by Maggie Stapleton
Of all the modern late 20th and early 21st century repertoire out there, it can take a lot to stand out. Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon’s Dystopia succeeds, particularly in two of the areas Second Inversion loves to focus on – rethinking the past and paying homage.
The title track is one of many collaborative projects between Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison. They all encapsulate the aura of cities (Los Angeles as the focus here) and in all of these works the music is composed first and the film is conceptualized to fit the score. Bill’s video combines new and old footage from the streets of Los Angeles, as far back as some 1898 footage by Thomas Edison! Here’s an excerpt, courtesy of Cantaloupe Records:
Even without the film, Dystopia provides a “choose your own adventure” visual experience. I recommend you press play, close your eyes, and let the expansive color palette create a journey – whether it’s 90mph traffic ride through LA, a ride on a New York City subway, a motorcycle ride on winding mountain roads. The possibilities are endless.
It truly is a ride that is full speed ahead for eight and a half solid minutes, winds down for a few minutes, and revs back up, ebbing and flowing (like traffic and bumps in the road that slow us down. Flat tire? Overheated engine? We’ve all been there..) throughout the piece.
Gordon combines sounds and textures that offer freshness to the orchestral repertoire. He “explores the gray areas between harmony and dissonance,” which comes to me as enhanced, nuanced, and varied sounds for the orchestra. It’s the most exciting and engaging 30 minutes of music I’ve experienced in a long time.
Many composers pay tribute to those who have inspired or taught them. Gordon says, “Beethoven’s brutish and loud music has always inspired me… At the time it was written, it was probably the loudest music on the planet.” Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was a commission from the Beethovenfest Bonn in 2006 and Gordon utilized one element from each of the original symphony: “From the first movement, I couldn’t resist working with the huge barbaric opening chords. From the second movement, I took the divine and other-worldly theme, adjusting it slightly so that when it ends, it is in a key one half-step higher. The theme continues to cycle around and slowly spirals up. From the third movement, I lifted the background accompaniment and brought it to the foreground. From the fourth movement I used the main theme.”
This homage to Beethoven is so curiously engaging. The retained elements are very apparent from the first chord, which is totally a “fooled ya!” moment as it meows down to dissonance. Throughout the entire piece, the push & pull and transformation of the themes and harmonies fight my ears to hear Beethoven’s original in Gordon’s re-write. It’s as if the notes were tossed up in the air with excellent care, floating and mingling with one another, crisscrossing to land in brand new worlds of musical excitement. I highly recommend this mind-bending piece for an eyebrow-raising, intriguing listening experience.
For a Michael Gordon bonus, I would be remiss without redirecting you to our in-studio performance by Bang on a Can All-Star, Ashley Gordon: