Explore Program Notes

Composer Portraits: Michael Gordon

Introduction by Paul Griffiths

With a slew of performances in this city—and in this theater—stretching back thirty years and more, Michael Gordon needs no introduction, so let’s just call this a reminder.

We probably think of Gordon as a New Yorker, but he was born in Florida, in 1956, and spent part of his early childhood in Nicaragua. He studied at NYU and did his master’s at Yale with Martin Bresnick. Soon after that, he started making a name for himself with such pieces as Thou Shalt!/Thou Shalt Not (1982-3), characteristically scored for a mixed amplified ensemble and equally characteristically drawing on a personal mix of New York minimalism, especially as represented by Steve Reich, assorted kinds of rock and dance music, and wilder instrumental practices, all combining to give a raw, streetwise sound.

Together with other musicians roughly sharing his aims and means—a group including his fellow composers David Lang and Julia Wolfe—he formed a loose collective in 1987, initially in order to put on a marathon concert of new music. Thus, Bang on a Can was born. Though its continuing activities occupied a lot of his time, he was also writing solo pieces for friends (Industry for cello with electronic distortion, composed for Maya Beiser in 1992), working with orchestras (Romeo, written for the Yale Bach Society Orchestra the same year), and making connections in Europe, notably with the British group Icebreaker (Trance, 1995) and with outfits in Germany, such as Ensemble Resonanz (Weather, 1997).

Since Decasia (2000), a study of decay intended for musicians in a specially built construction, with projections by Bill Morrison, his multifarious and energetic output has come to embrace a lot of collaborative endeavors with video artists, film makers, and others working in visual media. He has worked, for example, with Richard Foreman (What to Wear, 2006), Bill Morrison again (Dystopia, 2007), and Ridge Theater of Los Angeles (Lightning at Our Feet, setting poems by Emily Dickinson, 2008). There have also been joint projects with Lang and Wolfe (Water, 2008). And where he has composed for regular concert formats, the pieces have tended to come out of left field, as with The Sad Park, composed in 2006 for the Kronos Quartet to play with recordings of kindergarten children, or the same year’s orchestral stunner Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

Besides tonight’s piece, Gordon’s recent schedule includes a piano concerto, The Unchanging Sea, commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, and Great Trees of New York City, for the city’s Young People’s Chorus. A lot more information is available on his website, including recordings of much of his work.

Program Note by Michael Gordon

Outside my window on Desbrosses Street, a giant piledriver is rhythmically knocking a metal column into the earth. From my studio I hear the resonance, a complex palette of ringing overtones which linger in the air for a few seconds and then disappear. The city’s symphonic landscape, made up of a random clash of ephemeral noise, was the entryway into Material.

All four players are stationed at the grand piano—a spectacular machine with sound production controlled by levers and hammers. The piano extends higher than the piccolo and lower than the contrabass. Inside the piano, the range and timbre extend even further, the notes becoming pliable and mysterious. Placing fingers at points on the wires reveals upper harmonics, part of an infinite pile of tones that give each note its distinctive character. With the excellent musicians of Yarn/Wire I have explored hidden nooks and crannies inside the instrument. With hammering, strumming, and pounding Yarn/Wire performs a construction site of industrial harmonies and rhythms. To illuminate the performance, director/designer Jim Findlay has created an intimate theater on the Miller Theatre stage, a chance to be up close with the musicians and the nine foot Steinway D.

My deepest thanks to Melissa Smey and everyone at the Miller Theatre for their support through the process of creating Material. 


Michael Gordon’s Material was commissioned for Yarn/Wire by the Augustine Foundation.