Newsday: Tibetan Book of the Dead

Ricky Ian Gordon is working hard to catch up to his own celebrity.

At 40, he has been a professional composer for years, and his songs have been performed by stars as luminous and disparate as Andrea Marcovicci and Renee Fleming. Even so, thousands of people who have never heard a note of the grown-up Gordon’s music know of little Ricky’s skill with a jumprope. They know that he once drilled a peephole in his bedroom wall so he could watch his sisters undress, that, as a young dandy, he spent many hours agonizing over the choice of a suit, that he played the piano with crystals arrayed in front of him so that they pointed to his heart.

Gordon’s life went public in 1992, when author Donald Katz published "Home Fires," a family chronicle that begins just after World War II, when a G.I. named Samuel Goldenberg returned to the Bronx after his discharge. The book follows Sam, his wife Eve and their children (their last name now sanitized to Gordon) to Harbor Isle in the 1950’s, one of the many American suburban paradises that were still under construction. Over the next few decades, as the Gordon siblings careened through fads, religions, movements, and addictions, the family became a microcosm of the country.

The book is an irresistible mix of social history and gossip and Ricky Gordon is a vivid literary character – which makes meeting him for the first time an oddly familiar experience. "You know what my father’s like," he offers in the middle of an anecdote, and, without ever having laid eyes on him, I can picture the gruff, hard-working Sam, befuddled by his children’s perpetual cycle of drama.

The drama has not slowed with the publication of the book, and Gordon seems to thrive on it. As he narrates the genesis of his new opera "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," which had its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera this month before moving to Philadelphia last week, Gordon brims with vitality. "I was planning to write an opera about addiction and obsession," he recounts sunnily. In the end, he chose an even darker topic: "Death has become so much a part of my life," he says, with no perceptible dip in enthusiasm.

Gordon is trim to the point of boniness, but he is positively fleshy compared to his companion, Jeffrey Grossi, whose body has been eroded by AIDS. Grossi, 31 and painfully frail, traveled to Houston for the premiere of "Tibetan Book," then got too sick to attend. He appeared instead in Philadelphia, wearing a surgical mask against the air’s myriad allergens, which can make him cough to the point of exhaustion.

It was Grossi who, after his first, nearly fatal, bout with pneumonia a year ago, insisted that Gordon read "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," a guide for Westerners by the Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. "He wanted me to help him but he felt I didn’t know how," Gordon says. The composer has learned a lot since then: about taking care of someone, about death, about Tibetan Buddhism – and about getting an opera through from concept to production in a little over a year.

Privacy may be a foreign concept to Gordon — "Home Fires" is, in a sense, literature for the Oprah Age, an extended group confessional — but there is nothing intimate, or even particularly personal, about "The Tibetan Book of the Dead." Gordon made the central character of The Dying One a soprano, partly to distance the work from Grossi and himself "I didn’t want to draw the parallel so closely to AIDS; I wanted it to feel universal." The opera, based on a play by Jean-Claude Van Itallie that serves as the libretto, has a consoling message: that dying is not final, but the beginning of a spiritual journey.

Such serenity, however, does not come naturally to Gordon. His own spiritual quest has always been restless and highly experimental. Even now, he stresses, he is more of an interested dabbler than an acolyte After explaining that in his first encounter with Buddhist meditation, he "had a real God experience," he asks for my birthdate, does some quick calculations on his fingers and announces that I am, numerologically speaking, "an eight." "You like your life to be in balance," he explains.

His musical style is anything but transcendental. While the text of the opera invokes abstractions ("Before you is mind, open and wide as space," a nameless character tells The Dying One), the composer, one of the few who genuinely straddles the worlds of popular and classical music, cannot resist excursions into jauntier, familiar idioms: a bluesy moan here, a stride bass there.

There is some historical justification for Gordon’s eclecticism: "As Buddhism spread throughout India and Japan, it absorbed the local vernacular," the playwright Van Itallie told the audience after the Philadelphia performance. "Now the same thing is happening in the West."

To Gordon, though, the rubbing together of traditions amounts to a sort of credo, a working-out of the twin loves of his childhood: Joni Mitchell and opera. "How does one fake one’s influences? We are our influences. ‘Here, There, and Everywhere’ is as beautiful a song as anything Schubert ever wrote and it’s not less of a song because Paul McCartney wrote it."

Vocal music has been the one consistent object of Gordon’s affections over the years. His mother, Eve, is an amateur singer, and Ricky did his sixth grade project on Wagner’s "Die Walküre (which he called "De Walker"). "I want to write many huge operas," he says expansively. "And big Broadway musicals."

In the meantime, though, he must take care of Grossi, whose plans for the future consist primarily of surviving. "I used to have a lot of dreams and ambitions," Grossi says with difficulty during an early morning telephone call – before his chronic cough prevents him from talking at all. ". I lost them when I got ill. So I’m living them vicariously through Ricky. I feel strongly a part of that."

– Justin Davidson, Newsday, November 2015