Bric-A-Brac: Fanfare

This is the second volume of songs written and sung by Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956). I reviewed #1 in Fanfare 34:2, and I won’t go into as much detail here, as my opinion remains largely the same (very positive), though perhaps aspects thereof have deepened with sustained encounter.

Gordon is prodigiously talented. In this collection I found myself even more struck by the combination of lyric grace with harmonic invention that makes his songs quite memorable, and often bittersweet (I found myself thinking at times of an updated Rodgers & Hart). I hasten to add that not all the songs’ lyrics are original. Gordon has a keen eye and ear for lyrics by poets like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Dorothy Parker, whose sharp metric and rhyming sense cry out for music.

Several songs stick in my memory. In particular: "My Mother is a Singer," a poignant paea love- to the composer’s mother and her sacrifices; "The Different Albertines", an extended number from a Proust musical (written with Richard Nelson) that evokes late 19th century French music artfully, and without quotation or facile imitation; and "We Will Always Walk Together", a love-hymn written in honor of his partner Jeffrey Michael Grossi, who died of AIDS in the late 1990s. Gordon is an unabashed romantic, and what in other hands could easily become mawkish or pandering in his I can find inspiring, even transcendent. (I’ve found myself thinking about the fact that so many great American love songs come from gay composers, and the old saw that perhaps their sense of passionate yearning comes from the "impossible" nature of homosexual love. Even if there were something to this, it seems ever less relevant or even possible, as increasing numbers of heterosexual relationships are based on bonds other than procreation, and simultaneously increasing numbers of gay unions include children. Gordon’s open sexuality doesn’t in any way compromise the power or universality of these songs’ message.)

For the record, Gordon’s voice is not the sort of music theater instrument many will be used to. It’s pleasing and naturalistic, and he’s got a great ear for diction and delivery. But it can be a little ragged towards the top, and there can be some intonation issues in that region as well. For me this is well worth the price of authenticity it bequeaths on the production, and the issues above for me are minor. But some purists may take offense. You know who you are.

Gordon is firmly in two camps–that of American music theater, and of the American tonal art song. In the latter, there are several for which I could just press the "infinite repeat" button, examples being Rorem’s "The Lordly Hudson", Carter’s "Voyage", and Bernstein’s "There is a Garden". I’m not sure if Gordon’s work on this disc rises to that bar, but it’s close. The one composer of his generation to whom I’m finding I now regularly compare him is John Musto, who comes more from the classical side, while Gordon is more from music theater. But they both project an enviable combination of music talent with a deep humanistic compassion for their subjects, which makes what they express valuable to us all.

– Robert Carl, Fanfare