Born in London, Michael Zev Gordon is a composer of highly crafted, powerfully expressive works, writing for a wide range of genres. Influences from his wide range of teachers – Holloway, Knussen, Donatoni, Andriessen and Woolrich – have coalesced into a subtle, individual voice, characterized by richly varied musical colours, ideas and gestures – the tonal and atonal happily rub shoulders in his work – always at the service of larger goals. The relationship between lyrical, yearning lines and contemplative spaces is key to his music. Memory has been a recurring subject, and a number of his works have quoted fragments from the music of others.
Gordon’s music has been performed by many leading ensembles, including commissions for the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, London Sinfonietta and Britten Sinfonia. Soloists include Carolin Widmann, Huw Watkins, Nicholas Daniel, Toby Spence, Richard Watkins and Alina Ibragimova. He also enjoys writing for choir – involving among others the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, New London Chamber Choir and the BBC Singers – and has twice won the choral category of the British Composer Awards. The second of these was for Allele for 40 voices, a work written on the subject of genes, in collaboration with the poet Ruth Padel and scientists from King’s College London. Other awards include a Prix Italia for his radiophonic work A Pebble in the Pond, with the author Eva Hoffman; while On Memory, an NMC portrait disc of piano music, was in The Times top 10 contemporary CDs in 2009. A second portrait disc, of chamber music, on Resonus Classics, is due for release in 2018, and features the Fidelio Trio and clarinetist Julian Bliss.
Gordon is also strongly committed to working with students, amateur and younger players. He has led composition teaching on the Contemporary Music for Amateurs (CoMA) summer school, and has for three years been Director of the Cheltenham Festival of Music Composer Academy; Joshi’s Dance was included in the ABRSM grade 3 violin syllabus of 2012-15 and he has contributed to a number of other publications of music for amateurs, including Spectrum. Gordon has long taught composition in higher education – at the universities of Southampton and Durham, the Royal College of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music, and has also been invited to work with composers and performers in a number of institutions internationally, including Juilliard, Vanderbilt University and Antwerp Conservatorium. Since 2012, he has been Professor of Composition at the University of Birmingham.
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Q & A with Michael Zev Gordon
Set by Dan Goren
Tell me about the key formative moment(s) which switched on your creative drive.
A key moment for me, in terms of my love of music, was when my grandmother would come and sit with me at the piano on Sunday afternoons and I’d play to her. Her intense love of the Viennese classics made a real impression on a young boy from Wimbledon! Later at school, so did playing Stockhausen’s wind quintet Adieu (I played the oboe), thanks to a very enlightened music teacher, Noel Long. He was also the son-in-law of Ernest Read, the founder of those wonderful children’s concerts, from which I also benefited. Perhaps my own brand of creativity has been an odd sort of hybrid of these very diverse beginnings.
When composing, is it for an imagined audience, the performers or yourself?
I do care if someone listens! The musical shapes I make involve thinking deeply about leading the listener from one point to the next. It’s also paramount for me that composing is a practical act – I want to write for the performer, never against them. Yet first and foremost, composing is for me something intensely private, where I am both someone who makes and expresses. Finally, I’m the first listener – and judge.
Your instrumental writing is often suggestively lyrical, your titles poetic. Do you see your role as storyteller or perhaps creator of imaginary worlds?
I often think in terms of taking the listener on a kind of journey, especially from the familiar to the unfamiliar. The tools of story telling – developing musical character, building tension, subverting expectation, surprise – are part and parcel of my process of composition. There is a recurring pattern, too, in the way that my music often turns between the dramatic or passionate on the one hand and the contemplative on the other. Ideas to do with memory have also been part of my musical territory. But I don’t think of any of this as imaginary. If anything, I hope the products of my musical imagination lead the listener closer to different aspects of ‘reality’.
Vocal writing is clearly important to you having composed major commissions for music theatre, radio, solo voice and choir (secular and religious). It must hold a special place for you.
I don’t particularly feel myself to be a composer for voice; it feels quite strange that my two British Composer Awards have both been in the choral category. Nevertheless, texts are for me a powerful jumping off point for music, and the directness of the voice has immense expressive potency. There are many kinds of vocal expression, of course – and I’m as taken by the raw sound of folksong as the operatic. I like to think that my piece for the choir of King’s College Cambridge – which I was lucky enough to hear a lot when I was a student at King’s – is a bringing together of different kinds of approach to the voice. The English choral sound is at its heart; but the opening refrain is a quotation of music sung in Hebrew – that I once sung – by the youngest present at a Jewish Passover service. Later in the piece, the choir fragments into unsynchronized layering: conventional line is turned into modernist texture. I’ve done this sort of thing in a number of vocal works, including at the climax of my Allele for 40 voices. But the aim of this is not simply a sonic one. It’s to try to harness the expressive power that, I think, can arise when words (and their meanings) are transcended, and they merge into pure sound. It’s a pointer towards something beyond the everyday.
With so many extra musical influences from literature to science, to what extent does the work of other composers influence your composing?
I’ve been greatly influenced by other composers – and continue to be! It’s a truism, perhaps, but I believe that every piece of music is a kind of comment upon, or reaction to, another piece of music. So influence is inevitable. But also in my pieces, especially those to do with memory, I have explicitly borrowed from the music of others – quoting fragments of past works, and transforming them in different ways. Louis Andriessen and Elmer Schoenberger in The Apollonian Clockwork write tellingly about the composer who probably best exemplifies the difference between influence and borrowing, Stravinsky: one of my main influences.
You’ve spoken about the importance of working with amateurs, students and young players. What drives that, and how do you approach it?
The UK has a marvelous, long tradition of amateur and youth music-making. Not only that, but many contemporary composers in the UK have felt it fundamental to be part of that too. It’s so important to me that music-making is seen as a continuum, something inclusive and open to all. I think too that the more young and amateur players are engaged in contemporary classical music, the less likely they are to hear it as remote or difficult. I’m proud to have had a piece in the ABRSM Violin Grade 3 syllabus – which has had many more YouTube videos than any other piece of music of mine!
You’ve already composed works for a wide range of fine musicians, choirs and orchestras. What for you would be the ideal commission?
The ideal commission for me is not to do with size, genre or ensemble, but one where there is a real chance to develop relationships with performers; where there is time for the piece to progress and be revised during workshop sessions and take real root with multiple performances. Just think how many changes go into the evolution of stage-plays; how rare this is with contemporary classical music. Building relationships with performers also has to do with trust. Then, not only will the performer go the extra mile technically or expressively, but also, I believe, this can have a profound affect on the composition itself. This two-way process is rare, but so creative when it occurs.
How different (or not!) do you feel now to when you started your creative career?
When I started out in the late 1980s, difficult though it may seem now, there was still quite a hang-up for many as to what constituted being modern – I certainly felt it. When, in my mid-20s, I spent some time in mainland Europe, first studying with Donatoni in Italy, then Andriessen in Holland, I was flung between two strong and very different schools of thought. For a good while it was difficult for me to reconcile them. Slowly but surely, though – as modernism has, to a degree, given way to the postmodern– I developed my own path, my own individual choices and combinations: the tonal elided with the atonal; between Romantic striving and Feldman-inspired stasis; a continuing search for balance, often involving diverse materials or styles within one piece. These ideas are at the heart of my creativity today.