Michael GORDON (b. 1956)
Clouded Yellow (2010) [10:26]
Potassium (2000) [11:39]
The Sad Park (2005) [28:26]
Exalted (2010) [9:04]
Young People’s Chorus of New York City (Exalted)
rec. 2012, Studio Trilogy, San Francisco
CANTALOUPE MUSIC CA21140 [59:34]
The meeting of legendary Kronos Quartet and ground-breaking composer Michael Gordon has the feel of inevitability about it, but while both have been powerhouses in contemporary music from the 1980s onwards, it wasn’t until 2000 that Gordon wrote his first piece for string quartet, Potassium. Mutual respect and admiration has resulted in a productive collaboration, and this CD brings us the results.
Clouded Yellow uses a certain amount of electronic manipulation of the quartet sound, from the bird-like falling sounds in the opening and some textural effects later on, but the strings are distinctive enough. The ‘flying’ feel in the music relates to a title that refers to a species of butterfly that migrates to England.
Potassium takes some of its ‘blown-out’ sound from an earlier work, Industry for cello and electronics. The strings are sent though distortion filters in the opening, their downward and upward glissandi a heightened sequence of cadences that hold both angst and a counterbalancing sense of logical inevitability. At the halfway point a related but new energy starts up, with violin glissandi now fast and punchy over ostinato notes from viola and cello. This takes on a magical tonal aspect, out of which the opening glissando ‘theme’ emerges with new meaning. Too much beauty cannot be allowed to survive for long however, and the previous energy bursts in to deliver a spectacular coda, the final gesture of which is a kind of musical reaching for the skies.
The Sad Park is a legacy of the tragic events of 11th September 2001 when the World Trade Centre towers in New York were destroyed in that infamous terrorist attack. A recording is used of children’s voices from pre-school children who lived in the shadow of the towers, recounting what they had seen and experienced. In the first of four movements the voice is stretched into a haunting whale-song over which the quartet weaves chords in an ostinato rhythm. The second movement is partly fragmented, but its repetitions inspire a lyrical keening from the strings. The voice is given a momentary clarity on which the strings comment with related material out of which voices return with a rhythmic character that takes us into the third movement. The voices here are stretched beyond recognition, to my ears developing an introvert but everlasting cry. The final movement throws in extra effects for the quartet, an octave pedal adding extra bass and distortion turning the music into something akin to a weighty rock-band. The association with voices and string quartet takes us instantly to Different Trains by Steve Reich, and the one probably wouldn’t exist without the other, but Michael Gordon’s treatment is disturbing and personal – a highly effective expression of new life in the midst of horror and death.
Exalted for string quartet and choir is performed here with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, on whose website we are told that the text used is “the English translation of the first word of the Mourner’s Kaddish, one of the most important and central prayers in the Jewish liturgy written 2500 years ago in Aramaic, the language spoken at that time. The text of Exalted, a lament in memory of Mr. Gordon’s father, consists entirely of the Kaddish’s first four words–Yi-ga-dal, v’yis ka-dash, sh’may, and ra-bo.” This connects to each of the other pieces here for one reason or another, but in particular to The Sad Park as “it very much draws a line to the people who died in the towers.” This is a passionate lament, filled with a drive and energy that only lets up in the final dissolution into descending clusters in the voices.
This is a thought provoking release, but one that sees the Kronos Quartet still on top form, and Michael Gordon’s creativity very much an unstoppable force. Poetic, powerful and moving by turns, this is a release no self-respecting contemporary music fan should be without.