Ahead of the world premiere of Michael Gordon's Travel Guide to Nicaragua by The Crossing and Maya Beiser at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia on November 16, and Carnegie Hall on November 17, 2022, Jude Vaclavik, Director of U.S. Publishing & Promotions, Universal Music Publishing Classics & Screen, sat down with the composer himself to discuss the new work.
Where did the idea of Travel Guide to Nicaragua come from?
I started writing for voices with the Young People's Chorus of New York City and Francisco Nuñez, their incredible conductor. The first time he commissioned a piece from me, he said, "Everyone sets poetry, and the kids don't really relate to poetry that much. Do you think you could find text that they could relate to?" I ended up writing a piece called Every Stop on the F Train, and the text was simply every stop on the F Train, starting in Queens and ending in Brooklyn at Coney Island. The kids loved it.
I’ve had a long relationship with Young People’s Chorus, and I’ve been writing pieces about New York City for them. One is called Great Trees of New York City. Few people know that there are amazing trees all over the city. So, when Donald Nally asked me to write for The Crossing, I thought I would continue writing text, and I wrote a piece called Anonymous Man, a memoir about my street.
It’s a very old street in New York dating back to the 1790s called Desbrosses Street. Both then and now, there were the homeless men living outside. Over time the neighborhood changed from an industrial warehouse district to a residential area. The piece is built around my memories of moving in, meeting my future wife for the first time there, and conversations I have had with two homeless men who made their home on the loading dock across the street. When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, the ferry from New Jersey to Manhattan went from Jersey City to Desbrosses Street, so when they took Abraham Lincoln’s casket on tour, they brought him up the Eastern Seaboard to Jersey City, put him on a boat, and came over on the Desbrosses Street Ferry. There’s a beautiful drawing of his horse-drawn casket landing here. It’s a really amazing description of Desbrosses Street, and a movement of Anonymous Man commemorates that moment in history.
For my new work, Travel Guide to Nicaragua, I continue writing auto-biographical text. This piece tells the story of my family’s immigration and displacement in the shadows of the Holocaust, and my early childhood growing up in Nicaragua. I just thought, “ok it’s a story. Let’s see if I can do it."
Broadly speaking, tell me about your family and how it inspired or relates to the work itself?
The basic thread of the story is unclear and hazy. My grandfather left his family in Poland and went to Cuba in the early 1920’s. We’re not sure why. Was he going there to make money to bring over the rest of his family? No one really thinks that. People think he abandoned his family, or he ran away, or he was involved in some kind of criminal act. He was a soldier during WWI, and people said he was gassed and came back half-crazy. In 1927, my grandmother took two of her three children and went after him. She left one of her children behind, and that child was my 12-year-old father.
That’s the basis of the story. My grandparents never reunited. My grandfather took off to Nicaragua and my grandmother smuggled into the US. Meanwhile, my father was stuck in Poland for another 12 years. He got out in March 1939. In the summer of 1939, the Polish borders were closed, and in September of 1939 the Nazis came in, and all the Jews in my father’s town were killed. There were few survivors.
He came to the US, was drafted, and spent 4 years in the Philippines in the US army. The day before he shipped out, he became a US citizen.
Amazing. You couldn’t write this story if you tried, could you?
Well, it’s a story. My father came back from the war, and I was born in 1956. He was an upbeat person – very positive, very outgoing. He had a shoebox in which he kept all this stuff he never talked about (pictures from his hometown and medals from WWII). I’d ask, “hey Dad, let’s go through the shoebox.” It was impossible for him to talk about it or say anything. He’d look at pictures of these people and just say “no, they’re all gone.”
After the war, he went to Nicaragua and that’s where I spent the first 8 years of my life. He basically came back from the war and became a chicken farmer in New Jersey, and he met my sophisticated mother who was not going to live on a chicken farm, so she agreed to move to Nicaragua with him. I didn’t quite figure that one out yet – how that negotiation took place – but that’s where his father had ended up after Cuba.
Ok, so that’s why [they moved to] Nicaragua. Did you have a sense that your father recollected the items in the shoebox? Or had he forgotten his childhood memories?
He remembered. Everyone deals with things in a different way, and I think he just said “ok that’s that. It’s there, but I’m not thinking about that.” He was just able to leave it in the shoebox and move forward.
Related to your family, I think it’s an interesting artistic choice that you only named your grandmother Goldie in the text. What is the significance there? Why that decision?
Well, I didn’t think that people needed names. It could be anyone’s brother, father, sister. But I couldn’t resist using my grandmother’s name because it’s such a great name. And it’s very nice to sing. I think in the movement about her, they say “Goldie” about a thousand times.
How is the work structured? What can you tell us about the work and what your listeners expect to hear?
It’s 24 voices and solo cello, and I approached the chorus like an orchestra. In parts the chorus is divided into 24 lines and the sound moves from singer to singer. I think of the voices as being points of sound. Voices have a lot of power, and they can be very subtle. It’s very exciting to write for The Crossing and to work with Donald Nally. These singers are amazing, and Donald may be the most adventurous conductor on the planet.
The cello solo is being played by the wonderful Maya Beiser, whom I’ve worked with for over 30 years. I’ve written two solo pieces for Maya - Industry for amplified cello and distortion unit, and All Vows.
Is there extra musical significance to featuring a solo cello with the chorus, or were you drawn to the idea artistically?
That’s a good question. I don’t know how to answer it (laughs).
Musically, can you describe a central feature or element that you find to be unique or pivotal for the listener?
For the past dozen years, I’ve been concerned with the architectural movement of sound in a space, the different points that the sound originates from, and perspective - whether the sound is close or at a distance. My recent works for multiple instruments, like Rushes for seven bassoons, and 8 for eight cellos, and site-specific pieces like Field of Vision for 36 percussionists, are also quasi-ritualistic. People who know my heavily amplified early work might be surprised to know that all these pieces, as well as Travel Guide to Nicaragua, are acoustic.
Is the work one continuous piece or are there series of movements?
There are eight sections. The outer movements are slower and more meditative and build towards the center. The two center movements are very active and filled with text and stories.
What were the circumstances surrounding the scheduled premiere of the work and the subsequent revisions that took after the premiere was postponed?
The piece was supposed to be premiered at the end of March 2020 and was cancelled about 10 days before. After a period of time went by, I went back and looked at it again.
When I started writing, I thought that the story revolved around my growing up in Nicaragua. I had done a lot of research about my life there, as well as about the history of Nicaragua. It’s off the beaten path in Central America. It wasn’t one of the big Aztec or Mayan civilizations. It was colonized by the Spaniards, the British, and then the Americans. It’s always struggling to find independence and resolve internal conflict. But with time to reflect, I realized that the story is really about the shoebox that my father didn’t talk about, that we grew up in the shadow of. As much as people put these things behind them and move forward, there’s always lurking in the background. So, I went back, and I rewrote the text, and I rewrote the piece. You can’t be thankful for Covid, but I feel really grateful that I got a second chance at this piece which is so personal.
Did it feel like destiny or fate that you had the chance to rework it?
It does feel that way. I can’t even imagine how I would’ve felt about the original piece or how I would have dealt with it. I can’t even imagine it now, so I do feel there’s some kind of destiny about it.
Was this work particularly challenging because of the deeply personal auto-biographical content?
Yes. It’s hard enough to write text because I’m a composer (smiles), but to write text about yourself and your life, you actually have to do some digging. There’s another 100 pages of stories that I left out – did I put the right things in? Did I leave something essential out? I hope I got it – we’ll see.
Thanks so much for talking with me about the piece and for writing this incredible work, I can’t wait to hear it.
Photo: Michael Gordon © Peter Serling