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Friday, April 3, 2015

Michael Gordon, Dystopia, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Bamberger Symphoniker

The state-of-the-art as seen in the latest orchestral music of our time? Can we say something general about it? We can try. It tends to be dense, beyond minimalism. Perhaps there is a synthesis afoot between the new tonality and the lessons learned from the modernists? It depends of course on where you look.

All that tends to apply to Michael Gordon on his latest album. It features two new orchestral works and is titled after the first, Dystopia (Cantaloupe 21105).

Both works in their own way partake of the largesse of the grand symphonic tradition in that they are ambitious, long and very dynamic works with their own flourish. Both have tonal and extra-tonal elements. Both are dense, ever-mutating collages in sound.

"Dystopia" is the longer of the two, with what sounds like a pretty large orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic under David Robertson. The aim is to capture the essence of Los Angeles, as if one were speeding through it on the freeway at 90 miles per hour. We get a huge cacophony, the sound of glissandi representing a record speeding up and slowing down, with compositional elements that range from Ockeghem to drum-and-bass pentatonic riffs. It is a vast maelstrom of sound that reminds slightly of Charles Ives's last symphony in its thickness and chaos, yet holds its own with distinction and power. The performance is excellent.

For the second work Gordon looks to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony for inspiration and commemoration. "Rewriting Beethoven's Seventh Symphony" is the result, played here by the Bamberger Symphoniker under Jonathan Nott. For each analogous movement Gordon has chosen a number of motives from the original, filtered and re-presented in another collage that varies in density but throughout remains multi-thematic and polytonal, multi-dimensional and cacophonous. It is perhaps the slightest bit less daring than "Dystopia" but no less interesting. One's familiarity with Beethoven's Seventh does allow for a bit more recognition of Gordon's compositional transformations at times and for that it should give listeners an insight into Gordon's operational methods. Again, performances are very good. Both works benefit from clear and well-staged audio.

In all Michael Gordon gives us two bold new works that may indeed represent a part of the state-of-the-art today. This is music that must be heard. It is not something to play in the background. Its complexities will allow for extended repeated listenings--and in fact demands them. It all shows us an important composer of today at his best.

Essential listening for the new modernism-and-beyond.


  1. Hi Grego, I stumbled across your blog recently and wanted to say that I'm really enjoying its off-the-beaten-track open-mindedness (to give you an idea of where I'm coming from, other blogs I frequent include therestisnoise, 5:4, counter-melody (formerly articulatesilences), ClassicsToday and the various Guardian music blogs). The Gordon was reviewed by The Guardian's Andrew Clements a few weeks back, so I tracked it down on Spotify, and I must admit that it was actually the Beethoven recomposition that made the greater impression on these ears, perhaps because of the source-material-familiarity you mention. There's something of Schnittke in the way Gordon treats this material, I feel, particularly so in the case of the Allegretto.

  2. Hi Chris,
    Many thanks for the kind comment on the blog. You are the sort of person I seek to engage--open minded and "progressive". Gordon reminds you of Schnittke? How interesting. I can hear that a bit too now that you bring it up. I can understand that the Beethoven reconfiguration got your ears first. The Seventh is such a wonderful work and it is nice to kind of rehear it in some of its motival elements re-presented. Anyway thanks for your perceptive comments. Chime in anytime.

    1. You actually catch me just as I'm planning to take a year off listening to new stuff. You see, ever since I upgraded my Spotify account, my intake has increased to a point beyond my ability to assimilate it. Nevertheless, I will continue to enjoy reading your posts, even if, for the time being, I won't be hunting down each new piece discussed!

  3. I can understand how it can get overwhelming, Chris. There is so much! I try to make time to listen to older things every week, so I can keep fresh and remember why I like something and/or see what earlier performances had or do not have compared to what is going on today. Ironically though perhaps sales are down we are in a rebirth period. There are so many examples of new music coming out every month, some of it breathtaking. Glad you will be continuing to read the blog. Eventually you no doubt will start developing a mental list, which is not unhealthy! Thanks as always for your readership and the many others out there too! I spend a huge part of my week listening in preparation for these write ups so it is very appreciated!