GORDON: Silver Rain -- Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon on poems by Langston Hughes. Genius Child.
Nicole Cabell (soprano), Ricky Ian Gordon (piano).
Blue Griffin BGR253 TT: 64:43.

Black Orpheus. Of all the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes seems to have accrued the most staying power, if only for his Broadway work. I find him uneven -- at his best, however, wonderful and original. I prefer, however, his essays and newspaper columns, mostly written for the African-American press. On the toxic subject of race in the U.S., he takes a deeply human view, rooted in the details of at least some part of Black life, particularly that of Harlem. He doesn't need to be "poetic," which sometimes comes between his poems (trying too hard) and the reader, for the voice is authentic. Besides, as a man with a fabulous ear, he can't help himself.

Ricky Ian Gordon studied composition a bit outside the usual places -- mainly Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, rather than at Juilliard, for example. Nevertheless, he has cracked the composition market and has become a bit of a hot ticket, particularly successful with commissioning organizations. I think this speaks to his music's inherent appeal, since Gordon is somewhat conservative melodically and harmonically, apparently influenced by such people as Laura Nyro and Ned Rorem. Some critics also through Stephen Sondheim and Joni Mitchell into the mix. I have no idea whether he's written anything purely instrumental, since all I've heard or read about has been vocal.

I don't deny Gordon's genuine lyrical gift, but I do find the quality of the songs' quality vary greatly in this collection and more "nothing" ones (those that fail to impress me at all) than winners. Some of this has to do with the Hughes poems Gordon sets, all very short. He mostly fails to solve the problem of how to stretch the texts into his musical structures, and the songs run out of gas. Usually he over-repeats texts. To me, you either write a short song or you follow Mahler's example, with the development of a musical argument (rather than repetition of "hooks") carried on by both the voice and by the accompaniment all by itself. Also, I've referred in the past to Gordon's penchant for the Dana Carvey "broccoli" song, a type where the composer goes with the flow on automatic, usually to the point of nattering, rather than shaping the song. There are maybe only two or three of those, as opposed to the collection A Horse with Wings, where they killed the collection with too many dead spots.

The various Langston Hughes settings not part of the Genius Child cycle represent a significant advance on earlier Gordon collections. I liked especially "Stars," "Dreams/Feet o' Jesus," "Song for a Dark Girl" (a powerhouse of a song, about lynching), and "Litany." All of these songs are slow and mournful. Many of the up-tempo numbers either resemble one another too much or, less frequently, descended into the manically uncontrolled.

The song cycle Genius Child, also using Hughes texts, has less melodic distinction, but I consider them, paradoxically, better songs. Gordon seems more tied to the poems, including their structure, and successfully pushes against the limits of his idiom. Gordon here makes me wonder about his future music -- where he goes. Will he leave his pop-based lyricism? Will it remain a base, like English folk song and Vaughan Williams, of something more complex? Will he become Hugo Wolf or Gustav Mahler?

I have no reservations about the performers. Nicole Cabell is that rare soprano who can sing opera and Lieder. Her diction is superb and she knows how to declaim poetry. Her voice has both sweetness, aided by a true ear, and power. I'd call her "classy," if that didn't imply a certain remoteness, and nothing gets between her and a listener emotionally. Gordon persuasively "sells" his own music. He has definite ideas about how it should go, and both he and Cabell communicate like nobody's business.

S.G.S. (November 2013)