Opera News: The Lonely Hunter

Marie Howe is one of Ricky Ian Gordon's favorite poets, and it is tempting to look on one particular work of hers as a metaphor for the composer's entire existence. It's a poem called "Prayer," which Gordon has set to music, and one haunting section halfway through leaps out:

This is the way it is,
the way it always was and will be –
beaten over and over – panicking on
street corners,
or crouched in the back of taxicabs,
afraid I'll cry out in jammed traffic, and
no one will know me or
know where to bring me.

There is, I almost remember,
another story:

It runs alongside this one like a brook beside a train.
The sparrows know it; the grass rises with it.
The wind moves through the highest tree branches without
seeming to hurt them.

Lillian Hellman's memorable description of her friend Dorothy Parker as "a tangled fishnet of contradictions" could probably be applied to most of us, but unquestionably it provides an apt description of Ricky Ian Gordon. Although his private life has been in many ways a chaotic patchwork of conflict and loss, in person, there is nothing self-consciously serious about him. He is buoyant, spilling over with energy and enthusiasm about all his composing projects, past and present. He laughs easily and often, and his mind swims with associations, allusions, stretches of poetry, his favorite musical passages; as our conversation shoots off in a dozen different directions, his eyes widen, and he exclaims, "You know what this reminds me of?" and recites a lengthy passage from one of his great literary passions, the poet Frank Bidart. He seems to embrace his creative life with complete abandon, and that's how his music sounds: there is a freedom and grace about it that suggest that it came forth naturally, without an enormous amount of strain on his part.

Sitting in his large apartment near Lincoln Center, Gordon seems the perennial, bright-eyed student in a bright-eyed student's apartment. It's a charming place, full of furniture he's put his own stamp on by painting it brilliant shades of green and yellow and coral. A Duncan Hanna painting of a naked boy and a horse hangs over his composing desk. There are shelves of poetry volumes and fraying Persian rugs. No artist's abode could be more inviting.

Gordon allows that writing is not difficult for him but adds a disclaimer: "One of the reasons I write really early in the morning," he says, "is because I have to, before I'm besieged by demons. I have to get myself in a good state of mind and do my work, because everything hurts me and upsets me. The world upsets me. I also feel utterly filled with joy by the world as well. But I take it all in. When I started putting work out, I was like a little kid who was excited and wanted to say, 'Look what I made.' I still feel like that."

At the moment, what he's made is his first full-length opera. The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, will be given its world premiere by Minnesota Opera in February. The commission is shared with the Utah Symphony & Opera, with Pittsburgh Opera and Houston Grand Opera signed on as coproducers. (Tulsa Opera was initially interested in joining the consortium, and Grapes seemed an ideal project for Oklahoma's centennial in 2007, but the company's board of directors, wanting to distance itself from the theme of Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, vetoed it.)

Gordon has traditionally worked on the smaller canvas of songs and chamber pieces, and The Grapes of Wrath, created with librettist Michael Korie, is without question his most sprawling, ambitious work. The 1940 John Ford film version of Grapes is considered a classic, though its relentlessly stoic tone does become a bit oppressive after a couple of reels, and Jane Darwell's Ma Joad hardly looks as if she were starving. In Gordon and Korie's work, there's a sexiness and drive and earthy humor that provide an honest reflection of what Steinbeck wrote. "You mention The Grapes of Wrath," Gordon says, "and people think, 'Ooooh. It's so depressing.' The truth is what makes the book moving is that these people are so incredibly vibrant and alive. They're zealous. They're full of belief."

Gordon and Korie worked on the opera in extremely close proximity from the very first day. "I am not someone who just takes the libretto and sets it to music," says Gordon. "I am really there. I am in on the dramaturgy of writing every scene, and what I want the piece to be formally. Michael and I talked about what we wanted it to be architecturally and dramatically."

While many contemporary opera composers seem to have an aversion to writing passages that can be excerpted, Gordon has filled Grapes with set pieces. There's the jaunty, rambunctious "Plenty Road," in which the Joads head for California in search of work. There's the lyrical "Simple Child," the brain-damaged Noah Joad's fantasy that Ma is singing him one last lullaby, as he sets about drowning himself so there will be one less mouth to feed. And there's "Truck Drivers," the lively opening to Act II, set at Mae's Diner on Route 66. It's a scene lifted straight from the book: Pa Joad and the two young children, Ruthie and Winfield, are looking to buy a half-loaf of bread. The scene opens with Mae and two truck drivers, but as the music builds, the counter elongates to reveal waitresses and truck drivers all along Route 66, who banter back and forth to a kind of stride piano-accented accompaniment. It's an adroit theatrical device that serves to underline the Joads' isolation.

Late last September, Gordon had just finished the opera's orchestration, which will feature such indelibly American sounds as the guitar, banjo, saxophone and harmonica, intermingled with a lush symphonic sound. The score is filled with period overtones, but it is also unmistakably written in his own lyrical, lightsuffused voice. Recently, at a private event sponsored by Minnesota Opera, he played snippets of it for an audience of local V.I.P.s. "There was an older woman with a cane there," Gordon recalls. "I was very drawn to her. And I did my presentation, and Allegra Parker, her name was, was kind of shaken by what I had played. She grew up in the dust bowl in Oklahoma, and she was really upset and shaken. And she kept saying, 'How did you get it?' Because I'm a Jewish boy from Long Island."

© Gregory Downer 2006

Gordon was born in 1956 and grew up in the L.I. town of Island Park. The family dynamic was in certain ways one that most aspiring artists might envy: Gordon's mother, whom he adores, was a Borscht Belt singer/comedienne, and his three older sisters (including Susan Gordon Lydon, author and a founding editor of Rolling Stone) were all involved in the arts. When he was a child, his sisters Lorraine and Sheila helped broaden their kid brother's cultural scope by taking him to see foreign films in Greenwich Village, instilling in him a lifelong love of Truffaut, Bergman and Kurosawa. Unfortunately, their father, an electrician by profession, had a dark, abusive streak, and the family's life was marred by perpetual conflict. "My dad's mother escaped Poland on the day when her town was literally wiped off the map. She was a frightening, dark, angry person. My father grew up in such a frightening atmosphere. And here's my mother singing and telling jokes! I think if my father hadn't met my mother, he could have been a murderer. There was a hole through every door in our house." (The Gordon family's home life was recounted in Donald Katz's critically acclaimed book Home Fires.)

It was a torturous childhood in other respects. A self-described "geek," Gordon was a hyperactive child with an attention span that bounced all over the map. As a boy, he had enormous difficulties in school, both academically and socially – the latter being somewhat understandable, given what his interests were, growing up in bourgeois postwar America. From the beginning, Gordon's interior life threatened to take over. "Obsessed" is a word that pops up in his conversation with almost the same frequency that "like" does in the prattle of just about anyone under thirty-five these days. "I was totally obsessed with music and poetry," he says, and the recollection of such an intense connection nearly has the effect of making him break out in a sweat. Among the objects of his obsession: the films of Alain Resnais; the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay; Henrik Ibsen; Régine Crespin; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and just about any obscure opera or musical written in the twentieth century. The modern sound was something that took hold of him and wouldn't let go, and he made weekly treks to the Lincoln Center branch of the New York Public Library, dragging out score after score and committing them to memory. "I am a font of ridiculous information," he says. "When I discovered Henze, I became so obsessed with Cantata della Fiaba Estrema. Henze wrote the score to Resnais's Muriel. Or discovering Michael [he pauses to savor the moment] Tippett. I could not get enough of The Knot Garden or The Ice Break. I could sing you right now George Antheil's The Wish, Mark Bucci's The Dress. I know operas nobody knows. Richard Mohaupt's Double Trouble. It was an uncontrollable obsession. When New York City Opera did Einem's The Visit of the Old Lady, I knew it! I know Nicholas Maw's One Man Show. I know his Rising of the Moon. He couldn't believe it when he met me and I knew a large body of his work."

At eighteen Gordon entered Carnegie Mellon University as a piano major, but that lasted only a single semester before he realized that he was a born composer. "I knew I had walked into my own life," he says. Back in New York after graduation, success came incrementally. His lifelong love-affair with poetry was the foundation of his compositional life. He would commit a poem to memory and live with it, reciting it over and over to himself before putting down one note of music on paper. By that time, he knew exactly how the poem was meant to speak. "Prosody is everything," he says of the song-writing process.

"Other people have set some of my poems to music," says Marie Howe, "and it was, I'm sure, odd and strange and discordant. Ricky's music is melodic. But before any of that happened, Ricky himself is a man who is alive in poetry. I don't think I've ever known anyone, and I've known hundreds of poets, who lives inside poetry the way Ricky does. I didn't care what he did with my poems. I knew whatever he did, he would do it with love and soul and respect for life itself."

Two of his early songs, "A Horse with Wings" and "Will There Really Be a Morning?" (to an Emily Dickinson text), were performed with some frequency on both the classical-recital and cabaret circuits. Despite his hyperactive streak, he was a strict self-disciplinarian who turned out piece after piece and never missed a deadline. During this period, he also came to grips with his increasing dependency on alcohol. "Addiction is a disconnectedness," says Gordon. "The way a plant moves toward the light, my day moved toward alcohol. Knowing that alcohol was there at the end of the day, I could get through anything. I was living with my friend Mary, and one night I started sobbing and said, 'I feel like my whole life is becoming drinks and dinner, and I dream, like Hickey in The Iceman Cometh, but I don't know if I'm going to do anything.' I didn't know if I was going to make anything happen." In 1989, he stopped drinking altogether.

Gordon might almost be characterized as a confessional composer, in the same sense that Anne Sexton and John Berryman were confessional poets, writing out of a core of deeply personal pain. In 1991, Gordon's lover, Jeffrey Michael Grossi, was diagnosed with AIDS. His lengthy illness was a harrowing experience for them both, yet Gordon's agony was not so overpowering that he shut down as a composer. Clarinetist Todd Palmer wanted Gordon to write a new piece for him to perform. Gordon had been pondering a version of the Orpheus myth, and one night, when Grossi's illness was rapidly intensifying, Gordon got up in the early morning hours and went to his desk. He felt "swollen and sweaty, like I was going to throw up." Instead, he sat down and wrote the entire libretto of his chamber work Orpheus and Euridice in one trancelike burst. He told the whole story in eleven poems.

Orpheus and Euridice is one of Gordon's most moving and deeply personal works. One line in particular seems to jump out: as Orpheus descends to the underworld to retrieve his beloved, he observes, "Like life, you had to traverse through the night/ To circumnavigate the light." "Music is not something that flies beside my life," says Gordon. "Music is my life. My work is a confluence of my life interacting with this thing I make of it. The myth ends with Orpheus's dismembered head flowing down the river and all music springing from that. There's a painting at the Art Institute of Chicago by Henri Lévy with Orpheus's head, with gold light emanating from it on the riverbank. I think somehow all these things came together in this piece for me."

After Grossi died, in 1996, Gordon felt the need to get out of New York. His friends Paul (Crocodile Dundee) and Linda Hogan recommended going out West to Aspen, where they had built a log cabin. Gordon got to Colorado after driving through Idaho and Wyoming and found that something profound had clicked inside him. "It was as if suddenly the landscape was as large as the pain I felt. I found something in myself I had never seen before. I became obsessed with the West. It's beyond finding creativity. I feel like I found my soul there. I never knew such pain, and I never knew how spread out it could be. I have such a profound reaction to the West. Now I go back every year." (One of his favorite spots is the Ucross Foundation, a Wyoming arts colony where much of The Grapes of Wrath was written.)

Set design by Allen Moyer for The Grapes of Wrath at Minnesota Opera
Courtesy Minnesota Opera/Set design by Allen Moyer

In March 1997, Gordon paid tribute to Grossi with a full-length evening at Symphony Space, For Jeffrey, which featured Gordon's music and snatches from Grossi's letters and journals and poems, performed by Audra McDonald. "She was doing Ragtime in Toronto," recalls Gordon, "and she said she would do the evening for Jeffrey and flew in. This magnificent creature comes to my door and sings for me straight through 'Daybreak in Alabama,' 'Song for a Dark Girl' and 'Dream Variations.' That night, we performed them, and she tore the house apart, and that began my relationship with her." Nonesuch Records, which produced McDonald's debut CD, included Gordon's three songs, which increased his visibility considerably. Their collaboration continues today; McDonald sings "Cradle and All," by Gordon and Jessica Molaskey, on her new Nonesuch CD, Build a Bridge (reviewed on p. 69).

Orpheus and Euridice didn't spring to life fully until several years later. Gordon had waited until Grossi died to write about the death of Euridice – "until I knew what it really felt like." Scored for soprano and clarinet, Orpheus and Euridice had its premiere at New York's Cooper Union in October 2001. "Nobody was going downtown," recalls Gordon. "It smelled and was still roiling and burning." In October of 2005, however, the piece was given a full-scale, big-budget performance at Lincoln Center, with soprano Elizabeth Futral, Palmer and choreography by Doug Varone. Last fall, Orpheus and Euridice was released on a CD by Ghostlight Records.

Grossi's death was also the impetus for The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the opera that Houston Grand Opera commissioned from Gordon in the mid-1990s. During the last stages of Grossi's illness, Gordon had read to him from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying as a way of preparing him to meet the end. "We expect people to go when they're grieving. I think people should be treated as if they're ill at least for a year. It's why I did The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Tibetans believe that if you actually every day contemplate not only your own death but the death of everything, you would live your life in an entirely different way. And it's why Jeffrey became obsessed with Buddhism and lived his life profoundly for the time he had left."

It was several years before Gordon found himself in another stable relationship, with his current partner, Kevin Doyle. Coming into the relationship in the wake of so much intense pain, translated into so much intense art, has occasionally proved a challenge for Doyle. There is a song, 'We Will Always Walk Together,' from Gordon's 1998 piece Dream True, that was written for Grossi just three weeks before he died. "That song was being done a lot," says Gordon, "and finally there was that moment when someone says, 'I need you to put some of that away.' Kevin said, when he heard 'We Will Always Walk Together,' 'What if I want to go through eternity with you?'"

It would be too simple to imagine that Gordon has thrown off his grief and marched into a new chapter in his life. His work continues to be pervaded by an enormous sense of loss – or perhaps, more specifically, a search for home. It's almost as if he had picked up the baton from Leonard Bernstein, who expressed such profound longing for connectedness in Trouble in Tahiti and, nearly thirty years later, in its underrated sequel, A Quiet Place.

"Profound yearning," says Gordon, "can be very much like addiction. I always felt like I wanted life to be more exciting than it was. I just wanted more. If you have a center or core that feels fractured, you're always trying to fix it. This thing of being obsessed with Bergman and Resnais – I am mostly drawn to the work of broken people who were trying in creating their body of work to create a whole. Instead, they made a whole body of brokenness. I am trying to make something whole, but instead I am making a body of work about brokenness. That makes sense to me now. I can live with that. If that's my voice, the thread that holds my work together, I say, 'That's good' – because that's where I'm putting it these days, rather than in killing myself."

– Brian Kellow, Opera News, Jan 2007 (vol. 71, no. 7)