Nightclub music for nerds

Michael Gordon (photo by Alice Arnold)

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 15, 2004) – When new-music composer Michael Gordon sat down with the honchos at Nonesuch Records a while back to discuss his next recording, he threw them for a loop when he said he wanted to make a record fashioned like a pop album – something created primarily in the studio that would utilize all the techniques that state-of-the-art digital technology has to offer.

“I said I wanted to make a record like pop people do, and they said you don’t do that -- you’re a classical composer,” said Gordon in a recent phone interview from his New York City apartment, on the eve of his departure for the Berkshires, where he is now ensconced for the annual Bang on a Can Summer Institute that takes place this month at Mass MoCA in North Adams.

Fortunately for Gordon and for listeners, in the end the folks at Nonesuch were open-minded enough to give him the green light to pursue his muse down an unproven path. The result, the recently-released “Light Is Calling,” is a gripping, infectious recording, meaty enough to appeal to fans of Gordon’s more abstract, symphonic works while catchy enough to win him new fans in the DJ and electronica scenes that inspired much of the music on the album.

Anyone familiar with Gordon’s work knows that, like most of his Bang on a Can colleagues, he often has one foot in the conservatory and the other in CBGBs. The academically-trained composer came out of both places, having played in a downtown rock band in the late-1970s after attending the Yale School of Music. While for the most part his work since then has been heard in concert halls like Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Royal Albert Hall and at the Rotterdam, Edinburgh and Dresden music festivals, in upcoming months Gordon will be returning to rock clubs with his new band and music, beginning tonight [ Thursday, July 15 ]with his program at Club Helsinki at 8:30.

“I grew up in both worlds,” said Gordon, explaining what moved him to embark on a recording and performing project that would take him out of the concert hall and back into clubs.

“I studied piano and practiced every day and went to my teacher where I was playing Mozart and Bach, and then I’d come home and play in a rock and roll band,” said Gordon, who co-founded the new-music collective Bang on a Can with fellow composers Julia Wolfe and David Lang in 1987.

“At this point, there’s not a division inside of me of this music and that music. I’ve always been trying to make one music. Sometimes a student will come and play an orchestral piece and I’ll talk to them about it. And they say, can I play you my hip-hop music now? I say in order to make the music you’re supposed to make you have to find a way to make this into one statement. You can’t say here’s my legitimate music and here’s my hip-hop. Where’s your music? That’s how I feel about this record. It’s very much a reflection of who I am.”

While much of “Light Is Calling” was constructed in the studio by Gordon, who plays keyboards, in collaboration with producers R. Luke DuBois and Damian leGassick, it doesn’t totally forsake his orchestral, compositional background. The album balances his keyboard tracks and processed percussion with plenty of violins – mostly courtesy of Todd Reynolds, who appeared at MoCA recently with the quartet Ethel and who will be at Helsinki with Gordon’s band – and other stringed instruments, including Bang on a Can cellist Wendy Sutter and guitarist Mark Stewart.

But the feeling of the album is definitely more Aphex Twin than Arturo Toscanini, more Brian Eno than Edward Elgar.

“Light Is Calling” was mostly written in the recording studio, in marked contrast to Gordon’s usual working method. “It was a very direct, primal way to work,” said Gordon, who was born in Miami Beach in 1956 and who was raised in an Eastern European Jewish community in Nicaragua.

“There were no notes, no scores,” he said. “Sitting there with Damian or Luke Dubois, we’re listening to sounds and looking at computers with sound waves and trying this and that, sitting for four hours and looking for sounds. My whole orientation is notes and scores, where musicians come in and you put it in front of them and they can read it.”

Gordon’s interest in contemporary dance-club music and electronica, as it is called, was first piqued when he was working with a London-based, avant-garde group called Icebreaker.

“One of the guys in the band was William Orbit’s assistant before he worked with Madonna -- when he was still just making dance records for the club scene,” said Gordon. “And he used to take me out to clubs and take me to hear DJs, and I was exposed to a certain amount of that scene.”

Otherwise, Gordon is hardly a denizen of the dance floor, and his nightclubbing days are few and far between.

“I don’t go to clubs,” he said. “I’m like a nerd. Classical musicians are basically nerds. After spending your life in front of a piano playing scales, that’s it, you’re a nerd.”

So his new compositions could be considered nightclub music for nerds?

“Nightclub music for nerds. That’s catchy. That’ll interest a lot of people,” he replied.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 15, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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