Peter Gordon Talks


Peter Gordon’s Symphony 5 LP – released on the discerning outlet Foom last year – felt like a diligently crafted construction, yet one loaded with effusive spontaneity. It seemed to distil the best of two worlds; the kind of abandon that informed Gordon’s forays into the New York Downtown scene of the late 70s and 80s and his collaborations with Arthur Russell, and the kind of forethought and exactitude that have made his works since such a different prospect in the more erudite but often stuffy world of composition.

In this translated interview, courtesy of the fine people at The Drone, Gordon covers his historic involvement in that scene, reveals the underpinnings and intents of ‘Symphony 5’ and profoundly confronts postmodernism and the current state of the avant-garde;

If I’m not mistaken, “Symphony 5” is your first record under your own name in quite a long time. Does it feel like a comeback of some sort? And if yes, what prompted you to do gather the LOLO again and record it?

I came back to New York. And while I write, and am inspired, pretty much everywhere, New York is where my musical community is, in terms of players and support. It’s quite visceral.

I had been living away from New York (in Santa Fe, and then in Los Angeles) for about ten years, focusing on longer forms, as well as working in film and theater music – I was writing operas, concert music, working in electronic music, as well as doing orchestrations. I really wasn’t thinking about recording the band.

Upon returning to NY in 2005, I reassembled the band. with LOLO stalwarts, as well as newer members, including the virtuoso Cuban jazz musicians Elio Villafranca and Yunior Terry, and master Latin drummer Robby Ameen. The year 2008 saw the beginning of what would be a five year gestation period, of performing and writing the different movements.

Did the reissue and accolades from DFA and James Murphy play a part in this comeback?

I had already come back to New York, and had begun reassembling LOLO.I am certainly indebted to James Murphy and Pat Mahoney for including me on their Fabriclive 36 compilation. This introduced my music to a new audience, and led to the DFA album. Musically and personally, the whole process of assembling the DFA album – working with DFA label head Jonathan Galkin, with a particular focus in mind – allowed me to hear the music from different perspectives. And I appreciated learning about the music of LCD Soundsystem, Shit Robot, Gavin Russom, as well as other DFA artists. My DFA connection made me want to go to clubs and re-visit dance music. But the growing recognition of my friend Arthur Russell’s music, and my association with it, has also played a part in the increasing awareness of my music.

What’s the main idea behind this Symphony? Why number 5, by the way?

Regarding The Number 5: Five years. Five movements. 2005.  “Fifth Symphony” as a signifier. 

And this is my fifth multi-movement instrumental work of symphonic scale. (Symphony in Four Movements, Geneva Suite, Secret Pastures, Return of the Native)

I am interested in defining a new musical dialect. To  create a vocabulary, using orchestration, melodic and rhythmic counterpoint, and, most important, the individual personalities of each player; to create a constantly evolving soundscape – modularly structured, through-composed – over the course of five movements.

I wanted to set up a groove – using even subdivisions, as in Latin or techno (as opposed to swing, or shuffle, rhythms) – and take the listeners on a path they have never traveled, with a mix of the familiar and the fantastic.

How does Symphony 5 actually relate to the symphonic form?

There are some obvious relations. Symphony 5 is a multi-movement composition; the first movement “Exposition” is, indeed, the exposition of the musical material, as in most symphonies; the third movement, “Juvenalia”, could be considered as functioning as a scherzo. And the work utilizes melodic and rhythmic development, counterpoint, orchestration and scale. But I did not intentionally set out to follow any particular rules or stylistic protocols of the historic symphonic form.

I need to ask, because of this track called “Homeland Security”: do you consider Symphony 5 to be a political statement in any way?

I am interested in working with counterpoint, which is the coexistence of equal, autonomous, and interdependent voices. This is a political model: diverse social voices coexisting, in order to create an entity greater than its parts, all the while maintaining their individual identities. We need more awareness and understanding of social counterpoint, in which each individual is valued and acknowledged as a unique entity, yet each making a contribution to the collective wellbeing. In other words, I am espousing harmony.

Does “Symphony 5” deal with the past, your past most notably, in any way? Is it autobiographical in any way? (for some reason, the way it “rehashes” music from the past such as New Orleans Jazz (or, does it?) reminds me of some nostalgia heavy works such as Steve Reich’s City Life…)

Symphony 5 is about life: being in the present, with a future, and a past. We all have pasts. Perhaps the contrapuntal aspect might have suggested New Orleans jazz, but it was not the intention. (That said, New Orleans jazz is such an essential part of my musical DNA, that I fear it’s never too far from the surface. And, during the period while I was composing “Symphony 5”, I did spend time in New Orleans, co-producing Ned Sublette’s album “Kiss You Down South”, as well as recording some tracks of my own with New Orleans musicians.

“Symphony 5” might be somewhat autobiographical, in a musical sense, but only in service of forwarding the overall narrative and drive. 

The recording does feature the musicians all playing in the same room together, at the same time, which does beckon back to the way all music had been recorded in the past.

“The Downtown Scene” of downtown Manhattan in the mid 80’s in which you played such a prominent role in the 80’s is now identified as a definite historical cultural item. But do you view it as such? If you could summarize it in a few words, what those would be? Do you ever feel nostalgic about this peculiar “golden” age of the American avant-garde?

It was a village of nomads.  The East Village. A a village of artists, working in the rubble of a post-apocalyptic neighborhood; artists dedicated to redefining art, to creating a better world, through art.; artists working in the context of a decaying social environment, and polluted media environment.

We all lived within blocks of each other, often on the same street or in the same building. There was no attraction other than motivation: a sense of mission, and destiny, to create. And creation was its own reward. There was a critical mass for a community: visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, theater artists, dancers, cooks, carpenters, plumbers, bartenders. Nobody was making money. We all worked, usually for free or barter, on each others' pieces. But there was determination – an urgency – and the artistic adrenaline was at a peak. We knew that we would change the world. And on a practical level, everyone was just pushed to do their best work, and ideas cross-pollinated.

I don’t believe in nostalgia. I have enjoyed the musical path I have followed, and I look forward to new work and projects.

Culture has changed a great deal since the mid 80s, when you recorded most of of your renowned records with the LOLO – syncretisms and eclecticism have never felt more natural than today, after almost two decades of Internet and widespread postmodernism, when it was still considered “modern” or an “anomaly” in the 1980s. For that reason precisely, your music has never felt more natural as well. But composing “Symphony 5”, have you considered addressing the issue of its exacerbated eclecticism – from disco to jazz to repetitive music to rock -, how it relates to our strange times and what it means to call on collage, cut-up et al in the years 2010?

When I first began composing, I didn’t know anything about what is now called postmodernism. I had the intention to integrate my personal musical experiences and ideas, regardless of genre, into my compositions. I also had studied film and media, and was interested in applying cinematic ideas, such as montage and narrative.

But I think about editing. I have been an audio editor almost as long as I have been playing music. My father was a radio journalist and I grew up with a Revox tape recorder, a microphone, blank tape and a splicing block in the family living room. And much later, when I first moved to New York in the ’70’s, I worked in radio production, as a tape editor.  My music is influenced by my having the ears of an analog tape editor, with quick – often drastic – edits; or, on the other hand, subtle shifts only noticed subliminally, in passing.    

I don’t use appropriation, or direct musical quotation. I do, however, move about through changing musical worlds, genre neutral, (although various genres might get suggested as the parameters of focus shift). 

Regarding 1980 and 2015:  the role and importance of editing, as well as the overall pacing, have significantly changed.  We are living in a world of fast cuts and multiple screens. Editing is non-linear, non-destructive, and edited clips have immediate outlets, available to even the amateur. Every image we see – whether personal or corporate – is manipulated, filtered in form, if not content.

In our post-Orwellian world, we need to keep our ears vigilant: to pay attention to the smallest details, all the while keeping aware of broader social and political contexts and implications.

Do you feel at ease in the musical world of the 2010? Or, to put it differently, do you feel at ease as much as you felt at ease in the complex musical milieu of New York in the 1980s? 

New York music is now in another “golden age,” and I feel lucky to have it my home.

There is high energy, and top level work, coming from all directions. And it is much more diverse and naturally integrated than in the ’80’s. There are more disperse geographical pockets, and some casual social connections might be lost, but this is mediated by the connection gained with social media. And performances and live appearances alleviate the isolation.

Do you consider yourself an optimist?

I am an optimist: I embrace life and the search for justice and truth. I believe in the ability of individuals and societies to continually strive to improve, hopefully, without making things worse in the process.

One last question I need to ask because it’s a matter than gets more delicate and more delicate with every year passing: do you still believe in avant-garde? I mean, not as a specific “milieu” of the arts but as a driving force behind creativity and, most of all, a disturbing force which still holds the capacity to converse and disturb society as a whole?   

I believe that there will always be, and be the necessity for, an avant-garde in the arts, with innovation in ideas and technology. This means there will be those who are working at the fringes of, or completely outside of, accepted boundaries, working without any expectation of acceptance or being understood, or paid; driven solely by their vision. 

“Avant-garde” is not a style, or milieu: avant-garde is the willingness to take action against the status quo, in order to further beauty, truth and justice.

What form this might take in the future is anybody’s guess. (If it were easily predictable, the result would be disappointing.) I look forward to being surprised, and expect that people will be shocked. Shocked!

I quote my dear, departed friend and mentor, Robert Ashley:  “Long Live the Avant-garde!” 

Peter Gordon's Symphony 5 is out now via Foom. Read the original interview in French here.