CD review: Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Green Sneakers”

RIGordonOne morning a month or two ago I was in the car and “The Writer’s Almanac” with Garrison Keillor came on the radio.  After the list of birthdays and such, the short segment ended, “And here’s a poem by Ricky Ian Gordon…”

I wanted to shout out, “Wait! He’s a composer! He’s ours!”

But the plain spoken sentiment, as well as the unique name, meant it had to be the same guy.  (“The Tulips,” the poem that Keillor read, is available on the Writer’s Almanac site.)

More evidence of Gordon’s activity as a poet comes with the new disc of “Green Snakers” (Blue Griffin Recordings),  a narrative song cycle of nearly an hour in length performed by baritone Jesse Blumberg and the Miami String Quartet.  The text is more than a dozen poems written by the composer — I mean the poet — about his late partner, Jeffrey Grossi, who died of AIDS in 1996.

In the CD booklet, Gordon explains the title: “There was a day when I was staring into our closet from the vast desolation of our bed, and his sad little green sneakers suggested to me a text about the day we bought them together… (It) seemed to pour out of me… a cycle of poems that tells the story of that day and the period after, leading all the way up to his death.”

Some of the poems sets a scene or narrate, while at other points the words are addressed directly to Jeffrey.  As well as a symbol of loss, the Green Sneakers become a kind of metaphor for travel as the couple vacations or attends performances of Gordon’s operas.  And Jeffrey’s decline is described in detail.  There’s the difficult transformation of normal day-to-day activities into grueling tasks and the inexorable loss of weight.  And then the death and its aftermath, both emotional, and mundane — including donating the green sneakers and the rest of Jeffrey’s fashionable wardrobe to a thrift shop.   It’s effecting stuff, even just to list it as I do here.

Gordon’s musical setting is heartfelt but remarkably driven and never truly maudlin.  It just perseveres onward, not unlike the work of a caretaker or survivor.

The string quartet is smart choice for an accompaniment and backdrop.  It provides enough varied textures, and a balance of intimacy and depth.  A single piano might have been too close range, especially for live performance, and yet an orchestra would be too grand of a horizon for such deeply personal stuff.

The performance is beautiful and like the composition itself just distant enough, not morose or ponderous.  Blumberg has a handsome sturdy voice and the Miami String Quartet is energetic and clear.

There’s no politics nor hardly any anger in this work that is nonetheless distinctly about AIDS. It’s part diary, part memory book and requires immersion and preparation for its emotional wallop.

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