piano logo  catalogue  artists  current  internet sales  links  current info  sitemap
CD cover image peter gordon


I have known Peter Gordon since 1972, when we were both graduate students at the Music Department of the University of California at San Diego, which at the time was a futuristic foundation-endowed think-tank of new musical research.  Through the 1980s and into the '90s I performed in his ensemble and spent many hundreds of hours in recording studios with him, so I had a unique point of view from which to watch his music develop.

Mr. Gordon's music has been categorized both by its peripatetic, eclectic curiosity and by its rootedness in European compositional tradition.  Since he is a polymath and not a one-note artist, it is difficult to summarize his work and any short account must leave out much.

When I met Mr. Gordon it was the era of revolution against atonal serialism -- an insular, dry style which did much to alienate the public from "serious" music and which was all but mandatory for university composers of the day (and which, for all I know, may still prevail in the universities where it was most vigorously promoted).  Young composers, taking their cue from La Monte Young, Terry Riley and others, were using simple tonal materials -- sometimes as a drone, sometimes with a palpable pulse -- to create a new kind of art music, one that used amplification (sometimes, though not always, at high levels) and borrowed from Asian, Indian, and (often uncredited) African music traditions.  This new movement came to be badly named "minimalism."  

Unlike many of the composers of our generation who were touched by this emerging style, Mr. Gordon was a competent working musician who could pay his rent playing in popular bands.  He was already a sophisticate, having studied the mechanics of film composition at USC, jazz at Berklee School of Music, and electronic music at San Diego and subsequently Mills College.  Having lived as a teenager in Germany and in Los Angeles, he comprehended both European intellectual trends and American pop culture. 

After leaving UCSD he moved to San Francisco and subsequently New York, where in the mid-70s he became one of the prime movers of a new style that fused ambitious compositional principles with popular instrumentation --though, speaking as an expert witness, I believe his contribution has been underestimated by the few historians who have written about the topic.

His Love of Life Orchestra (better known as LOLO), with its soap-opera name suggesting an embrace of the trashy, played lean, rigorous, instrumental miniatures whose timbre dispensed with the high seriousness that plagued new music of the day.  Though experimental in outlook, it evoked the fun of early '60s r&b and rock combos like King Curtis's Kingpins or the Ventures, as well as the thumping timbral palette of the then-popular orchestral disco records. 

A chronic early adopter of technologies, Mr. Gordon was repeatedly the first composer on the scene to comprehend the possibilities of each subsequent wave of mechanization and cybernetization of music.  Unlike many others who used automation as a substitute for engaging directly with musical content, resulting in a dumbing-down of the resultant music and an anonymity of sound, Mr. Gordon's music seized on the possibilities such instruments afforded to make a music which bore his seal. 

Incorporating synthesizers, rhythm machines and samplers into his music as they became available, he also continued to compose for acoustic instruments.  Beginning in the mid-70s as we gained access to multi-track recording studios, he developed an original and influential style of composition directly for tape.  Prior to that era, "tape music" had been electronic or concréte, or had been the elaborated product of a pop band. 

Mr. Gordon's method was somewhat similar to that of working pop producers -- he often cited his admiration for Brian Wilson's music -- and had elements in common with the work being done by the musically radical composers of the generation preceding ours, e.g., Robert Ashley and David Behrman.  But his tape scores created an original kind of continuum between the composed and improvised, and between the acoustic and the virtual, one that gave performers a broad scope to create their own sound and their own parts while hewing to a carefully thought-out composition, creating layers of interlocking musical signatures to which another level of composition was added at the mix stage. 
In the '80s, he received a number of commissions for large-scale scores, thereby embarking on a career of stage composition which he would continue to develop to the present day.  Always prolific, he was never more so than during this period, turning out numerous pieces for dance, theater, film and video, while also producing records (which, in the interests of brevity, I will not discuss in this letter, except to note that two of them, Innocent and Brooklyn,  were released on, and of course mis-marketed by, CBS Masterworks). 

In particular, four of Mr. Gordon's stage works from this period stand out.  Two of them were tape scores -- Otello, for the Neapolitan theater company Falso Movimento, and The Birth of the Poet for Richard Foreman.  

Otello featured more than an hour of continuous music and had no spoken text.  The score, which used motifs from Verdi's opera as generative cells, largely determined the pacing and intensely dramatic gestures of the mostly choreographic stage action.  The music was collectively invented by Mr. Gordon and the performers in the studio and finalized in Mr. Gordon's mix, which itself was always a compositional process.  The score won the Village Voice's Obie Award for 1985, and Falso Movimento toured worldwide with the piece for several years. 

The Birth of the Poet, presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985, was much maligned by critics for its libretto by Kathy Acker and its theatrical realization.  But the score, in three acts, was complex and spectacular -- particularly the first act, which, with the late Julius Eastman's virtuosic performance of a difficult vocal part using a German-modernist 12-tone row, made ample use of one of Mr. Gordon's greatest compositional assets: a quick, dry wit undetectable by the humor-challenged. 

Mr. Gordon's biggest popular success as a theater composer was probably the live-orchestra score for Secret Pastures, an all-star collaboration at Brooklyn Academy of Music (subsequently performed in Milan) with choreographers Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane, artist Keith Haring and the designer Willi Smith, which won Dance Theater Workshop's Bessie Award in 1985.  But his most important extended composition of the '80s was Return of the Native, a collaboration with the video artist Kit Fitzgerald, to whom Mr. Gordon got married while they were in the process of creating the piece. 

Taking as song text the chapter titles of Thomas Hardy's novel, Return of the Native brought a new level of lyricism into Mr. Gordon's music.  It was, I believe, the first fusion of live orchestra and live video projection.  The tight collaboration between the two principal artists made for a high degree of unity between sound and image.  The images included footage shot on location in Ireland and live-camera feeds of the musicians as they played, subjected to real-time mixing and manipulation by Fitzgerald.  Premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1988, the work was subsequently performed in its entirety in Rio de Janeiro in 1989 and Amsterdam in 1990 -- still under the rubric of LOLO, which in this incarnation had evolved from a rock trio to a 15-piece chamber orchestra.

In the 90s Mr. Gordon left New York to become a professor at the College of Santa Fe, where he and Kit Fitzgerald raised their son Max.  Isolated in the mountains of New Mexico, Santa Fe has a long history of being a sort of chrysalis for mid-career composers -- most notably Edgard Varése, who spent several ostensibly quiet years there prior to premiering Déserts in 1954. 

Mr. Gordon was anything but quiet during his years in Santa Fe.  In the absence of any kind of professional structure for composers in the United States, with steadily decreased funding for any but the most commercialized of artistic activities, it is a remarkable accomplishment that he has continued to turn out at least one major stage work every year for a variety of collaborators.  In this latest phase he has been composing works that more closely resemble the conventional definition of opera, completing a metamorphosis from being an almost purely instrumental composer in the '70s to being a dramatic singer's composer.  This new direction was clearly evident in The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin (1994), which was followed by other sung stage works, most impressively The Society Architect Ponders the Golden Gate Bridge, a collaboration with artist Lawrence Weiner, performed in 2000 in Berlin and Bonn, and in Paul Zimet's Bitterroot (at LaMama, 2001), a musical which re-imagined Lewis and Clark's expedition as enacted by a group of 19th-century players. 

And now it's the end of 2001.  I have no idea what he will do next.  Maybe he doesn't either.  It's not so easy to know what to do right now.  But one of my favorite things about Peter Gordon's music has always been that I can never predict what turn it will take. 

I predict he will surprise me. 

December 27, 2001

Ned Sublette is a 2003-2004 fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.  His book Cuba and its music: From the first drums to the mambo will appear in spring 2004 from Chicago Review Press.

Additional Info
Not the flute guy nor the french horn guy

Press Reviews
Press on Peter Gordon A stylistic chameleon overflowing with natural musicianship, Gordon is...a latter-day Kurt Weill, diffracting characteristic idioms through his own intuitive prism...Gordon has a knack for making odd rhythms and scales sound attractively natural. - The Village Voice Peter Gordon's score ...tickled out of an old upright so sweetly you walk home humming it . - The New York Times Gordon's score ... achieves great variety, subtlety and depth for all its economy (and) captures the externals of psychological drama well. - The New York Times Gordon's music is neither 'E-musik' (high art) nor 'U-musik' (low art), but 'EU-musikâ', a modern paradigm for crossing musical boundries. - Frankfurter Allegemeine (Germany) Peter Gordon is one of America's most versatile composers. He consistently integrates jazz, rock, neoclassical and folk idioms with surprising ease, delivering compositions uniquely his own. - Brooklyn Phoenix Eclectic, ironic, alternating thick textures with steady beats, occasionally as classical, rock, disco or jazz...Mr. Gordon brings the street into the opera house. - The New York Times Listening to the music of Peter Gordon...one has the sense of a musician tromping merrily through a field of daisies... music that touches a multitude of pop styles, from minimalism to big band jazz, with an irreverent insouciance...had the narrative momentum of an action movie. - New York Times Deconstructs the world to know it better - New Musical Express (UK) Gordon isn't afraid to write naive music, and he writes it well ...jaunty..well-orchestrated and tuneful. - Village Voice Imagine the Cat in the Hat on sax, playing compositional pranks on the history of European and Afro-American musical traditions, and you'll get a grip on the Gordon groove...Gordon reinvents music by making incongruous cliches harmoniously new again. Or he satisfies you with the familiar, then puts a spin on it to challenge your way of hearing. - Boston Phoenix Dance music hasn't been this intelligent since Duke Ellington was playing for the hoofers. - Downbeat Peter Gordon's Love of Life Orchestra is not a chamber ensemble, nor is it exactly a jazz band or a rock group; somehow it manages to be all three.... - The Washington Post

see also:

Peter Gordon discography

the yellow box -piano 504 

return to: piano catalogue