This piece was originally published in Classical Post.
Bang On A Can composer Michael Gordon’s new work Anonymous Man for The Crossing Choir was released on March 20, 2020 on Cantaloupe Records. As the first track suggests, Anonymous Man is the tale of two. It is the tale of the man on the street and the man in his bed, two men who lived on Desbrosses St., the love story between Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe, our true memories and those which we perceive to be true, our inner and outer lives, and the tale of tragedies in New York. These tales bring attention to how the most vulnerable New Yorkers are treated.
Anonymous Man is part of a series of pieces that Michael Gordon has composed about cities, and how they change over time. It is centered around his experiences living on Desbrosses St. in Manhattan and the album was released in late March. Works of music can become reframed over time. Cities do change. Just as Gordon has reframed his experience in NYC changing over the past 40 years in Anonymous Man, the city has reframed the work itself as the album was released during the pandemic. It is up to the listener to decide if Anonymous Man captures a glimpse of the city before the pandemic, or if perhaps the vulnerabilities of New Yorkers in Anonymous Man have never been more eerie and relevant.
IT’S JULIE COMING TO TOWN
The album as a whole is about memory, and as such, it is blurred. “When you’re dealing with memory, you’re dealing with a cloudy fuzzy thing. What really happened, what you really felt, what you remember, and what you remember you felt are all questionable. You realize you’ve forgotten or made up stories in the time that’s past,” says Gordon. The work is deeply personal, the track It’s Julie Coming To Town recalls Gordon meeting his wife, composer Julia Wolfe, in 1982. The text, which was written by Gordon, recalls specific memories, like the look in her eyes and eating french toast. These standout moments function in a similar way to memory, there are standout memories but they’re fuzzy, sensory, and more about the feeling than the details.
The language throughout the album is profound in its simplicity, writing the words was a conscious move for Gordon away from setting poetry. Gordon has written a series of works about New York for the Young People’s Chorus of NYC over the past ten years, he has written pieces for them about the F Train and the Great Trees of New York City. “The parks department of New York has gone through and identified these trees that are amazing because they’re more than 300 years old, 120 feet tall, or George Washington stood by one. They’re kind of hidden, but once you know what to look for they’re all around. The children would know the trees in their neighborhood and the subway stops,” says Gordon. “Donald Nally at The Crossing asked me to write this choral piece for them. I got into this mode of thinking about the city and thought I’m just going to write about this street. I’ve been living here for close to 40 years. It’s a major part of my life. I started collecting material and asking, what happens on this street?”
SONIC DISTORTION & SPACIALIZATION
The piece is a musical recollection of memories and therefore Gordon builds in the fuzzy feeling of memory musically. “Throughout the whole piece there’s a cloudiness and a sonic distortion that’s built in. I wrote in an echo, it’s not electronic or associated with reverberation in a certain space,” says Gordon. “I felt very comfortable telling this story through that lens. It’s a cloudy lens and this is what memory is like.” Even in this track, which is the sweetest and deeply sentimental, there is a sense of the bittersweet. The words are largely unintelligible; prohibiting the listener from fully understanding the language echoes the sentiment that this moment cannot be recaptured. Many words start with “s”, there is a ripple effect of “ss” sounds in the choir mirroring fireflies, they are there then gone. The words turn into sound that ebbs, flows, and swirls. The swirling sensation created by this sonic distortion is due to Gordon’s use of the canonic offsetting of the voices, dynamic swelling, and spacialization.
The spacial effects that Gordon uses are difficult to sense when listening over speakers or with headphones, highlighting a limit to the listening experience of a recording. “In different movements, the singers move a little to enhance that effect,” says Gordon. “In a live performance setting, it’s not a flat tsunami of sound that’s coming at you, but something that’s whirling around.” There’s an enhanced ephemerality to swirling sound, recalling the ephemerality of memory, which is lost in the recording. The dynamic quality of life is like sound whirling around, the recording is flattened like a memory.
I FIRST NOTICED ROBINSON
Losing a key musical component of the work in the recording is strangely and sadly poetic, as the work itself is about loss and what cannot be captured. Like the sound in a live performance of this work, Robinson on Desbrosses St. was always moving. “The strange thing about this man Robinson is that he moved all of his stuff around the neighborhood all of the time. He’d stop and read his book for a while, then he’d keep moving with all of his stuff,” says Gordon. “It turns out that in NY as long as you’re moving, the police can’t pick you up for being a vagrant and they can’t take your stuff away.”
There is an unrelenting pulse throughout I First Noticed Robinson, a musical representation of Robinson’s repetitive moving. Each beat is a footstep. “For years he’s moving 10 shopping carts and bags, slowly and methodically. It really was like Sisyphus pushing that boulder up the hill because there was no end,” says Gordon. “Nothing was being built or accomplished in a certain sense. It was this obsessive, almost maniacal work that this man did.”
Lyrics from I First Noticed Robinson include, “He spent the day moving his things like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up hill, day after day after day after day.” Quoting Sisyphus is significant as it is an echo of Gordon’s conversations over the years with Robinson. “It turns out that over a period of years I talked to him and he was an educated man who spoke several languages and read books that I hadn’t read. I spoke with him about the books,” says Gordon.
Gordon echoes the repetition of Robinson moving his carts musically by having the voices continually return to the beginning. The music, like Robinson, is stuck in a loop returning to start again in an endless cycle. Gordon also uses repeated words as a musical tool to enhance this effect, one example is “day after day after day after day”. Even as voices are added, the beat continues and the music maniacally returns again and again and again.
ON THAT TERRIBLE BEAUTIFUL MORNING
The cruel sense of repetition in I First Noticed Robinson foreshadows On That Terrible Beautiful Morning. Everything should be okay in this track as it’s all tonal but the seeping and sliding glissandi are deliberately nauseating. “I was trying to capture the feeling of that morning. We live in that neighborhood and our daughter was in school just two blocks north of the World Trade Towers. We had just dropped her off,” says Gordon. “I think everyone who experienced that morning experienced the same thing, it was one of the most beautiful mornings. It was clear and crisp, the sky was completely blue.”
The rising and falling of the voices is queasy and just as we wish time could speed through the discomfort, it slows to a halt. “The rate at which those chords change slows down at the end, like those few seconds where the plane hit the tower and everyone was unsure of what happened,” says Gordon.
It’s not just the experience of seeing the Towers hit that Gordon is trying to capture, it’s the reframing of memory. “It didn’t only happen in slow motion, it runs a rerun in my head in slow motion,” says Gordon. This is a return of how our memory works and how outside elements reinforce this. The moment when the planes hit the towers was on a continual rerun in slow motion on TV’s for a long time. Looking back at pivotal moments, it’s hard to know what was real and what we’ve created in our minds; that omnipresent blur. Musically, the voices enter in canon. The first iteration is equivalent to the experience of the moment, the second is the initial remembering, the third is the reframing after watching it over and over and over on TV, and so on. As listeners are forced to re-experience the words “On That Terrible Beautiful Morning”, the meaning of the words becomes less intelligible, the initial musical material becomes continually confusing and foggy.
ONE DAY I SAW
From this shared tragedy of New York City, Gordon turns to a tragedy on Desbrosses St. in One Day I Saw. The track mourns the loss of Larry, recalling the makeshift memorial where Larry lived on Desbrosses St. There are tragic gaps in the individual musical parts, silences that drive a knife through your heart. The music is canonic, as it is throughout the album. No one voice can continue without pause, their pause is the loss. Gordon includes personal recollections from people in his neighborhood about Larry, memories of this “kind and graceful” man. This track directly follows On That Terrible Beautiful Morning, it is admittedly difficult to listen to the pieces back to back, but that’s how they need to be listened to. Both tracks are monumentally heartbreaking and sit in that space, holding that space, without relenting. They look personal and universal tragedy in the eye, the personal is universal. “Everyone develops their own relationship with people living on the street. I try to stop and talk to people, especially people who live in my neighborhood, and just chat with them and give them respect,” says Gordon. “One of the things about living on the street is you kind of become anonymous, you’re just part of the landscape and I think people look at you as being subhuman.”
MOURNING IN NYC
When listening to On That Terrible Beautiful Morning, you could hear the last word as morning or mourning. There’s also a track on the album titled Abraham Lincoln’s Journey Down Desbrosses Street, where people in NYC came together in mourning. The album gives three examples of how New Yorkers have become unified in the face of tragedy: Abraham Lincoln’s Journey Down Desbrosses St, One Day I Saw, and On That Terrible Beautiful Morning. “When I’m on the subway, the person next to me is an anonymous person and even though we’re stuffed in here, everyone has a sense of privacy and an ownership of that privacy,” says Gordon. “All of those defenses and walls broke down in the aftermath of 9/11 and there was a period there where you wouldn’t go anywhere without connecting with another person who you normally wouldn’t be able to connect with.”
The album ends with the line “When it is thundering, I am wondering” on the track I Sleep At Home. “There’s certainly a similar feeling about that now,” says Gordon. “What’s going on connects us to people all over the world and makes us concerned for and care about people that are part of our lives but we don’t think about being a part of our lives on a regular basis.”
Over the past 30 years, Gordon has produced a strikingly diverse body of work, ranging from large-scale pieces for high-energy ensembles to major orchestral commissions to works conceived specifically for the recording studio. Gordon has been commissioned by The New World Symphony, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Stuttgart Ballet, the National Centre for the Performing Arts Beijing, the BBC Proms, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Settembre Musica, the Holland Music Festival, the Dresden Festival and the Sydney 2000 Olympic Arts Festival, among others. His music has been performed at the Kennedy Center, Theatre De La Ville, Barbican Centre, Oper Bonn, Kölner Philharmonie and the Southbank Centre. The recipient of multiple awards and grants, Gordon has been honored by the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.