Saxophonist, arranger, founder of Love of Life Orchestra, and composer Peter Gordon has been an important part of New York’s downtown performing arts community since the 1970s and has worked with artists such as Arthur Russell, Robert Ashley, and Factory Floor.
WUOG:When did you first move to New York?
Gordon: I was born in Manhattan, then my parents moved away when i was a child. (To Virginia, then Munich, then LA…) But I always considered myself a New Yorker, albeit a diaspora New Yorker. I returned to NYC on February 1, 1975.
WUOG: How did you first conceive of Love of Life Orchestra?
Gordon: It was a populist idea. I wanted to create original music that performers coming from a wide range of experience could play. Some band members were classically oriented, others came from jazz and rock; some were self-taught, others highly trained. Some were primarily musicians, others were artist and/or writers. I used vernacular music (jazz, rock, funk) as a means to address more experimental concepts. And all the while, the music needed to have a good beat for dancing.
WUOG: Who were some of the musicians involved with the project?
Gordon: Rhys Chatham, Peter Zummo, Arthur Russell, Ernie Brooks, Scott Johnson, David Van Tieghem, Jill Kroesen, Ed Friedman, Kathy Acker, Kenny Deifik
WUOG: How did you meet them?
Gordon: We were all part of the community of artists and performers living in downtown NYC. We worked on each other’s projects, hung out together.
WUOG: What type of musical background did you come from? Were you classically trained?
Gordon: Growing up we always had music in the house. My folks listened to jazz, broadway shows and classical music (which I called “sunday music” growing up). My dad played trumpet as a kid, and my grandmother was a singer (“on the radio” I was told) I took piano lessons as a young child and started playing clarinet in grade school. I took up the sax when I was in junior high. I played in school bands – concert band, jazz band – and played in soul music bands as a teenager. I had great music teachers in school. In a sense, yes, though once I started playing sax, I was trained more as a jazz musician than as a classical player. I did study classical music and composition in college, though from more of an experimental music perspective than a conservatory approach.
WUOG: What were some spaces that played or continue to play a vital role in presentation of your work and that of your colleagues?
Gordon: Kitchen (’70s – present), La Mama (’70s – present), CBGBs, Mudd Club, Max’s, Hurrah, Danceteria (’70s, 80s), Roulette (’80s – present), le Poisson Rouge (2009-present), Experimental Intermedia 70s – present), I could go on…this is NYC of course.
WUOG: Can you explain the how you approach the composition of your symphonies?
Gordon: I work modularly – using theme and variations I get obsessed with an idea, a small cell, and then I work with it, develop it. It evolves, becomes more complex, it multiplies. I also work with counterpoint and polyrhythms. Multiple ideas coexisting, interdependent
WUOG: Do you consider your symphonies to be populist?
Gordon: Honestly, at this point, I am purely inside the music. I hope so. But I don’t think about that when composing. I just try to be pure and honest and curious. And surround myself with good folks who play like angels when together.
WUOG: Do you remember how you first came to meet Robert Ashley? What is your understanding of his vision of theatre?
Gordon: I first met Robert Ashley when I was a graduate student at University of California, San Diego. He came down and performed, with an ad hoc student ensemble, his opera “Kit Carson.”
Ashley was a composer, foremost, though he later developed into a writer as well. He had a unique sense of structure and form, and considered social interactions – on large and small scale – to be part of the compositional pallet. I would hesitate to use the word “theater” however, as he was averse to such theatricalities as acting and staging, except as a way to tell the story (as opposed to interpretation found in theater).
WUOG: What are some of your fondest memories of working with Robert Ashley?
Gordon: Working in the studio creating Perfect Lives. Bob was a dedicated experimenter, and we spent hundreds of hours in a 24trk analog studio discovering new sounds and processes. I think I cut my teeth as a producer working with a Bob.
WUOG: Can you tell me a little about the recent performance of Ashley’s Crash?
Gordon: Crash is Bob’s final work, completed weeks before his death. He talks about his life, one minute per year, with the final year – 84 – foretelling his death. I was not involved with Crash – it was performed by the talented group Varispeed. Crash was part of the trilogy of Ashley operas performed in the Whitney Biennial this year. I was involved with Vidas Perfectas, a Spanish language version of Perfect Lives with a new electronic score.
WUOG: Thanks for your time, do you have any upcoming releases or works you’d like to tell us about or further comments you’d like to share?
Gordon: My Symphony 5 will soon be released on vinyl and cd on the new FOOM label. I have also been collaborating with Tim Burgess and Archangel (Bruno Pronsato) on some recent releases.
Interview Conducted by Alec Livaditis