Michael Gordon Nicaragua Travel Guide, an hour-long autobiographical work for choir and cello, unfolds like a long bolt of richly woven fabric, with textures that thicken and then thin, patterns that seem to return but continue to subtly develop, colors that intensify and recombine. “My father ran a store in the center of Managua, where he sold textiles,” the singers inform us. “I used to jump on long rolls of laundry and run around the store talking to everyone.” This wordy, plush image seems to have sprung from that memory fragment.
Written for virtuoso vocal ensemble Crossing and cellist Maya Beiser, Travel guide there is little to report on Central America. It is not stitched with postcard folklore or local rhythms. Although she tells a dramatic tale, juxtaposing dire world events with private losses, she does all this without the aid of spectators or arias, but rather with genuine calmness. Gordon first made his reputation with loud, jagged music filled with aggressive urgency, but the beauty of this score lies in his rejection of grand gestures and his preference for telling details, the musical equivalent of a zooming camera. the expressive hands of a storyteller.
The piece takes the form of a stained family memoir. In simple language, he recounts the half-remembered saga of a Jewish family’s migrations from Poland to Cuba, New Jersey and Nicaragua. The text, accompanied by photographs, draws out vignettes: Gordon’s grandfather’s emigration to Cuba, his grandmother’s transatlantic pursuit of her husband, his father’s early childhood in Poland, and the lucky escape just before Hitler’s army exterminated the Jews of the city.
The names of the characters are omitted, their personalities clouded, their motives impossible to reconstruct. This stain can be frustrating, like so many family stories. “My sister says our sister’s story is important, so this is it,” the chorus announces, but it’s never entirely clear who the siblings are, whose story is the one that matters, or why. Evocative images from another era do not bridge the gap of years, but only highlight the mysteries that the registration data and ship manifests leave open: Who Were these people? What did they think, how did they feel? Would I have liked them?
For Gordon, those voids are material, useful precisely because they prompt him to explore the friction between vividness and ambiguity. The Crossing spells out the lyrics – actually a series of captions for the photos that click on the screen above the singers’ heads – with their trademark clarity. Voices are clean, clear and natural. And then the music takes them into pixelated flickering stretches: They sing in unison, then split into two dozen separate lines. Otherwise they slip deliberately out of phase, so that you can’t tell the noise from its echo. Weak triads blossom into chords that shimmer with dissonance. And through it all, the cello continues to prod and admonish, a leader waiting for the murmurs of the crowd in hopes of getting its attention. Gordon offers no explanation of the cello’s role, but I hear it as a stand-in for himself, the memoirist sifting through all the scraps of knowledge, trying to recreate his own operating system.