music review

Memory Play, With Cello: Michael Gordon’s Travel Guide to Nicaragua

Photo: Lawrence Sumulong

Michael Gordon’s Travel Guide to Nicaragua, an hourlong autobiographical work for chorus and cello, unfurls like a long bolt of rich woven cloth, with textures that get denser and then thin out, patterns that appear to return but keep subtly evolving, colors that intensify and recombine. “My father ran a store in downtown Managua where he sold textiles,” the singers inform us. “I would jump on the long rolls of fabric and run around the store talking to everyone.” This wordy and plush reverie seems to have sprung from that fragment of memory.

Written for the virtuosic vocal ensemble the Crossing and the cellist Maya Beiser, Travel Guide has little to report about Central America. It’s not stitched through with postcard folklore or local rhythms. Though it narrates a dramatic tale, juxtaposing horrific world events with private losses, it does all that without the aid of showstoppers or arias, but rather with matter-of-fact serenity. Gordon first made his reputation with loud, serrated music brimming with aggressive urgency, but the beauty of this score lies in that refusal of big gestures and its preference for the telling detail, the musical equivalent of a camera zooming in on a narrator’s expressive hands.

The piece takes the form of a spotty family memoir. In plain language, it recounts the half-remembered saga of a Jewish family’s migrations from Poland to Cuba, New Jersey, and Nicaragua. The text, accompanied by photographs, doles 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 dumb-luck escape just before Hitler’s army exterminated the town’s Jews.

The characters’ names are omitted, their personalities hazy, their motivations impossible to reconstruct. That patchiness can be frustrating, like so much family history. “My sister says the story of our sister is important, so this is it,” the chorus announces, but it’s never quite clear which siblings are which, whose story it is that matters or why. Evocative snapshots from another age don’t bridge the gulf of years but only accentuate the mysteries that census records and ships’ manifests leave open: Who were these people? What did they think, how did they feel? Would I have liked them?

To Gordon, those voids are material, useful precisely because they lead him to explore the friction between vividness and vagueness. The Crossing enunciates the text — really a series of captions to the photos clicking through on the screen above the singers’ heads — with their trademark clarity. The voices are clean, clear, and natural. And then the music leads them into stretches of pixelated shimmer: They sing in unison and then break into two dozen separate lines. Or else they slip intentionally out of phase so that you can’t distinguish the holler from its echo. Lean triads bloom into chords that glisten with dissonance. And through it all, the cello keeps urging and exhorting, a leader cutting through the crowd’s murmurs hoping to draw 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 lore, trying to re-create his own operating system.

Review: Michael Gordon’s Travel Guide to Nicaragua