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Composer Michael Gordon to celebrate Miami Beach with New World Symphony premiere 

Thu Jan 22, 2015 at 2:16 pm

By Sarah Hucal

Michael Gordon's "El Sol Caliente" will receive its world premiere by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Jan. 30 and 31. Photo: Peter Sterling

Michael Gordon’s “El Sol Caliente” will receive its world premiere by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Jan. 30 and 31. Photo: Peter Sterling

Michael Gordon is still bombarded with visual memories of his Miami Beach childhood.

When the American composer grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the storefronts in the neighborhood where his Jewish grandmother lived still advertised in Yiddish. His rock band gave impromptu poolside concerts at fading Art Deco hotels, where he would pass around a hat for donations.

Yet, when composing El Sol Caliente, a music and film collaboration between Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison, the 58-year-old composer took his musical cues from the surrounding landscape. He contemplated the fragility of Miami Beach—how a tiny strip of land set out in the Atlantic could so easily be subject to the whims of Mother Nature.

“I remember as a kid going through several hurricanes, and afterward the entire street would just be covered in three to four feet of water,” said the Bang on a Can Festival co-founder, speaking from the Netherlands where he was attending performances of his music. “At that point you realize there’s really nothing separating us from this huge ocean,” he added. “I tried to musically capture that and it’s a very ephemeral thing to try to capture—the brightness of the sun and the stillness of the ocean.”

Audiences can judge for themselves when El Sol Caliente receives its world premiere January 30 and 31 with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the New World Symphony.

El Sol Caliente was inspired by the upcoming centennial celebration of Miami Beach at the end of March. It is the orchestra’s fourth annual “New Works” concert— a format dedicated to exposing audiences and symphony fellows to music by today’s finest composers. The 30-minute work was commissioned by MTT, New World’s artistic director and a committed champion of both living composers and interdisciplinary collaborations.

“We ultimately wanted to get to the point where the community would become excited about attending a performance, much in the same way that people are excited to attend art galleries to see what’s new,” said Tilson Thomas of the concerts’ conception. “When an art gallery opens, there’s often a feeling of ‘Who knows what we’re going to see, but it will be new, interesting and controversial’. And that’s what we’re aiming to do.”

Additional works on the program include Dispatches by Ted Hearne, the recipient of this season’s “New Voices” commissioning grant, and orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin of four songs from Tony Award-winner Bruce Hornsby’s SCKBSTRD.

The Yale-trained Gordon enjoys exploring the area between harmony and dissonance, and as a result, his work defies easy categorization. Instead, his rich musical language takes myriad forms—a nod to classical modernism here, traces of funk there, even, perhaps, a dash of minimal electronic worthy of a Berlin dance floor.

The performance will incorporate multimedia elements, something Tilson Thomas often utilizes at New World events. El Sol Caliente is equal parts film screening and concert event. The video is fashioned by Gordon’s longtime collaborative partner, avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison, best known for his work with vintage black and white footage in various stages of decay.

“We wanted to have this collaboration between visuals and music in a very different way than if you would go to the movies or to a music concert,” said Gordon of the inspiration behind his 15-year artistic collaboration with Morrison. “The end product creates an environment in which these two art forms that are going on simultaneously compliment each other, and don’t crowd each other out.”

As for the film itself, “We have the typical images you’d get over the years in Miami Beach,” said Morrison during a recent interview from his home in New York City. “Because as much as fashions change, people pretty much do the same thing here.”

Audiences, however, can expect more than shots of bikini-clad beauties. After sifting through hundreds of hours of archival footage at the Florida Moving Image Archives, among others, Morrison selected shots of the 1962 hurricane, Art Deco edifices on Ocean Drive, and G.I.s during World War II enjoying leisure time on the beach, among others. He has also shot original footage of Miami Beach today, including aerial views captured with the help of a drone helicopter.

Morrison and his crew have tailored a projection design specifically for the upcoming premiere at New World Center. In addition to displaying the film on a scrim above the orchestra, the images will also be projected onto the center’s five trapezoidal sail-like surfaces, ensuring that audiences are fully immersed in the city’s past, no matter where their gaze may wander.

The work is the third in a series of Gordon and Morrison’s “City Symphonies,” works that aim to capture the aura of cities in dynamic visual-aural fusions. The first was Gotham in 2004, an ode to NYC, the metropolis both artists currently call home. (The New World Symphony performed this vivacious and frenzied three-movement tone poem in 2009 at New York City’s Lincoln Center, and again in 2010 at the New World Center.) The second was Dystopia, a tribute to L.A., premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2008.

Gordon and Morrison first discovered their artistic affinity while working on another city-themed piece called City Walk in 1999. It was part of a chamber opera put on by Morrison’s Ridge Theater, and Gordon’s Bang on a Can collective, the award-winning contemporary classical music organization he co-founded 27 years ago with fellow composers Julia Woolfe, his wife, and David Lang. “Strangely enough, we had never met or even talked about the piece,” said Gordon. “And we put it together in rehearsal and it worked amazingly well.” Thus, a collaboration was born.

The duo has since created over a dozen works, which range from high-energy chamber pieces to a large amplified work for full orchestra. Their best-known opus is Decasia, an hour-long pastiche of damaged silent film set to Gordon’s dark-hued score—a decaying symphony if there ever was one. Conceived as a non-animated counterpart to Disney’s Fantasia, the 2001 work is perhaps its antithesis—deteriorating celluloid reels in black and white are woven together in a delirium of degeneration. It was the first film in 2014 to be admitted into the National Film Registry for preservation.

Their respective art forms seem to have a natural congruence, although the men work almost entirely autonomously. Gordon first composes the music then passes it to Morrison, who imbues it with visual verve. Typically, Gordon will not have seen the finished product until shortly before its premiere. “At this point we don’t even need to have that many meetings,” said Morrison of their collaborative style. “We just typically get lunch at a Chinatown vegetarian restaurant once or twice a year.”

El Sol Caliente is rife with personal significance for Gordon, whose family moved to Miami Beach from Nicaragua when he was 8. He was born in the city, although most of his family was still living in Managua at the time.

“There are a lot of emotional factors tied to the piece and to thinking about writing this music, and what my feeling was about growing up there,” he shared. One key musical influence was his Juilliard-trained piano teacher, Florence Kutzen, who he said, “always had very high standards, and a really idealistic and lofty vision for music.” Judy Drucker’s Concert Association of Florida events also had a huge impact on the teenage musician. (Gordon attended South Beach High with the impresaria’s son.)  “There wouldn’t have been any [local classical] concerts if she hadn’t done that,” the composer said.

A pivotal moment in his early career came during his junior year, when the strings teacher at Beach High, James McCall, allowed him to compose a piece for the orchestra, on the condition that he conduct it, too. “That was a great experience to have when you’re in 11th grade,” said the composer, expressing gratitude for the ample music program at Beach High and those who supported his nascent efforts.

As a Miami Beach adolescent in the 1970’s, Gordon describes the feeling of growing up culturally “almost in semi-isolation,” compared to his peers who came of age in New York City. One source of the outside world and contemporary classical music took the form of three small bins of works by living composers, titled “The New Music” at Spec’s Records and Tapes store in Coral Gables. Although he wasn’t yet old enough to drive, he would visit whenever he could convince his older sister to give him a lift. “I would buy a few and listen to them maybe a hundred times, then go back and get some more,” said the composer.

For Gordon, the founding of the New World Symphony in 1987 and the subsequent opening of the New World Center in 2011 brings a kind of personal closing of the musical circle.

“It’s fantastic for new classical music and living composers,” said Gordon of New World Symphony and its high-tech Miami Beach home. “Where there was nothing, there is now very much something.

“It’s a beautiful, fragile, lovely spot on the planet. I wanted to capture the feeling of that.”

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the world premieres of Michael Gordon’s El Sol Caliente and Ted Hearne’s Dispatches, along with new orchestrations of Bruce Hornsby’s Four Songs from SCKBSTRD with Hornsby as soloist 7:30 p.m. January 30 and 31 at New World Center. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.

Sarah Hucal is a freelance journalist based in New York and Berlin. After training as a classical singer and performing in opera choruses in Berlin and Bayreuth, she turned to journalism and has since written about culture, politics and many things in between for publications such as Time Out New York, Metropolis Magazine, the New York Observer, and The Local in Germany.

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