Music For Writers: Michael Gordon’s Wild Ride Called ‘Dystopia’

Image - Peter Serling
Image – Peter Serling

No Brakes

Feeling a little sluggish on that work in progress? Struggling to get from the current chapter of your six-year marathon manuscript to something nearer, my God, to “The End”? You’re in luck.

Composer Michael Gordon’s new album Dystopia from Cantaloupe Music is here to shove you right to the last punctuation point.

And thanks to New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music — a 24-hour Internet stream of contemporary classical music — you can listen to what we’re talking about here as you read. The CD is the current Album of the Week entry at Q2 Music and thus part of our #MusicForWriters series here at Thought Catalog.

Under the direction of David Robertson, the LA Phil drives this thing home like a rubber-burning chase down the Sana Monica Freeway. And based on the composer’s notes, that’s exactly what Gordon wants:

The goal was to start at high speed and never slow down, like a ride down the freeway at 90 mph with few detours. Through the delirium of the ride the question arises: Is it beautiful or is it ugly?

I say beautiful. And by all means jump into the comments and tell me if I’m crazy.

This is not the piece for you if you’re revising that tender love scene — but that’s not to say that there are no quiet moments. There are, but they work like weird lay-bys strafed by careening headlight beams.

At eight minutes, 14 seconds into the piece, the bottom simply drops out, and suddenly you’re in a neighborhood you didn’t expect and have never seen. Harp and surreal chromatic shadows swing and sway in the strings, under a spooky bit of woodwind tick-tock, the whole sequence finally surfacing on massive bass undercurrents, menacing and majestic.

But when moving at full tilt, you may find yourself thinking of the “city music” of George Gershwin and others. You’re hearing bright flashes in the trumpets reflecting off stop-and-go glissandi in the lower horns. The strings rush up and down streets of chiming clamor and along wide avenues of sound, proud chords are held by warm brass amid siren-sprays of edgy piccolo.

What Gordon is doing here is part of a series of city-based compositions in cooperation with filmmaker Bill Morrison. Two other works are in the series to date, Gotham for New York and El Sol Caliente for Miami (where Gordon was in high school). You can hear and see another of the Gordon-Morrison collaborations, Dacasia — about the vulnerability of silent film — at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston on June 1.

What you get in Gordon’s Dystopia is almost touching, in a rambunctious, no-hands way. Writing about the piece, he concedes that many of his influences are so thoroughly spun together that you may not be picking them out as you listen:

I have slurred into a great blender disparate sounds taken from a palette that stretches from the Renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem to drum-and-bass (a ’90s dance music characterized by very rapid tempos). Don’t be disappointed if you don’t recognize any of these influences.

Not long after this live performance gets underway, you aren’t as worried about finding scraps of recognizable references along the roadside as you are in feeling the wind on your face. The work is a visceral, exuberant understanding of a great city absorbed in its gleaming life and unstinting energy.

In the commanding crush of the strings’ closing — such insistent, big moments — you hear something that sounds almost regal. A kind of dignity overtakes even “the delirium of the ride.”

Every population and urban culture has its glory, Gordon seems to be saying. And if speed and volume are the hallmarks of LA, then get out of the way: he’s coming through.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: Michael Gordon’s Wild Ride Called ‘Dystopia’

Originally published by Thought Catalog at


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