he started a chicken farm in New Jersey.  My mother worked and lived in New York and was actively involved in the labor union movement.  When they met she didn't want to live on a chicken farm, so they moved to Managua where my father had family and contacts.  They lived in Managua until I was eight, after which they moved to Miami Beach.

I grew up with three cultures - Eastern European Yiddish secularist, Central American Sojourner, and U.S. Pop.  Much later I realized that my time in Miami Beach (ages 8-17) was spent with people with my exact background--children of dispersed Eastern European Jews who had spent time in Latin America.  The effect on my work?  Perhaps growing up as an outsider in America has made me feel comfortable being an outsider in the music world.

S/21:  Who are your musical heroes?  Why?

MG:  Steve Reich, Philip Glass, John Cage, Conlon Noncarrow, Harry Partch.  Five people who built there own roads, paved their own paths, bucked the establishment, created something new and original.

S/21:  I assume that you started Bang on a Can as a way of getting your own, and other, young composers' work heard outside the musical establishment--which rarely takes chances with new music.  Has the success of Bang on a Can improved the chances for young composers to get their music performed?  How difficult is the marketplace for new music right now?

MG: About the marketplace--I'm very optimistic that the marketplace is opening up to experimental music from all fronts. Look at what’s going on in indie rock. The past 20 years have seen groups like Test Department, Sonic Youth and the arrival of the DJ scene. Many are experimenting with sounds and noise that would not have seemed commercial in the past.  So peoples’ ears are open now more than at any time in music history.  The problem is getting the message to them. 

Those approaching new music from the classical world have several problems to overcome.  These include the use of out of date instruments and sound worlds, an 'uncool' aura, lack of visual sharpness, lack of marketing savvy.  Woody Allen has a joke in one of his movies 'Those who can't do teach, and those who can't teach, teach gym.'  Working in the classical music industry is the equivalent of those 'teaching gym'.  At Bang on a Can we started with a very simple idea that we believed in, which is that the music is not the problem. 

In other words, the barrier between composers of what we are calling 'new music;' and the audience has not arisen because the music is too difficult to listen to, too demanding, etc..  This was the prevalent thought when I was a music student, circa late 70's early 80's.  At that time most composers, but not all, thought that their music was just to sophisticated for anyone but their peers to understand. 

We decided early on that the way to build an audience was from the non-music world.  That is, those who attended music concerts had already made a decision about what they like and don't like.  But those interested in dance, theater, performance art, poetry...could come to new music with an open mind. 

Now back to the first question, has the success of Bang on a Can improved the chances for young composers to get their music performed?  The question I have in response is - performed where?  Again, since we've been working on the outside of the classical music establishment, we really haven't made a dent there.  Even our six years in residence on the Great Performers Series at Lincoln Center seemed to make few waves on the rest of Lincoln Center programming.

Meaning that the fact that we were a success at Lincoln Center didn't encourage them to take other chances with other groups.  In fact, this year, our first year not on Great Performers, there is less contemporary music on the series than ever before.  However, the strides in the alternative classical world in the last ten years have truly been amazing. 

The great success of the Kronos Quartet, Ensemble Modern, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and dozens of other groups like this has opened up a very real alternative path to having a career. The use of contemporary music in dance, and the success of contemporary music in the record stores points to a very real market. The second part of the answer is that I would hope that the biggest lesson of BoaC to a young composer is that you can go out there and do it yourself.  I can't stand helplessness.  At the very least, with today's technology, any composer can create something worth listening to in the confines of their own home and post it on their web page.

S/21:  That, of course, suggests another question—what impact is the democratic nature of the internet having on the music scene?

MG:  I agree that the internet is going to change things.  I'm not sure democracy is the right word.  The power that corporations, record companies, arts establishments ,etc... have over everyone else is the money to market their goods and a wide distribution service.  They'll also be bringing this power to the internet. And just like other businesses have adjusted to doing business over the web, so will they. And obviously, the greatest web site in the world will be of little value if no one can find it.  But the possibilities are intriguing because basically the internet is one long block, and getting space on the block has always been the problem for unknown artists. 

I can foresee that the web would allow a music/multi-media group to become successful and bypass all established outlets for their art.   A capable artist would be able to create the music and visuals in their home studio, wouldn't need other artists or technicians, wouldn't need agents, clubs, concert halls, publishers, record companies, record stores, recording studios…etc.  The site would be so good that info about it would spread by word of mouth, thus it would need no marketing money.  The artist would charge viewers a modest $0.25 a hit, but with thousands of hits daily this would add up to a good income.  There would be nothing else to buy - no book, video, CD, DVD, etc..  The artist would build up an avid audience base that would be checking back for new work. 

And finally, could remain anonymous, could be old or ugly or live in Panama or on a boat, wouldn't have to conform to the 'fashion', and wouldn't have to categorize their art so that it could fit on a shelf in Tower Records.

S/21:  You not only write music, you perform it.  How did you get started in performing? 

MG:   I play keyboard instruments.  I started to perform my own music in 1983.  I got out of school and didn't think that there were any groups that could actually play what I wanted to write.  I also didn't want to write music for groups of free-lance musicians that would play my piece once. 

Since I have both a background playing in rock bands and as a classical musician, I wanted to put together a group that had the best of both worlds--the intensity and energy of a rock band and the technique and reading ability of classical musicians.  I wanted to play amplified, and I wanted to use classical and pop instruments together.  I played mainly from 1983 through 1996, mostly in New York and Europe.  In the 90's I made contact with several other groups that were founded along similar lines.  These groups include the London based ensemble Icebreaker, the Frankfurt based Ensemble Modern, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars--which I help to start. 

Once I started writing for these other ensembles, my interest in performing waned mainly because of the incredible hassle involved in organizing musicians and booking concerts, and the time spent traveling.

S/21:  What is your formal training in music?

I have a Masters degree from the Yale School of Music in composition. But my informal training in music is more interesting.  I've been to hundreds of concerts, listened to thousands of records, learned something valuable from all my fellow students, from the musicians I've played with, from the music I've helped present in concert format as part of Bang on a Can.  I've banged my head against a wall on dozens of occasions.  Sometimes the wall has moved an inch or two.  I've learned the most in the rehearsal process--that's where you realize whether what your doing works or not.  I wouldn't recommend school as a good place to learn about music, or take anyone's formal training too seriously.

S/21:  The New York Philharmonic premiered new works by Aaron Jay Kernis and Michael Torke that were written as commissions for Disney.  None of the reviewers could resist mentioning the provenance of the works or making snide implications implying that Disney’s money somehow made the pieces less serious.  Is there anything wrong with a composer doing works for money?

MG:  The general public has this impression of artists: artists pull down their inspiration from another world, maybe heaven.  This inspiration is pure and uncorrupted by this material world.  And this purity somehow is contained by the artist him(her)self.  So when this public looks at an artist and feels like he or she or their work has been corrupted by worldly concerns, the charge of "selling out' is thrown at them. 

It's an interesting phenomenon because no one that writes music for a Disney movie would ever be accused of selling out.  We understand from the outset that the  composer is only doing their job.  I think the charge of 'selling out" is an interesting one because the accusers are not artists or creators, they are merely consumers.  And it is the idea of the consumer that we are really talking about here.  The consumer wants this pure thing because there is so much impurity in his world.  This is why, for example, paintings by Van Gogh demand such an outrageously high price on the market.  Along with a great painting, the buyer is buying some of the purity that we attach to the artist himself.  And this purity is greatly enhanced in our eyes by Van Gogh's inability in life to sell his art, to have a decent life, to be sociable... In other words, here was a person who could not deal with this world in any way.  We translate this as a certain kind of purity or spirituality or mysticism that elevates the work into another dimension.  And the owner of the art buys a little bit of that purity, somehow feels purer or better about themselves for owning that art. 

What I'm getting at is that making art is very different from the artists perspective.  First, any close examination of music history will reveal that composers come in every personality type imaginable.  Some are shy, gentle and thoughtful, others are boisterous, egomaniacal, and abrasive. 

Although their work may be heavenly, they themselves are just people, and sometimes they are not very nice people.  Composers are hassled.  They have to deal with publishers and concert promoters, with commissioning fees and performance fees, with rehearsing and conducting and teaching.  And like most musicians, composers are very interested in money.  Read the letters
between Beethoven and his publisher for an eye-opener.  Musicians in general are very interested in money because they never have any, or if they do they never have very much.  They have historically been treated like hired help, the wedding band, the court musician, etc...  And even though we are living in an age of 'superstar' musicians, these represent just a very few of the millions of musicians in the world. 

So back to the Disney commissions.  Every commission comes with a set of parameters that involves compromise.  Never does someone come to a composer and say 'write anything you want for any combination of instruments, and tell me exactly what you would like the concert situation to be like..." 

The composer wants to write for string quartet but the commission is for saxophone quartet; the composer wants 6 hours of rehearsal but there's only 20 minutes; the composer wants to write something upbeat but the piece is commissioned for the opening of a war memorial; on and on and on.  And for every composer who compromises and writes the sax quartet there's another
who actually wants to write the sax quartet and its no compromise at all. 

So what I'm saying is: this decision is a personal decision that the composer makes everytime he or she embarks on a new piece.  And its impossible for anyone outside to know whether its a compromise or not.  So its a witch hunt that's more about the hunters than the witches.  Let's not try to figure out the composer's inner motives and let's simply ask: do I like this music? 

Finally, I would say directly to any critics of Michael Torke or Aaron Kernis, cut these guys a break.  If there is anyone to criticize it’s the New York Philharmonic and Disney.  Imagine, if you can, that someone comes to a composer with the dream situation: write a new work for the NY Philharmonic, winds and brass in fours, chorus, make it an hour long, and the fee is more money than you've ever seen in your life, and by the way.... make it something that can be performed at Disney World....It's a set-up.

S/21:  Your most recent recorded piece is called Weather.  It struck me as your most complete and satisfying work to date. Tell us about it.

MG:  Weather was my first experience working with a group of purely classical musicians, the string group Ensemble Resonanz based in Germany.  They are young, idealistic, and have only recently started playing contemporary music.  In fact, Weather was the first piece they had commissioned.  For me it was a challenge because, when working with musicians who play contemporary music, there is a frame of reference that everyone can refer to.  Here, that frame of reference was Schubert. 

Ensemble Resonanz has a retreat outside of Frankfurt, a former US army base, where they gather for periods of 10 days or 2 weeks to rehearse.  I developed the piece with them, and in the course of getting it ready there was close to one month of rehearsal time.  And that was two and sometimes three three-hour rehearsals a day, six days a week.  Then the piece was performed 15 times.  The recording took place the day before the last performance. 

Being used to contemporary music situations, I was not ready for the depth that this ensemble went into.  In contemporary music groups, the thing everyone goes for is technical: the right rhythms and pitches, loud, soft, balance, general feel, etc...  In contrast, the musicians in Ensemble Resonanz wanted to know and understand every musical nuance about the piece.   So they would constantly stop rehearsal to ask 'what does this phrase mean?'.  And many times I would not know the answer.  I had to dig deep inside to be able to explain what the music was about. 

At the same time they were preparing to perform the piece in a theatrical setting.  There was a huge video component that was created by Elliot Caplan, who also designed the stage and directed the performances.  The ensemble was set up on a three tiered stage, with six violins on the bottom, 3 violins and 3 violas on the next tier, and on top 3 cellos and a bass.  And there was no conductor.  And so from the very beginning we would practice performing the music without any of the musicians looking at each other for visual cues.  One of the key elements to pulling this off was the beautiful sound design by Andrew Cotton, who gave each musician a monitor and then individually mixed the sound for each musician so that everyone on stage could hear what they needed to hear.

Selected Discography:

Michael Gordon: Weather / Evan Ziporyn, Ensemble Resonanz -- Michael Gordon(Composer), et al; Audio CD 
Emergency Music - Bang on a Can Volume 1 -- Tom Johnson(Composer), et al; Audio CD 
Emergency Music - Michael Gordon: Big Noise from Nicaragua
Michael Gordon(Composer), et al / Audio CD / 
Michael Gordon: Trance / Icebreaker
Icebreaker / Audio CD 

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