Composer Spotlight – Geoffrey Gordon

Geoffrey-GordonFebruary 2012, Composer Spotlight: Geoffrey Gordon

“I think the most important thing is simply to get living composers and high school students in the same room! There is a disconnect, often, between classical music as an art form, and the idea that some of us are still writing it.” – Geoffrey Gordon.

Composer Geoffrey Gordon’s works include orchestral and chamber music–vocal and instrumental–as well as scores for theater, film and dance.  A by-no-means-exhaustive list of his awards includes the Aaron Copland Award, a Barlow Endowment commission, a commission by the Connecticut State Music Teachers Association, performances at the Greenwich House Music School’s acclaimed North River Music series,  the Wisconsin State Fellowship in Music Composition and the Lester S. Abelson Foundation Prize. His residencies include the Aaron Copland House, the La Napoule Arts Foundation in Cannes, and the historic Cliff Dweller Club in Chicago. His work has been funded by the Barlow Endowment, the National Endowment for the Arts, the United Performing Arts Fund, the American Composers Forum, Meet the Composer, the MacArthur Foundation, the AmericanMusicCenter, the Abelson Foundation, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and the Bush Foundation.

Geoffrey shares with us, in the interview below, his enthusiasm for connecting young composers and musicians to the ever-evolving world of contemporary composition.  He’s particularly keen on involving himself with CSIC’s core program, Commissions in Concert, which connects a composer with a high school music program; the composer is then commissioned to write a piece specifically for the ensemble with which he or she has been paired.  Eager to work with a student ensemble from the beginning of the creation progress, he shares with us his certainty that, for students, “there is no better way to learn about music than to see how it is made.”

His Cool RED Cool, a jazz-tinged chamber work for seven players, won the 2000 Andy Warhol Social Observer Prize, receiving world premiere performances at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  He’s shared this piece with the CSIC audience here, describing the piece as “A mix of contemporary classical and improvised jazz, inspired by the 1986 Self Portrait of Andy Warhol. It is scored for a chamber ensemble of flute, alto saxophone, trumpet, two percussion, piano and bass. The duration is about 7-8 minutes.”  Be sure to check out the audio clip which accompanies this interview.

CSIC talked with Geoffrey Gordon in February of 2012.

CSIC:  How would you define your music? Do you compose for a particular genre or style of music? If yes, what style of music do you most often compose for?

Geoffrey: This is always the toughest question I face. It is so difficult to define music in words, especially your own, because you are so close to it. In the most general sense, I write contemporary classical music—which is to say, I write in a style which is in a line that dates back four hundred years, is essentially rooted in European music (with a large dose of American jazz), and yet extends into the future, both in terms of language and content. I am happy to write for any instrument, or for any ensemble, and I look forward to those challenges. That’s one of the best things about my job. And I’d like to think that my language is the constant that runs through whatever I write, because that’s what makes it mine.


CSIC:   How did you choose this style/genre?

Geoffrey: I kind of feel this genre chose me, really. I started out writing and performing rock and roll, when I was in high school, and when I got to college, I began to study opera, which led me to many of the great composers of classical music, which led me, inexorably, to what is often called “new” music, or contemporary classical music. Because I continued to write throughout my operatic training (and performing), my style continued to evolve. Eventually, I found my compositional voice, as it were, and that’s the one I have now. When you know your own music, and can sense it is unlike any other, that’s a special moment for a composer.

CSIC:  Tell us about your audio sample, (Cool RED Cool), and how it’s a good fit for young performers.

Geoffrey: This is a recording of a performance by a Washington DC-based group called the Great Noise Ensemble, from a couple of seasons ago. Cool RED Cool is a challenging piece, no doubt, but it involves some techniques that I think young performers might embrace: improvisation, a mix of classical and jazz, and some extended techniques (don’t worry, they’re explained in the performance notes!) that are often a part of contemporary music. I think it is a good introduction to contemporary classical music, and the subject matter—the Warhol self-portrait—is, if you’ll forgive the pun, pretty cool.


CSIC:  Have you worked with young performers before? If yes, can you tell us about that experience?

Geoffrey:  I have worked with young performers lots. From inner-city at-risk elementary schools to working as a composer in residence, through the ACE Program, with the Milwaukee Symphony. I’ve even done some things overseas. The one constant is that I always feel I learn as much as I teach, maybe more. Looking at my own work, and music in general , through the eyes of young performers, is always an amazing experience.

CSIC:   How do you envision composers and high school music programs collaborating?

Geoffrey:  I think the most important thing is simply to get living composers and high school students in the same room! There is a disconnect, often, between classical music as an art form, and the idea that some of us are still writing it. So my vision certainly begins with the interaction between living composers and young performers. This opens the door to writing new music for young performers, and perhaps demystifying the concept of contemporary music along the way. The opportunity to have a high school music program in on the process of creating a new work, from the very beginning, is such a promising one: there is no better way to learn about music than to see how it is made.

CSIC:   Do you have any advice for young composers?

Geoffrey: Write, write, write. And perhaps even more important: listen, listen, listen. Expose yourself to as much music as you can find, even—or I might say especially—if you don’t like it. Get out of your comfort zone as a listener. That’s where you make the best discoveries. And that’s how you grow as a composer.

CSIC:   What projects are you currently working on?

Geoffrey:  In January, I started work on a new flute concerto for the legendary virtuoso Carol Wincenc and the Buffalo Philharmonic. It will premiere at KleinhansMusic Hall, in Buffalo, New York, next Spring. This is special for me because I grew up in Buffalo, and my first experiences with classical music were with this orchestra in this hall. I am thrilled to have the chance to walk back into Kleinhans as a composer! I am also writing a double concerto (cello and harp) for the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and a saxophone concerto for Australian sax star Amy Dickson. There is an opera in the works, after my friend Carey Wallace’s stunning novel, The Blind Contessa’s New Machine, and in June I will spend a month in Copenhagen, at the invitation of the Danish Arts Council, to work on a new theater piece. These are exciting times!

Learn more about Geoffrey Gordon at

To rent or purchase the score for Cool RED Cool, email LCM Artists Management at