CHAOS AND CONTROL: AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL GORDON
by Andrew Shapiro
February 12, 2001
(From 21st Century Music, October 2001, reprinted with permission)
Michael Gordon, with David Lang and Julia Wolfe, founded Bang on a Can, The Bang on a Can Marathon and The Bang on a Can All-Stars. Recently the group established a record label as well, Cantaloupe Music.
SHAPIRO: What's Cantaloupe Music about and do you feel that Cantaloupe is an example of an outgrowth of the niche that Bang on a Can created?
GORDON: Well, my goal isn't to make a lot of money. If it were, I wouldn't be doing this. I wouldn't be writing the type of music that I write. My goal is to have some control of my life. I think when I got out of school in 1982, the way you had a career was you kissed people's butts.
SHAPIRO: This is any music career or the academic/quasi--academic music?
GORDON: The quasi-academic world. I was getting concerts of my stuff. The way that you got a performance in the venues that were established had nothing really to do with anything other than the connections that you had to the older people who ran those things. I was very inspired by not only the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, but also by the way that they took control of their lives. They played their own music and had their own groups and went out and performed. They bucked the establishment. They went past all of the performing organizations and all of the ensembles that existed, and went straight to people who would listen to their music. They got people interested. That is, in a sense, what downtown music is in a nutshell. It's not really a style but it's more like, "I'm going to go in front of a bunch of people and play the music and they're going to like it" as opposed to, "I'm going to go in front of a lot of people and tell them why they should like this music and whether they like it or not they're going to respect me." That's what I think uptown music is, in a sense. It's not a question of one music is good or one music is bad. I have a love and respect for all kinds of music but in a sense, the beautiful thing was that they controlled their lives. So when you ask, what's Bang on a Can or what's Cantaloupe Music about, why are we starting a record label, it's not because we want to make money or that we're going to be putting out music that's commercial. It's because we want to decide exactly what's on our records. We want to put out exactly the music that we want to put out the same way that we want to play exactly what we want to play and we don't want someone else to be dictating that to us. That's all.
SHAPIRO: But certainly you're counting on the fact that Bang on a Can's quasi-pop status (as opposed to another record label that just puts out supposed avant-garde string trios or something like that) will help you move some records right? For instance, Arnold Dreyblatt's song "Escalators" (off of Renegade Heaven, the debut Cantaloupe Records release) is a song that sounds like pop. Sting comes to mind. And then it veers off into areas that are decidedly non-pop. Anyway, you know as you're starting this project that Bang on a Can has already cut out a niche for itself. For a certain scene and group of people and mentality, you're the capitol of that particular world. So you know that you're going to sell some records...
GORDON: I hope we sell records. That would be nice. I'm very hopeful. But I think that the entire record industry isn't doing very well. Especially classical music. It's taken a dive in the last 10 years because people already own all the classical music -- they're not going to buy it again. In a sense that's good news for composers and performers who are playing new music because that's the only new thing that there is. In other words, if you walk into the pop department, the artists have come out with new music. Every new record has new music on it. But if you go into the classical department, most of the records that come out are just of the same music. So if you're writing new stuff, that's a good thing for sales. Someone is going to walk in and say, "Oh, I haven't heard this, I wonder what this is." I think that the thing that you have to remember is that if you're interested in new music there's nothing as exciting as the first time you hear new music by a certain composer. Composers, especially radical composers like Glass and Reich, have gone through a period where people listen to their music and say, "What the hell is that? It's terrible. I can't stand it!" And I'm old enough to remember when people said that about those guys. It was so radical that people couldn't listen to it. Then there comes a point where their music has existed in the world for a period of time and younger people grow up and they hear it and all of a sudden it becomes part of the language that exists. It's no longer radical. Think about Van Gogh. People looked at his paintings and thought, "This guy is crazy. This stuff is awful. It's ugly." Now it's ubiquitous. People put it on their bathroom walls.
SHAPIRO: It's been said that the rigors of minimalism relaxed at around the time of Glass's Einstein on the Beach and Reich's Music for 18 Musicians. It was then (1975 or so) that minimalism influenced popular music to an enormous degree. The popular music idiom appropriated minimalism and then sent it back in a way that influenced the original sources(s) to relax into a smoother and more popular aesthetic. I wonder what your thoughts are on that issue.
GORDON: I think that that's possible. You're talking about Glass and Reich but there are still minimalists who are as die-hard as they were in the 1960's. I don't think that La Monte Young's music has shifted as radically as Glass's or Reich's. There are other people that were part of that movement. As far as Philip and Steve in particular, I have no idea. We can sit around and theorize if you want. Being a composer myself, I know that at a certain point I think you could just wake up one day and say, "Well, ya know, I've been playing my keyboard with three saxophone players for the past 15 years and some guy in Germany wants me to write a piece for orchestra and ya know, I've never done that and I'm curious to see what that would be like." I could definitely see Glass having that feeling. I think that when opportunities open up for composers who are, in a sense, outcast composers you say, "Well, I wonder what that would be like. No one has ever asked me to write anything for orchestra before and I'd like to try it out." I think it's as simple as that. You have to remember that these people were the villains of the classical music world. They weren't using classical instruments; everything that they were doing was upsetting the establishment. They were drawing audiences; they were touring throughout Europe; they were making records; people liked their music, and so on. The payback here in America was that no one would work with them. Orchestras didn't work with them. Conventional music groups didn't work with them --
SHAPIRO: -- Opera companies.
GORDON: And then one day someone calls you up and says, "We want you to do something.
SHAPIRO: You just take it.
GORDON: I couldn't possibly know what actually occurred. Certainly their music had an impact on the world. It crossed over into popular music. I think it had a big impact on the development of ambient music and even now younger pop groups and DJs are still freshly being influenced by those two guys. But I think for them if I had to make any guess I would say that the world of opportunity started opening up and they took it.
SHAPIRO: You say that there are people around that are still doing straight minimalism. Do you think that the minimalists from the 1960's are taking the place of the old guard hard-core serial people, the people that so many loathe and think of as being everything that is wrong with academia as it pertains to the composition of music in the year 2000? The minimal people are just staying put with their language and have no intention of moving on. Will straight minimal composition be analogous to straight 12-tone music, 20-30 years from now? Or is there a problem with that analogy because there was and still is a popular accessibility inherent in minimalism that 12-tone music never had?
GORDON: I hate to put it in such negative terms. I think people should do what they want. If you want to write 12-tone music I feel that that's fine. I don't really have a problem with that. I feel that the problem isn't on the basis of individual to individual. The problem is societal, it's the same in any science or art. When a prevailing aesthetic or theory comes in then there's a certain complacency that settles in; this is just what it is. People forget how radical the impulse is. I think especially the classical music world has a big problem with this because Beethoven was a radical composer. He was as radical as Steve Reich. He expanded the orchestra to contain instruments that were never used. He wrote these huge bombastic works-- he was the bad boy of classical music. He had an audience and people came to see him. But he was certainly an avant-garde composer and now look what's happened. Of course, not only with Beethoven. Most of the great classical composers broke ground and were avant-garde.
SHAPIRO: What do you think of as being the most recently written classical music out there?
GORDON: For me, a while back I heard something by Elvis as being classic. Then the Beatles, then Disco, now it's 80's pop. Things become classical very quickly because they become imbedded in our subconscious very quickly. What used to take 200 years as a pillar of something now will take barely any time at all. Classic rock is now from the 70's and now even the 80's.
SHAPIRO: Classic rock now definitely includes something like early Madonna or something like Michael Jackson's "Thriller."
GORDON: Some people who are buying records say, "Yeah I know what that sounds like and I won't buy more because I know it; I don't want to hear it again." On the other hand, there are still about five times as many who say, "Oh, I'll buy it because I've never heard it before and I'll hear it for the first time." I think that the idea that certain music is classic or classical -- "I want to hear this Beethoven symphony again or I want to turn on the radio and listen to this Rolling Stones song again, it makes me feel really happy" -- is really nostalgia. It's like having a blanket and a bottle, or something like that.
SHAPIRO: A bottle of what?
GORDON: Milk, not a bottle of whiskey. It's like being a baby again. It's very comforting. It's, give me what I know. When I was a kid I liked Captain Beefheart, Zappa, and progressive rock like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. I've always felt that that's music that I relate to and it's the stuff that I've been inspired by. Last year I went into Tower Records with some guys 22 years old. I said, "Guys, pick out stuff that's cool and experimental."
SHAPIRO: What did they get you? Mostly electronica stuff?
GORDON: Mostly electronica. I got this group called Pansonic. It was just an hour of feedback. It was great; I loved it. I'm very interested in that stuff. I have a nostalgic felling for the music I heard when I was a kid.
SHAPIRO: Well, with that in mind, do you ever take one of these songs that you're nostalgic about in your head and use it in a piece of your own? Not necessarily the beats and a literal transcription though.
GORDON: Well that's a sensibility. Obviously I have to write the music that interests me. I have to write stuff that pleases me. It's my market. My work is me.
SHAPIRO: Could get excited about skewing a pop tune?
GORDON: I've never really done anything like that. I think that the sensibility of the music that you write seeps into you. What is an aesthetic? Why do you like the music that you like? It's a very mysterious thing. What are you trying to get out of it? For me, I don't really feel totally fulfilled listening to popular music. I get it very quickly. I'm willing fully to totally accept the music that I'm nostalgic about which is from the late 60's because I was a kid then and I was totally in it. But I can't live in that music anymore today.
SHAPIRO: Were you into the Grateful Dead?
GORDON: Sure, I was never a Deadhead but I had a bunch of their records.
SHAPIRO: Here's Kyle Gann's Village Voice review of the Bang on a Can Marathon from a couple of months ago. It's not very nice. Gann states that it would be nice if they would try not to make it look like "the Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang show again." Additionally, he goes on to say that, for instance, Pamela Z did her operatic thing again and that the All-Stars weren't able to learn new music so they performed Tan Dun's Concerto for Six again, and everything is again and again and again.
GORDON: Kyle came to the first marathon in 1987 but he didn't come to the one last year. There's no question that Kyle is the most astute writer on contemporary music in America. He's been hard on us sometimes --
SHAPIRO: Is this your honest feeling or are you just saying this for the interview?
GORDON: I honestly think he's the most astute writer about contemporary music in America. I don't think that there's any question about that. But, basically I don't read reviews. I've gotten into this habit because when you're on the road, you're always gone before the review comes out unless you have a friend or a relative who will send it to you. Then, if someone clips it and sends it to you, half the time it's a bad review anyway. You think, "Why is this person sending it to me?" I figure if there's a review that is incredibly fantastic and worth reading than someone will tell you about it or mail it to you. The thing is-- how smart are these guys that are writing these things? Unless you're someone who is really interested in new music -- not modernist music (Boulez, Carter, etc., or even Glass or Reich) but what's new right now-- if that's not your orientation, then you're invested in a certain sense of keeping... Look, if you're a classical music critic, which is 90% of the reviews that I've read of my stuff, nobody is going to compare me to Stravinsky. There is no one as great as Stravinsky or Shostakovich. There's no one as great as Debussy. Understandably so, it's impossible. There's a thought out there that there will never be composers as great as there were before. So, how can you compete with a critic who loves Bach or Stravinsky? It doesn't work. I've read some reviews that say, "This guy can't compare to Benjamin Britten." Well, of course not.
SHAPIRO: So then why is it that your music is compared with Beethoven's but someone like Whitney Houston would never ever be compared with a composer like Alban Berg?
GORDON: I think it's about consumerability. If you get it immediately than it's a different state of being than something where "I don't get it right away, it's going to take a while to figure it out. I don't understand it." The world is set up in a certain way. If I were setting it up myself maybe I'd set it up in a different way! There are a lot of factors -- artificial boundaries that are made due to societal factors that differentiate class or educational backgrounds. I'm not so sure why.
SHAPIRO: But imagine that on a poster! I read an article recently called "Strike the Band: Pop Music Without Musicians" by Tony Schulman [The New York Times, Sunday February 11, 2001].
GORDON: I read that.
SHAPIRO: One thing that the article discussed was how bands like the Stones and Beatles are decidedly modernist as far as pop music is concerned right now. Electronica is decidedly post-modernist -- it's about taking whatever you want that's out there (via sampling) and creating a music based upon your own sensibilities of what's around you at that particular time.
GORDON: I felt that the writer of the article was being very nostalgic. There was the thought there about making music where no one is playing and that the people that are making it have no musical training. But that's nothing new. The second that recordings were invented, music making became something else. Glenn Gould started splicing things together. There are no classical recordings that are made without splices. Sometimes hundreds of splices. Making records and playing live are two different things. This guy is saying, "Oh, I just figured it out that making a record is not the same thing as playing live." Well, surprise, surprise: making a record is not playing live. Well, that's been 40 years already.
SHAPIRO: If this were a pop review, I guess we'd be talking gossip.
GORDON: Well, I'll pass on that. Basically pop music is entertainment on a very large scale. You're talking about millions and millions of people. You really have to have your act together. Someone like Madonna really has her act together. If you notice, it's completely unlike classical music in that in pop, very rarely do people have careers that last for very long. The people from the 60s or 70s...some people have a couple of hit songs or some have a few hit records and are really big over a period of five years but then 10 years later no one knows who they are. So, someone like Madonna who is able to keep it up for 20 years is pretty impressive. She's a smart woman. There are people in the classical music world, even composers, that are concerned with fashion and appearances and things like that.
SHAPIRO: Kronos Quartet for instance. The pictures on their album covers --
GORDON: -- but that's a different thing. They're differentiating themselves from the image of a string quartet which is four people wearing tuxedoes. What they wear has to do with trying to represent what they're trying to do with the music that they play. As far as pop music and fashion is concerned I really don't understand it. Fashion isn't my thing. It's pretty obvious. I think that as a serious artist what is really important are the thoughts that you have and the work that you do. For the long term you have the opportunity to let people in on the idea that the work you're doing is important or has some significance. The scientist that invents the cure for AIDS, no one is going to care what that person wears. No one is going to care what that person looks like, what their skin color is like, whether they're greasy or have bad breath or anything. That person invented the cure for AIDS. The way I like to think about it is basically like, "I'm a nerd and basically everyone I know is a nerd." What's a classical musician? Someone who has stayed inside and played their violin for eight hours a day while everyone else was out there having a good time. That's basically what musicians are. I practice this instrument over and over again. Sometimes if I play somewhere and get up on stage -- the people in the audience are way cooler than I am. They're hipper; they're dressed more fashionably. They're young.
SHAPIRO: What did you think of the crowd at Tonic for Arnold Dreyblatt's show last month?
GORDON: I thought it was interesting that a lot of the people there had no idea what the music was. It was a cool place to go and people knew that they could go there and hear something weird. It was like, "I'm going to dress up and look really great and do something weird because that's the cool thing to do right now." I'm not against anything. It's fine with me.
SHAPIRO: Are you writing songs these days? Your two pieces at the Bang on a Can Marathon were definitely songs as opposed to pieces.
GORDON: I just did a project with Julia and David called Lost Objects. It's basically 11 songs.
SHAPIRO: Did you write them all together?
GORDON: No, I wrote four of them. We just got back from Germany where we did the recording. The piece is for a sort of strange conglomerate that includes an early music group called Concerto Koln. They play mostly Baroque and Classical music on period instruments. Basically, this piece is like an oratorio.
SHAPIRO: Were you conducting the group? Was there a producer coaching the musicians?
GORDON: There was a producer and a conductor. There were 60 musicians all together.
SHAPIRO: Where do you get the money to do that?
GORDON: A festival in Germany commissioned the piece and it's going to premiere in May. The recording is sponsored by Teldec. Classical music is Europe's art form. American music is Blues, Jazz and Rock n Roll. Classical music is still Europe. They still believe in it over there. So, every town has an orchestra. If you live in a town and there's another town 20 miles away then they'll have their own orchestra and theater company and performance space because that's what they do there. There's still a lot of interest in music and there is a lot of interest in new music and experimental music. We're there a lot performing. Most of the music that I write is for European groups because that's where they're interested in my work.
SHAPIRO: How did you become friends with Pamela Z? I met her at Cell Space in San Francisco. Do you know of that place?
GORDON: I've heard of it. She sent us a tape. We get a few hundred tapes every year. We listen to all of them without knowing who sent them to us. To tell you the truth, if you know the person who sent you the tape you can't really listen to it objectively. You want to like it. We sit around for about 3 days and listen to all of them. A lot of the stuff we find and use comes from the tapes. We do listen to them. Most people that send them in probably think that we don't and just throw the tapes out. It's interesting. I always find it very fascinating to listen to the stuff. From all over the spectrum. All kinds of things.
SHAPIRO: What instrument did you play growing up?
SHAPIRO: Have you performed solo piano pieces in concert halls? Your stuff, you go out and play it?
GORDON: Never solo. I don't have any piano music. Piano really isn't my thing as a composer. About ten years ago I stopped writing for myself.
SHAPIRO: But isn't Michael Gordon Band a group and music for you?
GORDON: It is for me but I really get excited when I am able to write for other instruments. I can write stuff that can get played. If I'm writing for myself I have to write only the stuff that I can play. Otherwise it's really embarrassing.
SHAPIRO: Your songs performed at the marathon had a singer but didn't sing lyrics. Only "oo." Would you ever write songs with lyrics? You use drum set and guitar. With lyrics you'd really be getting so close to pop!
GORDON: I love drums and I love beats. Again, it's very natural to want to use these things. When something new comes along a composer says, "I want it." That's the history of the orchestra. It had flutes and bassoon. Then they added oboes and horns and then trombones and trumpets, percussion and then tubas and then saxophone. Why not? Now we've got electric guitars and have had samplers and synthesizers for 20 years. I want to use them. It's nothing different from before. It's just that people think that those are pop instruments. They're not. They're just tools to be creative with.
SHAPIRO: I read an article in the Times that mentioned you as an example of computer-based composition. I'm in your studio. I don't see any pencils or manuscript paper. Do you ever jot things down on paper?
GORDON: Never. Basically never. I write in a notation program.
SHAPIRO: I was under the impression that you used a sequencer. Are you orchestrating these things as you write them?
GORDON: Yes, in a sense. Notation programs can trigger sounds just like a sequencer. I have Sample Cell, a card that goes into the computer. I have a palette of sounds that I can use as I go along. I'm notation orientated -- I feel that I need to be able to see the details of everything. I've worked with sequencers before and I can't get used to how they look because to me it's not exact enough. I want to see everything.
SHAPIRO: When you're writing these things do you put in notations besides notes? Or does that stuff (e.g. dynamics, phrasing) get worked out during rehearsal?
GORDON: Usually I put very few dynamics in my music because I feel like there's a common agreement about what the music is about between the musicians playing it. In baroque or classical music there are very few dynamic markings because there was a common aesthetic. Everyone understood the music. I'm working with ensembles and groups that I feel understand the music and so I feel that I don't have to fill up the score with lots of signs. In rehearsal we can work things out if we need to.
SHAPIRO: How would a conversation with the guy who's running the sound board play into this?
GORDON: Well, that's a different sort of control of course. I've controlled dynamics and processed sounds from the board. But the board and what the performers are actually doing are two different things. You can't really control the meaning that comes from dynamics from the board. You can control and shape the volume of the sound but you need to have that aspect of it coming from the performers themselves. I think that being able to work at the board is part of living now. You've got to know what it is, how it works and what you can do to the sound. But, that's not where the music making happens -- the music making happens with the performer. The soundboard is amplification. Sound processing lets you do all sorts of things but obviously the sound is originating from the performers.
SHAPIRO: But in the spirit of that Times article that we were discussing earlier, couldn't you say that what you just said really isn't the case? In a sense, one of the main ideas of that article was that now, music is more about what people do to the sound when it comes out of an instrument than it is more about the actual sound itself. For instance the use of compression, E.Q., and other dynamic manipulation methods.
GORDON: Every possible equation comes into play. But, I think that for a live performance of someone playing an actual instrument, there is no possible way to create at the board, with any kind of equipment... well, I shouldn't even say that. I shouldn't put any kind of limit on anything actually.
SHAPIRO: Have you every been approached by anyone who said, "I've heard your piece "Weather" and I think that it would work really well in my commercial for Ford trucks" or, "I work for a huge multi-national corporation and we're going to have a huge conference in which we're going to show a 17-minute video about our corporation. We think that part of "Weather" would be great for it." Would you license the material or would you simply turn that offer down?
GORDON: It's never happened. I don't think that people just come and knock on your door and say, we want to use your music for a commercial or for a corporate national anthem. Your representatives have to go to them. It's work that you have to seek. No one knocks on Philip Glass's door and says, "We want to use your music for a Pepsi commercial." He's got someone that goes and knocks on their door. It's not the business that I'm in. I don't want to make a blanket statement here but I'm against the ever-growing power that smaller and smaller groups of corporations are acquiring. I'm against the multi-national globalization that's happening. But I don't want to tell you I'd do this or that because I think it would be dishonest. I'm not in that position. It's not the kind of work I seek but, if someone knocked on my door to approach me about something like that, I can't make a blanket statement that I'd refuse it or take it. It would depend upon what it was exactly.
SHAPIRO: What about for a film?
GORDON: Well, that's a totally different situation. Films are great and I'd certainly like to collaborate with a filmmaker.
SHAPIRO: How did you end up in New York? Was it after finishing up at Yale?
GORDON: No, I came here from Miami. I lived in New York while I was in school at Yale. It's hard when you come here. But the great thing is that you can't sit still, since there's a lot of great places in New York to see art. Every single night people are just trying to do their work and realize their vision. I like that, because New York is pumping with creativity and pumping with people who want to make art and have really sacrificed other kinds of life. They're dedicated to doing this weird thing that they do. So, I like it. I like New York.
SHAPIRO: You said that you're from Florida but I remember reading something about you living in --
GORDON: -- I lived in Nicaragua until I was eight. Then my family moved to Miami Beach. My parents are Eastern European Jews. So I grew up in a place where all these Eastern European Jews lived who left Europe for the obvious reasons. Before and after the war, a lot of them ended up in Central and South America. I grew up in a kind of refugee European community living there.
SHAPIRO: Is it possible for you to explain a bit about how do you think that has affected you?
GORDON: Well, we didn't have TV there. When I was eight and my family moved to Miami, all of a sudden there was television. I grew up in a world where I didn't have that stuff in my brain. So I suppose that did affect me in some way. And then I have the experience of coming to the United States and being an immigrant. I spoke Spanish and English. You grow up in a certain society, and then you move to a completely different society. So there's change, and it does affect you.
SHAPIRO: I read in the press kit for Cantaloupe music that Bang on a Can's Music for Airports record was mentioned on MTV.
GORDON: They did a thing about that record on the MTV news or something like that.
SHAPIRO: That production was how I learned about Bang on a Can. I saw a live performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars in Prospect Park [Brooklyn]. I think that this project you did speaks to the issue of recording-studio-to-live-performance that we were discussing earlier. That must have been a great education for you to figure out how to represent certain sounds.
GORDON: Well, it was fun. We transcribed it off the record.
SHAPIRO: How did you decide which person arranged which movement?
GORDON: Well, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Evan Ziporyn have a different sensibility and it worked out. In the end, Brian Eno was very happy about it. We met Eno; he came a couple of times when the All-Stars played the piece in a couple of airports. The first time was at a London airport. We flew in, played, and left.
SHAPIRO: You didn't leave the airport? You just flew in played and flew right out?
SHAPIRO: That's cool.
GORDON: Anyway, we sent the piece to Eno when it was done. He wrote us a really long -- I think it was a three-page -- letter. He was actually really moved by it because I think he felt that we had transformed his piece. He said in the letter that our version of the piece made his look like the demo. So, I took that as quite a compliment. The idea behind our project was that we felt Music for Airports was a great piece of music. It's a piece of music that was made by a pop musician in the pop world. It's the experimental pop world or whatever. In terms of a piece of music, I don't really see that you can make those lines. You remember I was talking before about the boundaries that society makes? Well, here's an example of a piece of music that was categorized in one world and all we wanted to say was that we could change its characterization. We can make it work for live instruments and play it live in a concert. This is now concert music. Great concert music. Not classical or pop or "new" music. It's just great music. So that was, in a sense, what we were trying to do: break down the perception that it's this or that.