Who Knows What Music Lurks in the Midst of Sullivan County?

On October 13, 2012 the DVCO brought to fruition its first Narrowsburg Music Day for which Steinberg (photo left) and her associates arranged an outdoor Blues Band concert, an historic walk through the village, the classical concert reviewed below, and a Jazz Jam. Kudos to the Music Day's collaborators: Ms. Steinberg, the DVCO Directors, Narrowsburg Electric, the Town of Tusten Historical Society and the Delaware Valley Arts Alliance/Tusten Theatre for this unique community undertaking. Encore! Encore!

White Lake is in the midst of Sullivan County, and it is there that composer Ricky Ian Gordon has a home. In 2007, Gordon composed a remarkable work with the unlikely title "Green Sneakers" for the Vail (CO) Valley Music Festival. It is remarkable in many ways, but perhaps the most remarkable is the many levels on, in and through which an audience can hear it and see it. Yes, see it. And the many ways someone can feel it.

In 1996, Gordon began to write a cycle of 16 poems that tell the story of his experience with his partner's struggle with AIDS, from the day his partner bought a pair of sneakers up to the day of his death. Gordon remembered those poems and set them to music. A 17th poem, written even many years earlier, was added to the work as an epilogue. This work is Gordon seeking a way to deal with the death of his loved one. A passing that was not unexpected, yet still conjured up an unwanted amount of grief, anger and despair. This is Gordon crying out for help to deal with, dissipate and finally release those feelings.

Gordon's partner chose to die as a Buddhist and so Gordon (photo right) purchased "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," which he read and then chose to use as the libretto for an opera, an opera much involved in the poems as they explain the trials he and his partner went through so that his partner could witness the opera prior to his passing.

Irony comes in the form of Gordon's inability to deal with his partner's dying and death and perhaps not realizing that his partner chose to assist him with that inability through the Book by dismantling his Western conception of death and hopefully replacing it with the Eastern philosophy that life and death are one. This was not to be so, as Gordon still was not able to reconcile, and even added rage to his feelings while self-analyzing and facing "my selfishness, my pettiness."

"Green Sneakers" is musically and theatrically performed by five ?people?. I question the word "people." There is a baritone singing the poems as he lives through what he is saying. But the other four performers are two violinists, a violist and a cellist. In this case, the world class Voxare String Quartet (photo left). Gordon intends them to be a part of the "action," musically conversing with the baritone, and theatrically as the baritone walks around them, listens to them and watches them. But, somehow the musicians seemed to transcend being just physical entities.

As the baritone was singing, the poems suggested to me that Gordon was asking you to empathize with his experience, feel what he felt, and identify with him. But there were always Gordon's metaphors and similes which also gave you the opportunity to empathize, yet feel what YOU might have felt in a similar experience and identify with that. And, even deeper, there was the music. What a glorious way to translate anger, grief, despair, and finally, comfort into universal terms and have anyone experience feelings of any sort through the notes. These are three distinct ways to be moved by a work of art, and of course they can all be felt at the same time.

As I listened to the Quartet's "musical subtext" (Steinberg's words) my imagination took over. I suspected that even after writing the poems Gordon could not fully reconcile and release. Was Gordon aware that when he was inspired to use a singing baritone and a string quartet for this 2007 work that, once again, his partner who had passed in 1996 was "at work" to help him, assisting him as the muse for that inspiration? Was he aware that the baritone was walking around the musicians and not really hearing them because Gordon himself was not really listening to his inner/higher self which was trying to reach him with help?

No longer did the music seem to be Steinberg's "subtext" word, but the actual opposite, the paramount expression of how to reconcile via Eastern thought by accepting and getting on with his life through his work. If this was not Gordon's partner musically speaking to him through the spheres, it was certainly his own higher self doing just that.

Today it is obvious Gordon knows all that, as he has moved forward with his life. And he has received deserved accolades for this work. I wish I were a musicologist and could describe the quartet's music in technical terms so you can get a more exact impression of what I heard. But I do not have that knowledge. I can say, however, that what I heard I could not relate to any influence(s) by any composer(s). Gordon has a unique language. And he is extremely skilled, in that, his language can speak to you on any level and move you on one or more of them. Gordon knew instinctively how to have the quartet music go directly to your gut with or even without the need to relate to the staged poetry. Gordon also gives you the opportunity to relate to the music through the mind as the music is extremely expressive and can easily conjure up visual images. And there lies, for me, the true greatness of the work: all those levels and all those ways to experience it.

Jesse Blumberg was the baritone. With his warm and highly pleasant voice, he was totally convincing as he expressed the jumble of Gordon's emotional conflicts. The quartet, Emily Ondracek-Peterson (violin), Glaina Zhdanova (volin), Erik Peterson (viola) and Adrian Daurov (Cello), were, in every aspect, superb.
- Barry Plaxen, The Catskill Chronicle, 18 October 2012