On a lazy Sunday afternoon in Aspen July 30th, Conductor Leonard Slatkin
faced his unsuspecting audience and issued a warning: "Gorgon is unlike
any piece you've ever heard ... concentrated energy in its rawest form
... the Rite of Spring on steroids ... evil and horrible ... evil
incarnate." To put it simply, Gorgon is loud. Very loud. So loud that
David Zinman, who premiered the work in Rochester in 1984, recalled:
"Of all the pieces I've conducted, that was the most damaging. I remember
coming off the stage afterward - your hearing shuts down, protecting you
when the decibel level is so high. I was completely shattered afterward,
completely shattered. I had the feeling that my eyeballs were going
around in circles."
This piece - or, I should say, phenomenon - is not written for electronic
instruments. It's composed for a fairly large acoustic symphony orchestra
and, well, 73 percussion instruments (56 different types), including all
kinds of bells, gongs, drums, and - dwarfing the rest - three plywood
boxes, specially reinforced by Aspen Chamber Orchestra Principal
Percussionist Jonathan Haas to be bashed with iron pipes.
Christopher Rouse, a regular at the festival - he now heads the Susan
and Ford Schumann Center for Composition Studies here - is the man
responsible for composing this musical mayhem. As Slatkin explained to
the assembled audience-victims, "Chris wants you to be disturbed by this.
Rhythmic intensity and sonic density are what to listen to." In other
words, not the normal features of classical music like melody and harmony.
What Rouse has in mind is to terrify. As he put it back in 1984:
"Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the Gorgon has been a symbol for
any terror too immense - and too horrible - to be faced. It has thus
become an image of sublimated brutality and savagery, perhaps a metaphor
for our own private and subconscious monsters." There were three mythical
Gorgon sisters: Stheno, Euryale, and most famously, Medusa. A single
glance from any of these snake-haired, tusk-toothed babes would turn
anyone to stone, a fate that the hero Perseus evaded in Medusa's case
by using his shield as a mirror to guide his lethal sword thrusts. Rouse
sets all three of the sisters in his 18-minute assault on the senses.
The three movements, one per sister, are separated by two interludes
(Perseus Spells) for percussion only. All five sections are played without
pause and rip along uniformly at 176 beats to the minute.
Needless to say, this is not your everyday serenade. As devastatingly
thrilling as it is, Gorgon is exceedingly difficult to play and rarely
performed. Many musicians make careful notations on their scores
indicating where to insert earplugs and they practice (and practice)
playing rapid-fire notes all over the map.
Despite the rarity of performance and his earlier involvement at Aspen
this summer, Rouse was not able to attend (he was vacationing in Florida).
No problem, Slatkin assured the audience, "It's so loud he'll still be
able to hear it even there!"
Even after Slatkin's warnings, however, the woman next to me yelped
involuntarily and covered her ears as triple-forte trombones, tuba,
cymbals, gong, and the rest of the orchestra, began the Stheno movement
with a machine-gun DA-da-da-da-da-da on a dissonant A note against B
flat, building up in 30 quick bars to a
shriek-shriek-shriek-shriek-shriek-shriek BANG-duh, the final notes of
that hair-raising phrase bashed out on timpani, slapstick, and brake
Of course, loud is a relative term. The genius in Rouse's Gorgon is
that there are plenty of weirdly quiet passages to set up the barrages.
Ironically, the middle movement, Euryale, after the Gorgon noted for her
bellowing by the ancients, is the least noisy. Instead, flesh-crawling,
trilled glissandos in contrary motion inhabit the strings. The second
Perseus Spell, scored for vibraphone, marimba, xylophone, and glockenspiel,
is also subdued.
Not so the first Perseus Spell, which explodes forth quadruple forte
with bass drum, timbale (a kind of kettledrum), tom-tom, and timpani
(BOMB BOMB BOMB BOMB BOMB BOMB). By this point I'm sure many listeners
wished the program had come with aspirin tablets. But taking them would
have been useless against the might of Medusa, which starts off as the
louder Stheno and builds to an overwhelming onslaught with the addition
off shock-and-awe weapons - namely, ratchets, chimes, gongs, metal plates,
and the aforementioned three boxes - to end con tutta forza possibile,
quintuple forte. The audience loved it, but their standing ovation and
whistles managed only a pianissimo compared to what provoked their
Gorgon was preceded by an opposite, Mozart's inconsequential F-Major
concerto for two pianos, K. 242, played charmingly by two fine musicians
barely into their teens, Peng Peng and Conrad Tao. To great acclaim,
the pair followed with an encore, composed by the latter, of variations
on Happy Birthday, played for David Zinman, who beamed from the back
After an imperative post-Gorgon intermission, Slatkin and the orchestra
returned to perform Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. But nature, roused
by a human upstart, decided that anything Rouse can do, it can do louder.
A gargantuan thunderstorm, perhaps heard beyond Florida, pelted the
Benedict Music Tent without mercy. Tchaikovsky, no stranger to multiple
fortes, became barely audible in the tempestuous first movement.
Now the audience was treated to a unique spectacle. Drowned out by the
storm, Slatkin - a man whose interpretation of the symphony in rehearsal
earlier that day left local experts praising its historic importance -
was left helpless. There was no way he could start the famous, gently
romantic second movement. After a few minutes, he sat down on his podium
like an old man on a curb waiting for an overdue bus. Finally, he rose
and walked offstage.
He was back in a few moments with a microphone, proposing that the louder
finale be played next, followed by a return to the middle movements
should the storm abate. The audience agreed with loud applause.
Amid thunderbolts and the pelting of the tent shell from above, hints
emerged of what might have been. Slatkin's idiosyncratic use of rubato
added power and feeling to crucial passages. Alas, the storm did not
let up. The wild cheers of the crowd were not sufficient to justify
waiting another half hour for the storm to subside. Slatkin did not
return, the crowd mingled with the musicians or lingered near the exits
watching the deluge, and the concert was over.
Gorgon is an amazing composition that must be heard to be believed.
Something incredible happens every time it is performed. That's why
I've been in attendance at its last four venues - Santa Cruz, Denver,
Winnipeg, and Aspen - and I will go to the ends of the earth to experience
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