Listeners be warned: the Van Gogh of Michael Gordon’s most recent composition isn’t so much the Van Gogh of The Starry Night, so much as it is the Van Gogh of Skull with a Burning Cigarette. The Vincent of Van Gogh is a deeply troubled young soul desperate to find his way in the world, whether it be through a vocation or through the love of a lady. The fact that we know how his tale ended makes this particular telling of it all the more troubling.
Alarm Will Sound, to this point most famous outside strictly classical circles for its masterful, acoustic interpretations of Aphex Twin tracks, is a fabulous orchestra, capable of wringing emotion and humanity out of places in which it would appear to be non-existent. Given such a talent, they are perfect for this particular reading of Van Gogh’s legacy. Musically, Van Gogh is a document of the mindset of Van Gogh, while sung and spoken text are lifted directly from his letters. Even as the letters are strikingly lucid and measured (if a bit desperate), the music behind the text and on which the text is sung is largely dissonant, meterless, and manic. Strings pierce uncomfortable heights, melodies jump around as if they’re only vaguely aware of key signatures and scales, and the occasional rock ‘n’ roll drum beat shows up just to throw us off. It’s all very disconcerting, which I’m sure is the intended effect.
Still, one would think that there would be more emotions than “royally off-kilter” when it comes to Van Gogh. Unfortunately, if there was more to the man, Michael Gordon’s score doesn’t really indicate as much. Sure, there are slow passages, indicating thoughtfulness and gravity, and there are fast passages which would then indicate an immediacy to Van Gogh’s mental plight, but it all seems to be making the point that he was tortured, he was batshit crazy, and he was all but helpless to stop his own downward spiral.
By concentrating largely on the period before he started his painting, by finding only desperation and sadness in his letters, Gordon does Van Gogh a disservice. By concentrating on passages like “Dear Theo, whole days pass without my speaking to anyone, except to ask for dinner and coffee, and it has been like that…” (as Gordon does in “Aries”), he is practically begging for the listener’s sympathy without demonstrating all of the talent that Van Gogh had to offer. Even as he does find some strength in his painting, he is outside himself as he does, only confirming the mental ills that so accompanied his brilliance. Juxtaposition of some of this dramatic weight with more reflective instrumental moments might have done wonders for the balance of Van Gogh; as it is, the piece is almost a chore to listen to, even as it is invariably interesting.
Musically, it’s obvious that Gordon has much to offer and a broad palette to draw from; shades of Bach’s classicism, Reich’s minimalism, and Gershwin’s modernism all make appearances in this aural painting of Van Gogh‘s madness. The letters chosen are also affecting and heartbreaking, as we hear of Van Gogh’s attempts to find employment with the Church (“London”), his want for love (“The Hague”), and even a bit of his creative process (“Aries”).
Still, with such a broad list of influences and inspirations to draw from, it’s easy to wish that the underlying mood of the entire hour-long piece wasn’t quite so uniform. For a classical piece to truly come together as something transcendent, so many pieces have to be in just the right places. The music has to work, the text has to belong with it, the performers have to understand the motivations of the composer, the subject has to be worthy ... and all of these pieces, separately, are fulfilled by Van Gogh. Despite the brilliant performance of it, though, these particular pieces just don’t quite work together, because something’s missing, perhaps something that could have told a more balanced story of just who Van Gogh was, rather than the simplified character study that Gordon displays with this work. As it is, Van Gogh is interesting and worth study, but it never threatens to assert itself as a landmark.