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Michael GORDON (b. 1956)
‘8’, for eight cellos (2018)
Cello Octet Amsterdam
rec July 2019 at the Oosterkerk, Zeist, Netherlands
CANTALOUPE CA21159 [53:23]

It is rare indeed for me to hear a stereo CD of a new piece and regret (albeit mildly) that I cannot listen in surround sound. Such is the case with 8, the most recent of Michael Gordon’s series of works for like-instruments, a sequence which includes Timber for six percussionists (playing amplified simantras – individual strips of wood whose dimensions are somehow doctored to produce a single, particular pitch, available on Cantaloupe CA21072); Rushes for seven bassoons (CA21907) and Amplified for four electric guitars, commissioned by the Dublin Guitar Quartet and as yet unrecorded.

As one of the founding fathers of Bang on a Can, the punk informed art-music collective which emerged in New York more than three decades ago, meaty rock-derived rhythm was always a central preoccupation for Gordon and the nagging pulses and buzz-saw timbres familiar from many of his early pieces are very much to the fore during the opening bars of 8; these insistent gestures constitute the raw material from which the content of the entire work is derived. An ensemble of eight cellos seems just about perfect for the Gordon aesthetic in terms of the opportunities they offer for virile beats, textural variation and expressive power. The sounds he has fashioned here are unfailingly attractive and defiantly immersive – if the listener has sufficient curiosity and patience, and the sonic potential of the ensemble appeals, Gordon as ever proves to be quite the master manipulator, imprisoning one’s aural perception in a trance-like grip from which one has little desire to flee.

I have no idea whether there was any real science involved but Gordon seems also to have stumbled on the ideal duration – fifty-odd minutes. It applies in so many of his pieces I suspect grooves as patterned and agreeable as those he creates could pall if they extended much beyond this parameter – as it is I tend to find the time positively flies by in these works. The secret seems to be in Gordon’s pacing. With 8, the waves of chugging arco sound which engulf one from the outset swell and contract to an unpredictable degree – this listener at least was glued to the effect in the same way as I have often been transfixed by the North Sea lapping at the pebbles on the Suffolk coastline – nothing really changes in the great scheme of things, yet everything seems fluid at any given moment. Shifts in dynamics, expressivity and depth of sound are organised with extreme subtlety in the main; when angular interruptions do arise they lure one in even more.

I wonder if the Golden Ratio plays some part in Gordon’s thinking in this work - at least at a subconscious level; at exactly the halfway point of 8 freshly minted pizzicato textures appear for the first time and paraphrase the previous material, yet at the crucial thirty-nine minute mark Gordon’s opening melodic cells re-appear in their original form and the plucked interludes seem to have simply prepared the listener for the subsequent expansion (and considerable enhancement) of the cello octet’s coloristic potential. The sonic clouds that remain thereafter seem to be carefully layered, so when the glassy, trance-like element discreetly emerges shortly afterwards (at 43:00) one scarcely notices. At this point the ensemble seems to morph imperceptibly into a translucent accordion. 8 decelerates to its conclusion in this blissed-out spirit.

In his very brief note (Gordon clearly trusts his audience and is refreshingly economical with his comments) he reveals the sonic innovation at the heart of 8. As the players are arranged in a circle (a concept which underpins the wonderful Denise Burt’s characteristically nifty and elegant album artwork), the potential exists for the audience to be within or without. Gordon believes that 8 therefore can be experienced as a three-dimensional sonic object, given that the threads of the music move both clockwise and anti-clockwise. If one is encircled by the cellists, listeners will clearly appreciate the tactile nature of the sound in this way. He recommends those who listen to the disc (‘on the outside’ as it were) do so through headphones to better perceive this phenomenon, and whilst I have followed his advice, I cannot help but feel that this would have worked even better had Cantaloupe shelled out on a surround layer.

Notwithstanding that caveat, however, 8 is an engrossing listen in any case. The Cello Octet Amsterdam give it all they’ve got, and they’ve got plenty. Frerik de Jong is the producer/engineer and the stereo sound he’s realised is perhaps not as ‘in-one’s-face’ as certain discs of Michael Gordon’s music I’ve encountered in the past; instead it’s beautifully rounded and ideal for the multi-cello ensemble. 8 will handsomely reward those listeners who are prepared to blot out life’s minutiae for 53 minutes.
Richard Hanlon

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