Michael Gordon: A Rare Balance of Exquisite Distortion

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The Bang on a Can collective—Michael Gordon, wife Julia Wolfe, and fellow Martin Bresnick student David Lang—took a shared fascination with modernist dissonance, minimalist process, and rock volume, and turned it into a new kind of New York institution. They founded festivals and a record label, and collectively composed evening-length works like the oratorio Lost Objects (2001) and the opera Carbon Copy Building (1999).

But their voices remain distinctive, Lang cool and penetrating, Wolfe fierce and raw. Gordon's work might best be encapsulated in his magnum opus, Decasia, a collaboration with filmmaker Bill Morrison. Morrison's visuals, drawn from archives of decaying celluloid, are the perfect complement to Gordon's music: three amplified ensembles, each tuned a microtone apart, pound away in asynchronous rhythms, sliding between pitches, like a shuddering, banging machine, one more loose screw away from shaking itself into pieces.

What time does to celluloid film, in other words, Gordon does to minimalism. He takes the building blocks of process music and pushes them just one degree further, into chaos. Instead of the more familiar rhythms of two beats pulsing against three, or three against four, he might set up a rhythm of eight against nine, the connection between the two implied meters just out of grasp of the casual listener. Each pulse remains perfectly clear, and the aggregate sound can transform in perfect sync, even as the surface texture gives the illusion of rhythmic chaos.

He works easily in long forms—Decasia (2001), Trance (for the Icebreaker ensemble, 1995), Weather (for strings, 1997)—where his complex ideas can play themselves out over long stretches. It was pieces like the early Yo Shakespeare (1992)with those sputtering, telegraphic pulses, that alerted such prominent admirers as Steve Reich to Gordon's rhythmic sophistication, while his Industry (1992) for painfully distorted electric cello signaled his knack for exquisite sonic corrosion. 

In 2011, he released two radically different recordings, demonstrating the yin and yang of his compositional genius: Timber, a CD in a heavy wooden box, is pure rhythm, music for amplified two-by-fours played like a huge, eerie xylophone; The Sad Park (2006), download-only, is his 9/11 memorial, a seething, terrifying work incorporating the amplified strings of the Kronos Quartet and the digitally distorted voices of children who witnessed the destruction of the World Trade Center. Both are masterpieces; both are pure Michael Gordon.