Interview & Review by Colin Clarke
The Cello as Narrator: Composer Geoffrey Gordon’s Meditations on Thomas Mann, Shakespeare, and Keats
By Colin Clarke
A new disc for the Swedish record company BIS brings the composer Geoffrey Gordon to our attention. The superb Danish cellist Toke Møldrup is the unifying factor between the three differently scored works. The disc is fascinating in many ways, but particularly noteworthy in that each piece has a distinct inspiration from a different source: Thomas Mann, Shakespeare, and Keats.
What brought you to composition?
Mozart. And the Beatles. And Monteverdi, and Benjamin Britten. And Charlie Mingus. And a million other influences. And a desire to make things out of sound. I have been drawn to composition forever. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing.
You grew up in New York, but you’re now UK-based. And you won the Mario Merz Prize in 2019.
Right. I grew up on the U.S. East Coast, primarily, although I travelled a lot as a kid. My Dad worked for General Motors and we were often on the move. Now, I split time between the U.S. and the UK. I did win the Merz Prize last year, and I have also received the Aaron Copland Award and was a finalist this past year for the Krzysztof Penderecki International Composers Competition Award, among others. I’ve been very fortunate to have lots of support throughout my career.
The tagline for the promo material for this disc is “Keats, Shakespeare and Thomas Mann as told by a cello”—do you see the cello as a narrator? Or as a poetic hero of some sort?
Yes, in the broadest sense—the cello, on this disc, is a means through which to explore some extraordinary poetry and narrative.
The concerto was written for Toke Møldrop of the Copenhagen Philharmonic, and commissioned by that orchestra. (I take it that’s also how the BIS recording came about.) It would be lovely to look at the collaborative aspect. First of all, how did Møldrop’s playing shape or influence your writing in the concerto? But also, how did his character as a musician and as a person influence your writing?
Toke and I made an immediate connection around the proposal for a cello concerto commission from the Copenhagen Philharmonic. We both loved the Thomas Mann version of the Faust legend, and the collaboration was so easy and natural—I knew very early on that we were well matched artistically. He can—and will! —play anything. His playing is expressive and fearless, and I was drawn to that. It is very liberating for a composer to work with a musician who will realize every imaginable phrase and gesture, who will give his heart and soul to a piece. Toke did that. It was a fundamental influence on my writing of these works, no doubt.
The concerto is cast in nine movements and lasts 24 minutes—one minute for each of Faust’s 24 years of genius granted in his pact. There are moments that are so beautiful, so rarefied. There’s a freshness to how you use simple gestures such as ascending scales to great effect. There is tremendous power here, in that duet with solo violin! Are there any more examples of numerology/mathematical links involved in the process?
There is a lot of math in this work! But of course the key is to make the math equal music, and not the other way around. So wherever there is math—and it’s everywhere here—it must be at the service of the music. In that sense, it should be invisible to the listener. There is considerable counterpoint in this work—as in the ascending scales you referenced—and I find that this is one way that the numbers can be transformed into sound.
Can you explain the reference to Dürer’s “Melancolia” magic square? It’s found in the upper corner of a Dürer engraving—the magic constant is 34 (I’m imagining a 3 + 4 = 7 as a mystical number thing going on here, but I may well be wrong!). Again, does this have to do with your compositional processes? And how does the engraving itself reflect the trajectory of your piece at that point?
I did absolutely incorporate those magic square numbers into the music, in all sorts of ways. The Dürer movement is indeed in 7/8, in a 3 + 4 configuration. (So, well-spotted, you!) It is a mystical numerological equation that inspires the music of this movement, making these phrases a part of that magical square. The 3 against 4 patterns appear throughout this movement, and the numbers in the square—without giving away too much!—appear in guises throughout the movement as well, and in many combinations. This, I must say (working out these numbers and phrases) is one of the great joys of composition.
It seems clear you find these ideas stimulating rather than restrictive in a creative sense. Would that be fair?
I find these ideas both stimulating and constraining. It’s the constraint that bleeds out the best music, I think.
External influences seem important to you. (I notice that there’s a piece for bass clarinet and orchestra, Prometheus, that was performed by the Philharmonia and is inspired by Kafka, or another example is Saint Blue, a concerto for piano, trumpet, and strings after Kandinsky which has been recorded by Signum Classics.) Has that always been so, that something external has sparked your inspiration?
I do love art in all its incarnations, and as a result much of my work has an external influence of some kind. I love feeling that I am interacting with these amazing masterworks, even for a short time. I’ve written music inspired by the sculptures of Giacometti and Calder; the poetry of Ted Hughes and (Mahler’s favorite poet) Friedrich Rückert; the paintings of Vilhelm Hammershøi and Andy Warhol. It continues to be one of the absolute perks of my job.
A storm of questions about a tempest now. The six movements of Fathoms all have quotes associated with them from Shakespeare’s The Tempest as well as individual titles. What is the appeal of The Tempest? How would you describe the shape of this piece structurally? Do you think of it as a sonata?
The Tempest is pure magic. I’ve always loved the play and felt transported by it. I wanted to bring that sensation to Fathoms. I remember Toke saying whenever he plays the piece he feels like he disappears into another world—which is glorious praise, frankly. I wouldn’t necessarily classify the work as a sonata, in the truest sense—not architecturally—but it was my intention to write a full-length chamber work for cello and piano that would follow in the tradition of the 19th-century model. (Not in terms of language, obviously, but in terms of gesture and scope and impact.)
In terms of the cello writing here (and elsewhere for that matter), what is your take on using extended techniques? For example, the last movement of Fathoms, “Prospero drowning,” has the cello tuning his/her string downward.
Well, I am always trying to extract as much from an instrument as I can, and, given the extraordinary abilities of the musicians I am lucky enough to work with, this often leads to what I hope are new sounds. Of course, this must always be at the service of the music. I am not a fan of effects for their own sake. But the chance to bring to life “a thousand twangling instruments” or the drowning of a book … extended techniques can be mysterious and magical.
Your choice of inspirations are the “big guns”—taking on Shakespeare, for example, must be daunting, even in a non-vocal setting. What determined the quotes you use in this piece?
I think less daunting and more thrilling, rewarding—a privilege. I chose the quotes that meant the most to me and which would provide the framework for a well-structured piece. I love how the quotes unfold and how they underline the music. It was important to me to match the language with sound, and in a small way, for the entire play to seem to be a part of the score. How can anyone read Shakespeare and not hear music?
There’s another link to idealized magic here in the gorgeous Keats setting—that seems to be the link between the pieces, from the conjuring of a demon (Mann) to the Keats via Shakespeare’s Tempest. Is this something that has always fascinated you? If so why do you think that is?
It does! And that is absolutely the ribbon that runs through this disc. Music is, by nature I think, a kind of magic—and its ability to reach into our souls and transform us has always drawn me in and “possessed” me, as it were. I cannot say why.
It’s a lovely, varied disc from the perspective of scoring. What’s next in terms of recording—and performances, for that matter?
Thank you! There are plans for a recording of Prometheus to be released—the recording with the Philharmonia, Martyn Brabbins and soloist Laurent Ben Slimane is already finished. And I must say it is stunning. We are currently in discussions with BIS and the orchestra on these plans. Other plans for future recordings are not far enough along to mention at this time, but they are ongoing. In terms of performance, pending the international situation, my Cello Concerto will receive its Asian premiere with the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, where Toke will be the soloist. Also, my Crucifixus for double choir and solo cello (also written and premiered by Toke) will receive its UK premiere as part of the Holy Week Festival in London, with the choir of Royal Holloway and conductor Rupert Gough (with cello soloist Graham Walker). In coming seasons, I will be writing a new English horn concerto for the Antwerp Symphony and its soloist, Dimitri Mestdag, a new clarinet concerto for the Bergen Philharmonic and soloist Christian Stene, as well as a new work for clarinet and chamber orchestra for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and its principal, Sang Yoon Kim, among other commissions. There are lots of additional things in the works which will be announced in the coming year —but I am pleased to be working with many of the finest orchestras in the world over the next several seasons. Also, the Japanese trombone soloist Yu Tamaki Hoso will be touring Japan in May with a new work he commissioned from me for tenor trombone and piano, called Vermilion—after a painting by Matisse. I am looking forward to that. And, in terms of recordings, I should mention that my work for soprano and solo cello, Harmonie – an Jenny, after a text by Karl Marx (yes, that Karl Marx), was released on the Coviello label earlier this year, featuring the superb Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, part of a project of works inspired by Marx.
Was there a change of program at one stage? The booklet for the St John’s Smith Square premiere of Fathoms refers to a BIS disc with Lorca Musica for solo cello on it with Fathoms plus the Cello Concerto—which would have made it an all-instrumental disc?
We were, at one point, considering including the Lorca, as Toke had been playing it in recitals, and it fit the original brief of a disc inspired by literature. But when the opportunity to set the Keats came to fruition, I felt very strongly that this work must be included instead. Also, as the three works now on this disc were commissioned for and/or by Toke (and the Lorca was not), we all felt it was best to frame the disc as we have.
How about the actual recording itself? Were you present? The sound is, as always with BIS, excellent—are you involved in the choosing of perspectives, etc.?
I was “present” via remote access, as my schedule did not allow me to be in Copenhagen for the recording sessions. But I was deeply involved, and because everyone worked so hard to make it possible, I was able to hear every note of every take, and we went through a detailed editing and mixing process, which is always hugely instructive. Recording, as you know, is hard work! BIS has done a stunning job of maximizing every detail of the recordings. I agree the sound is superb.
And what are you writing at the moment? You seem quite prolific—in general, do you find composition flows from your pen and finds its way easily to your computer monitor, or do the pieces put up a struggle?
At the moment, I am finishing a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for choir and organ, which will have a UK premiere at some point in the not too distant future. After that, I will start Mad Song for the Antwerp Symphony, for their 2020–21 concert season. I am also writing a new saxophone concerto for the Grammy award-winning soloist Tim McAllister, as well as a new work for solo cello for the German cellist Benedict Kloeckner, which he will play in Berlin (Philharmonic Hall), Frankfurt (Alte Oper), and New York (Carnegie Hall) in coming seasons, as well as record on his next compact disc. New works for Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande—both amazing orchestras—will follow in 2021.
I am pleased to say I do not experience “writer’s block”—the work tends to come, one way or another. It is my experience that hard work always nets ... something.
I do want to direct people towards your website, geoffreygordoncomposer.com, as it contains a wealth of material, including huge amounts of both sound-only and video recordings. Would you like to say a bit about that? It’s the ideal supplement to the disc, if the listener is approaching you that way, or the ideal way to direct someone towards the BIS disc, if one is coming the other way!
Yes, please do direct everyone to my website—we work very hard to keep the content fresh and to provide a range of information, reviews, breaking news, as well as audio, video, etc. It is a way to stay in touch with everyone who is interested in my work. Instant Encore, which supports the site, is fabulous and makes the process very easy.
And finally, to your app (I used the Android version)—superb and intuitive, replete with info and easy to set up. Again, would you like to say a few words about your embracing of technology?
So, when I started writing professionally, I used a pencil and staff paper, and I steadfastly refused to consider software or anything that would take me away from the experience of putting notes on a page, in a line with the centuries of composers before me. That lasted a few years, and I have lots of manuscript scores to prove it. But it did dawn on me eventually that technology—from notational software to online apps—not only makes my job easier, and therefore makes me more productive, but it also connects me to colleagues and fans across the globe. There’s nothing like it. We are proud of the app and the website, and welcome everyone on board!
G. GORDON Cello Concerto (after Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus ) 1 . Fathoms 1 . Ode to a Nightingale 3 • Toke Møldrup (vc); 1 Lan Shui, 3 Mogens Dahl, cond; 1 Copenhagen P; 2 Steven Beck (pn); 3 Mogens Dahl C Ch • BIS 2330 (81:40)
A shared interest in Thomas Mann’s novel Doktor Faustus led to the composition of Geoffrey Gordon’s Cello Concerto. In the novel, a bargain is struck between the fictitious composer Adrian Leverkühn and the Devil in which the composer is granted 24 years of genius (as indicated in the interview above, this is reflected in the score’s 24 minutes of duration). The work is a Copenhagen Philharmonic commission for Toke Møldrup. The musical language seems uncompromising, but moments of magical (magickal) mystery are inevitably part of this mystical journey; the third movement, “Dürer’s Magic Square,” is simply beautiful in its frozen stasis. The ominous ascending lines in the orchestra of the fourth movement are separated from the “Magic Square” movement by a brilliantly delivered cadenza, and if anything, the second cadenza, between movements 4 and 5, is more impressive still in its expressive scope; there is not a note wasted in either of them. If one sees the movements as representatives of emotional states of the protagonist on his journey from innocence to madness, this presents a harrowing journey, with the Devil’s fiddle appearing as the solo violin in the final movement. An Epilogue offers hints of solace and peace, but with harp washes unsettled by bass rumblings and uncomfortable woodwind and wha-wha brass gestures. This is a magnificent concerto; one hopes it will join the repertoire. In terms of scope, one might perhaps make comparisons with Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto, “Tout un monde lointain …”; but Gordon’s voice is all his own.
Subtitled “Five Impressions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest,” Fathoms for cello and piano in fact begins with “Prelude and Storm,” preceded by the quotation “A most auspicious star.” There’s no missing the grumblings of the storm in the low registers of both instruments. (Listen to the presence of the recording: The clear placement of both instruments and the sheer visceral intensity of the performance is especially awe-inspiring on headphones.) The sheer lyricism of “Ferdinand and Miranda” is the closest Gordon comes to a Minimalist-tinged sense of nostalgia while, of course, the higher registers are used for “Ariel and all his quality”; the quote here is “To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride / On the curl’d clouds.” Steven Beck is a superb pianist, and his evenness of delivery in the piano part to this particular movement is incredible. The next movement, “Caliban (and Sycorax)” takes us from the air to the earth, an elemental polar opposite. The cello lumbers brilliantly and evocatively, although as the music becomes more animated there is a sort of dance that is a kind of parody of the lightness of Ariel. Super-high harmonics, impeccably controlled, open “The Isle of Noises,” which aptly includes knockings as well as rumblings and half-voiced glissandos before “Prospero drowns his book,” a heady number that occasionally threatens to burst into dance before refinding its core of fiery energy. That energy itself seems to wind down in the music’s final moments, with groaning low cello glissandos moving ever deeper.
The present performers premiered Fathoms in New York in December 2015. For the last piece, Ode to a Nightingale, its world premiere was broadcast live by Danish Radio; the performers were those on this disc. All credit is due to the Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir for its super diction in English, allowing us to relish the subtleties of Gordon’s writing, along with the more obvious word-paintings (“Lethe-wards had sunk” is a nice descent to the vocal, and cello, depths). The demands on the performers are many: The control of the sopranos at times is stunning, their lines always delivered with the utmost purity. (How well the high cello emerges from them in the sixth stanza!) Interactions between choir and cello are well considered, each having its own ruminative space, plus the cello acts as a connective inter-stanza thread, occasionally underlining the choir, as in the penultimate stanza. The choral setting enables an appreciation of Gordon’s harmonic world from a different sonic perspective: listen to the sheer sonic gold of the line “Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,” for example. This is a gorgeous setting of the Keats poem. The music resonates on within us after the sound has finished.
Expertly recorded in May 2018 at the Concert Hall of the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen by Viggo Mangor (who acted both as producer and as engineer), this is a magnificent offering. BIS’s recordings are notably consistent, but this one seems to go a touch further in its excellence; the clarity and warmth of the choir is especially notable. It is, though, Gordon’s music that lingers in the memory. Colin Clarke