World Music in Modern Composition

This week we were visited by Dr. David Gordon, composer, percussionist, and NIU alum who is now making a name for himself writing what would be considered modern music with very strong ties to different musical-cultural traditions.

Before I even get into his music, though, I’m really fascinated by this concept of very old, traditional music having found a way to be considered modern. It is truly amazing that certain styles have not only lasted hundreds or even thousands of years, but seem to hold so much significance and complexity that people are still finding new ways to use the same rhythmic and melodic patterns that have been used the whole time.

Case in point is Dr. Gordon’s piece “Hollow Psalm” which can be heard here. Hollow Psalm is a piece written for Javanese Gamelan and orchestra. Neither of these ensembles are even arguably new to the world, so how and why is it that it took until 2009, when this piece was performed, for it to exist in the world? This is not to say the two had never been combined before, but this was a very new idea to Dr. Gordon when he wrote it and definitely not one that had been utilized to much extent previously. My theory is that the two ensembles were simply busy discovering and enjoying other things prior to this, both as groups and concepts, which just continues the fascination with certain music’s ability to be so complex that it takes hundreds, thousands, or even more years to discover everything it is truly worth.

In addition, Dr. Gordon spent a lot of time talking about how certain things influenced him, or not for that matter. I even remember listening to another one of his pieces and asking him if a certain part was intentionally based on Middle Eastern maqam, to which he actually seemed surprised in that it had absolutely no impact on his compositional process for that piece and that it was more than likely coincidental. However, even he was the first to point out that his knowledge of the music very well could have had a subconscious effect on the piece as he was writing it.

That thought, to me, is extremely exciting. As someone who is very passionate about discovering different music traditions, learning them, and being able to mix them all together in some attempted sensible way, I love the thought that everything I am learning now may, some day, seed itself so deep in my mind that it starts influencing the things I play/perform/write without me even noticing. I can only hope to achieve this level of understanding for anything I do, but situations like that with Dr. David Gordon show me that it is all not only possible but probable, and that is one of the most exciting realizations that anyone with any aspirations can have.