A New Choral Work by Michael Gordon

By · Title Image Michael Gordon on Desbrosses Street, 1981 · Date 06/15/2017

Shortly after 10 a.m. on the morning of Monday April 24, 1865, a ferry set out across the Hudson River from a landing in Jersey City. Bedecked with symbols of patriotism and mourning, it held the corpse of the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, en route from the place of his death in Washington D.C. to his ultimate resting place in Springfield, Illinois. Rather than take the most direct route, the funeral train wound through the five most populous Northern states, making numerous stops to allow mourners to come and pay their respects. When the ferry landed on the east bank of the Hudson, somber crowds filled the roadways to watch as the casket was transferred to an ornate hearse that set out for City Hall in Manhattan. The horses pulled the funerary carriage away from the ferry landing and down the first leg towards the heart of the city: Desbrosses Street, the background subject of a new choral work by Michael Gordon.

The funeral procession for President Lincoln in Albany, New York, on April 26, 1865 • Photo Public Domain
The funeral procession for President Lincoln in Albany, New York, on April 26, 1865 • Photo Public Domain

There were no crowds lining Desbrosses Street when I went to visit Gordon a few weeks ago to talk about “Anonymous Man,” the piece he is writing for the Philadelphia-based choir The Crossing. A sleepy cobblestone lane near the northern end of Tribeca, it would be easy to believe that nothing much of interest had ever happened there, but Gordon, who has lived in his apartment there since 1981, believes he can feel its past all the same. “This particular little corridor of space—which is called Desbrosses Street—has been the host of things. They leave an impression, or they form the character, or the soul of the street, if a street has a soul.” Gordon is a reserved, soft-spoken man who often paused between sentences to gather his thoughts when answering my questions. “I find it chilling to think that if it were 1865,” he said, turning to look out the window by his piano, “we would be looking out at Lincoln’s body being pulled down the street.”

All of this is not to say that the piece is solely focused on  Lincoln’s funeral train or the events of these few blocks that you can find in a history textbook. If it’s a history, it’s a personal history. “The piece is kind of a memoir, a sliver of time, a slice of my life,” Gordon explained, and later connected this to his approach to writing for choir. “Singing is very direct. When you’re working with instrumental music, it’s more abstract—it’s easier to hide. It’s harder to hide when you’re writing for vocalists. You have to face some pretty deep things about yourself.” While much of his previous choral music has been written about things in New York City—“Every Stop On The F Train” sets a list of stops along one subway service, and “Great Trees” takes its text from an New York Parks Department website—“Anonymous Man” zooms in to focus more narrowly on the blocks he calls home. “My city is this street.”

Donald Nally conducts The Crossing • Photo © Becky Oehlers
Donald Nally conducts The Crossing • Photo © Becky Oehlers

The work reflects the personal tenor of the subject matter. “Anonymous Man” is divided into nine movements, and seven of them are told in the first person from Gordon’s own perspective. (Gordon wrote the text as well as the music.) Of the remaining two, one is an aphoristic introduction, and the other is a detached narrative of Lincoln’s funeral procession. This narration immediately follows an account of the impromptu memorial for Larry, one of two homeless men on Desbrosses Street that Gordon writes about in the work. When Larry died in 2007, residents of Desbrosses Street brought flowers and other trinkets to the ledge where Larry normally slept. “When someone lives on the street [outside your building], you see them all the time, but you don’t realize that everybody sees them all the time. So it was shocking to see that there was all of this concern for this man who was really on the fringe of existence.”

By juxtaposing the account of Larry’s unplanned memorial with Lincoln’s orchestrated procession, is Gordon trying to lead the audience to a point about the continuing disparities between the poor in one of the wealthiest cities in the world? He seemed hesitant to make such a claim. In the past, Gordon has expressed doubts about the possibility of using music for political ends, and those doubts were in the air for this piece as well. “I think [the piece] does draw attention to the issue of homelessness. Is it trying to? I’m not sure I can answer that question. I don’t think you’re going to walk out at the end of this piece and not have some kind of feeling about it.” But a feeling may well be all you have—the piece does not attempt to illuminate the systemic causes of homelessness in the contemporary United States, nor does it seek to offer any solutions to the problem.

This understated approach to political artwork is one that has echoes in the philosophy of Donald Nally, the director of the choir The Crossing. Unlike Gordon, Nally is voluble and up-front, talking with his hands almost as though trying to conduct the flow of the conversation like a piece of music in rehearsal. “I like to tell stories with our artists and our audience over broader spans of time—over an entire concert or an entire season,” he said, explaining how he chooses works to program for the group and how he approaches commissions. “Anonymous Man” grew out of a discussion of diaspora and all its various forms. Nally clarified that it was “all kinds of diasporae: refugeeism, homelessness, displaced communities of any kind, and also our own inner diaspora in terms of our feeling of connectivity or separateness.” Several years ago, Nally did a project with The Crossing about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that tried to show “how human relationships are a metaphor for how we listen to the earth,” seeking less to elucidate the forces shaping the disaster and our responses to it, and more to engage with the elusive philosophical questions that relate to it.

 Photo © Becky Oehlers
 Photo © Becky Oehlers

“Anonymous Man” is an hour-long contemporary a cappella choir piece, and there aren’t many of those, especially not for 24 voices. “There isn’t really a model for a group like this,” Nally acknowledged, “Everything we do is a risk.” To help mitigate that risk somewhat, Gordon came down for two workshops on early drafts of the piece, one in Philadelphia and one at Northwestern University, where Nally is the director of choral organizations. “Both workshops were really fun and interesting—it’s fascinating to look at what he kept from the music in the workshop and what he didn’t,” Nally said.

For his part, Gordon appreciated the opportunity to work directly with the choir as well. “One of the things I was working on with Donald was how the singers were placed and how the sound moved in the room.” He said that over the last 10 years or so, he’s become interested in “an architectural setting of sound,” pieces where sound itself “builds a dimension in the space.” He continued, “I’ve discovered a bunch of things that I’m excited about. You may hear some things that don’t sound like a typical chorus. In the process of experimenting and workshopping, we got into some very cool things.” A fitting irony: “Anonymous Man” devotes much time to the deaths and endings that Desbrosses Street has seen; it also brings life to something new. ¶

“Anonymous Man” will premiere on Saturday, July 1 at 8:00 p.m. in the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia.