Opera News: High Scorers

Brian Kellow talks to the prolific, high-energy songwriter

One of today's busiest composers, Ricky Ian Gordon has never hewed to one particular style or school; his catholic tastes in music are reflected in the variegated fabric of his work, which includes influences ranging from Broadway to jazz to Elvis Presley. He also possesses a profound love and knowledge of poetry, but he doesn't favor an intellectual approach to songwriting; his music usually springs from a highly emotional response somewhere within, a lyrical impulse.

Gordon's many musical–theater works include Dream True and Stonewall/Night Variations (both with writer/director Tina Landau) and Only Heaven, to a libretto by one of his favorite poets, Langston Hughes. His first opera, The Tibetan Book of the Dead (text by Jean–Claude van Itallie), had its premiere at Houston Grand Opera and the American Music Theater Festival in 1996. The hectic pace of his career continues with commissions from Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera and the Joseph Papp Public Theater. On May 10, a new song cycle, Late Afternoon, set to poems of Jane Kenyon, Jean Valentine and Marie Howe, has its world premiere at Manhattan's Ninety–second Street Y.

Like some other leading young American songwriters, Gordon was born into show business: his mother, Eve Saunders, was a singer and Borscht Belt comedienne. ("She had the most beautiful voice I've ever heard," Gordon remembers.) One of his sisters, Susan Lydon, was a founding editor of Rolling Stone magazine. A book about the family, Home Fires, appeared in 1992.

Gordon is a study in perpetual motion. In fact, he seems to personify the term "high energy." Blessed with a restless, probing intellect, he shoots off in numerous conversational directions at once, always circling around his two favorite topics: music and poetry. He laughs easily and often, and he has a habit of grabbing your arm tightly in order to drive home a point.

RICKY IAN GORDON: My parents got [me] piano lessons pretty early –– at, like, five. And I could do a lot of stuff by ear. I had a friend, Peter Randsman, who's an agent now for opera singers, and we would go to each others' piano lessons. One day I went to his lesson, and there was a book on the shelf, The Victor Book of Opera. I took it off the shelf, and I swear to God, my life changed that day. I opened that book, and I became obsessed with opera. In sixth grade, my show–and–tell was Die Walküre.

I would be sleeping over at Peter's house, and he liked to have his room pitch–black at night, and I had to have a little light in the room because I was terrified of the dark. So I wanted to sleep near the wall, because it was safer, and I would say, "I'll let you have my Furtwängler Rheingold if you let me sleep by the wall." I mean, we were out of our minds, you know? My favorite pieces of music were Lulu and Vanessa. We were pretty nuts.

When I went to college, at Carnegie Mellon, I was a pianist, but I had a strange evolution as a musician, because I never really cared to learn a piece to perfection, which other people thought undisciplined. I would take [a score by] Messiaen out of the library, and I'd want to know what he was doing. Then I'd look at Hindemith and Milhaud and Barber. Mostly I only cared about twentieth–century music.

So after one semester of being a pianist, it hit me –– "I never want to be in a practice room practicing a Chopin ballade until I can get it right. There are a million pianists doing this." It dawned on me –– "I'm a composer." I found out what you have to do to become a [composition student], and in three weeks I wrote all the music, and I got in [at Carnegie Mellon]. It was like I walked into my own light. I walked into my own identity as an artist. Suddenly I was who I was always supposed to be.

I stayed at Carnegie Mellon for two and a half years. I made one turn that was important for me, which is that I became an actor. At the time, Carnegie Mellon was known as the best drama school. Suddenly I was in the drama department, writing music for the productions, and acting, and I really think it has a lot to do with –– you know, songs to me are theater. Every song is a play, you know? I'm actually stunned at people who write the music first and then find where the poem goes.

OPERA NEWS: What's the first poem you ever set?
RIG: I was fourteen, and my parents were trying to sell the house, and we were going to move to a boatyard. There was a magazine that was very big during that period called Avant–Garde, and my sister Susan wrote for it. There was a poem [in one issue] about a girl who shoots heroin, and it's the most harrowing poem –– about needle marks and heroin addiction and living on the streets –– and I set it to music for my first art song. And you know, because my mother is a Jewish mother, she's proud of every move I make. This nice, quiet Catholic couple, the McCaffreys, were looking at our house, and my mother said, "Play them your song." I played them this song, and we never heard from them again. My first "official" poetry setting was W. H. Auden's "Stop All the Clocks." Actually, I have two settings of that now.

ON: Was there any pattern of choosing the poems you set?
RIG: Yes. When my sister Susan would put me to bed at night, she would read me poetry. I got so I could say a lot of "The Ballad of the Harp Weaver" by heart, 'cause I'd make her read it to me every night. I love American poets, primarily poets of the twentieth century. This is an incredible country for poetry.

ON: What about Yeats? I'm always surprised that more composers don't set his poems.
RIG: I did "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." I'm really proud of that song. The only thing I can say about why more people haven't set Yeats is that the language is so exquisite –– there's so much music in the words –– that you almost feel like it doesn't need music at all.

ON: One of your most famous songs is Dickinson's "Will There Really Be a Morning?," which Renée Fleming sang so beautifully at her Carnegie Hall recital last year. [Gordon has subsequently written a Dickinson cycle for Fleming called "Too Few the Mornings Be."] And I know that Lauren Flanigan has sung it, and many other singers, too. So many people have tried to set that one, but yours is marvelous. Tell me how your version came about.
RIG: Well, there was this movie, Frances [a biography of the ill–starred actress Frances Farmer, starring Jessica Lange], that came out in the early '80s. It flipped me out. I was so upset by it. I became obsessed with Frances Farmer, and I was reading about her, and I found her autobiography, and it was called Will There Really Be a Morning? It was as if I had turned into Frances Farmer. I wrote that setting of that song from a place as if my world had been decimated, as if I was really asking that question.

I'd have to say that in terms of any kind of intellectual process –– that's just not for me. Some composers, like John Corigliano, plan the architecture of a piece. On a bigger piece you have to do that. But with a song, a lot of times, it's like I become emotionally ready to write it, and it explodes out of me. I don't know how any composer could not believe in God or grace, because frankly, it's like you have your life, and all of a sudden you are in the right place at the right moment, and something comes through that taps into your own field of experience.

ON: How did Dream True come about?
RIG: I wrote a song called "We Will Always Walk Together." Jeffrey [Gordon's longtime lover, actor/writer/director Jeffrey Michael Grossi, who died of AIDS in 1996] was in the hospital, and it was the end, and I had to write something to comfort us both, because it was the worst. And I sang it at Symphony Space [at a posthumous birthday tribute to Grossi] on March 10, 1997. Tina Landau came backstage afterwards and said, "I have an opportunity to go to Duke University for three weeks, and I want to create a new piece with you, and I want it to be based on that song."

Do you know about the piece I did for Houston Grand Opera, The Tibetan Book of the Dead? It happened because David Gockley came to visit me in New York, and we were sitting around at Café Mozart, just talking about our lives. I happened to tell him that Jeffrey had just had his first bout of pneumonia, and he had asked me to read The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to help him die. He wanted me to learn Buddhist teachings, because that is how he wanted to leave the world. I told David Gockley that, and he said, "Ricky, I think that's what you should write an opera about." And a light bulb went off in me: "Write about your life, make your art the necessity of the moment." I wrote it, orchestrated it, and it had its premiere. Suddenly our lives, Jeffrey's and mine, were inundated with Buddhism. He died when he was thirty–two. I'm fortythree, and I'm still slowly finding myself, inch by inch. This was a beautiful human being who had enormous gifts in every direction….

I'll tell you one interesting thing. When Dream True closed, in May 1999, I got really depressed –– that kind of crippling, you–can't–move depression. Now, I feel like I need to go back to the world, I need to create new experiences for myself. I feel new language flurrying and bubbling in me. I feel drawn in new directions, toward new writers. It's all sort of strange and exciting and scary.

ON: Is there a particular key that you find yourself gravitating to over and over again?
RIG: I know that Britten, for one, was very architectural about the keys, even. For me –– well, I'll hear it in a key, but I'm writing for Lorraine Hunt [Lieberson], say. I will have to write it in the key I hear it in, then bring it down for Lorraine. Another thing that happens to me –– I start setting a poem to music, and midway through, something in me thinks it's wrong, and I have to see it all the way through. I have to finish it and play it for twenty people until I finally just say, "Ricky, it's not right." Then I write another one.

ON: You have so much poetry running through your head all the time. You must spend an enormous amount of time just reading.
RIG: Yeah. I'm someone with attention deficit disorder, and so I'll be writing and then I'll have to go read, and then I'll have to make a phone call, and then I'm in the kitchen making coffee. That's why it's scared me to go to an artist colony. I've never been to one. I get a lot done almost because of distraction. A lot of the time, I'm working on one poem, and I'm obsessively memorizing it and going through it in my head. I have one poem that I have in my head right now. It's Jane Kenyon's "Peonies at Dusk." Can I say it to you?

White peonies blooming along the porch
send out light
while the rest of the yard grows dim.
Outrageous flowers as big as human heads!
They're staggered by their own luxuriance:
I had to prop them up with stakes and twine.
The moist air intensifies their scent
and the moon moves around the barn,
to find out what it's coming from.
In this darkening June evening,
I draw a blossom near, and bending close,
search it as a woman searches a loved one's face.

Isn't that unbelievable? I just set it to music. I mean, this is a woman dying, who writes that first line, "White peonies blooming along the porch send out light while the rest of the yard grows dim." This song has a prelude and a postlude. The poem sits on top of this serene, sad waltz. I was in such a place when I wrote it. I couldn't help it.

– Brian Kellow, Opera News, April 2000