Roses on the Disco Floor: Peter Gordon

Peter Gordon & The Love of Life Orchestra’s dense, experimental and deeply funky music has just been reissued, re-alerting listeners to the composer’s unique, genre-crossing sounds. Gordon spoke with BOMBlog’s Nick Hallett about collaborating with artists like Arthur Russell as well as the ways in which his work continues to exert an influence on the dance floor in addition to the concert hall.

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Peter Gordon, 1976. Photo by Pat Kelley.

The recent outpouring of interest in the posthumous recordings of Arthur Russell has helped de-mystify the idea that a musical artist’s practice travels not just across concepts of sound and media type, but also more contemporary ideas of popular taste and genre. This interest has paved the way towards a re-examination of the rich community of Russell’s collaborators, who gathered around lower Manhattan and its loosely defined rubric, making what was popularly referred to as “downtown music.” Composer and saxophonist Peter Gordon, whose Love Of Life Orchestra (LOLO) is the beneficiary of a well-deserved and well-timed retrospective by James Murphy and his DFA label this month, was a close friend of Russell’s, and the commonality in their respective practices—which delve into dance music and unabashedly radio-friendly pop and rock, in addition to more experiment-minded chamber works and performance collaborations—really shows.

In SoHo and the East Village during the late 1970s, where part of the challenge for its artists was to constantly redraw the boundaries between what was seen as serious culture and semi-populist fun, Peter Gordon convened the scene’s party band. Along with composer-percussionist David Van Tieghem, whose day job at the time was playing in Steve Reich’s ensemble, and a generation-defining group of artists that included at various times Russell, Kathy Acker, Laurie Anderson, Ernie Brooks, Rhys Chatham, Scott Johnson, Jill Kroesen, Ned Sublette, “Blue” Gene Tyranny, Peter Zummo, and many others, LOLO set out to find the middle ground between serial-minded minimalism and hands-in-the-air dance music. The result sounds most like disco, with generous helpings of avant-mindedness and a contrarian’s wit.

A look back at this time also reveals that the first LOLO concerts predate Russell’s earliest known forays into disco (though to this point, Gordon claims “Arthur totally immersed himself in the whole genre and disco scene. This I never did”). Add to that the lore that Gordon escorted Rhys Chatham to his first punk show (the Ramones at CBGBs), which sent the latter off on his well-noted practice with guitar ensembles, and Peter Gordon comes into view as an influential figure in a movement that has clearly affected the contemporary musical landscape, for perhaps helping to loosen its collar. And yet it’s the journey towards the creation of LOLO (encounters with Captain Beefheart, Robert Ashley and Terry Riley on the west coast) and what happened to Gordon’s practice after the great disco backlash (major collaborations with Ashley, Richard Foreman and Bill T. Jones) which begin to fill in the portrait of an artist who has always thrived in the spaces between recognized definitions of music and sound.

Peter Gordon and I met through the community of artists who continue to perform the music of Arthur Russell (which is perhaps the cause of this Russell-oriented intro) and I interviewed him at his home in New Rochelle, New York, which he shares with his wife, the video artist Kit Fitzgerald, and their son Max.

Nick Hallett One of the things I really want to focus on is this reconciliation process between the avant-garde impulse and the desire to make pop music and how your work engages with that process and where that process begins. What is some of the earliest music that you remember enjoying? What got you into music in the first place?

Peter Gordon Initially as a younger teenager I was really into jazz. I really liked jazz saxophone. I was living in Germany, and so I was also into the whole British blues thing. I used to hear groups like The Animals and The Kinks and The Yardbirds, and was into Motown, too.

NH Those things existed very comfortably and simultaneously in your tastes when you were a teen?

PG Oh yeah, I was listening to James Brown and the Rolling Stones but also John Coltrane and Sun Ra. In Munich, we could take the subway in, and for like two Marks—which was like 50 cents at the time—we could get student tickets to the Bayerischer Rundfunk Orchestra or the Munich Opera. We could go to hear Debussy or Schoenberg and then go to a rock club and see the latest band so I never felt that conflict in a certain sense. It became clear to me early on that once I started playing saxophone I would never have the embouchure for classical clarinet playing and I never liked symphonic saxophone.

NH So what inspired your own take on the instrument?

PG People whose sound I really loved were Albert Ayler, King Curtis, Junior Walker. I liked that big, sort of gutbucket type of tenor sound. Certainly Coltrane and Sonny Rollins as well.

NH I wouldn’t say your playing has been a rejection of jazz but your own practice kind of skirts around it.

PG I never really got into that play-the-head-take-turns-soloing-play-the-head-again type of jazz, that dependency on standard repertoire. Also there was something about the jazz players—it was almost athletic in a certain sense. It was always like, who plays the fastest solo? Who’s the hottest player? There was this sort of hierarchy, guys who knew all those be-bop solos and played really fast, and a lot of it seemed more about chops than about music. And I began being more interested in exploring a limited set of either musical skills or gestures, and really trying to look at things singularly from different points of view. Also, whatever you do in the jazz hierarchy, you’re always competing against Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

NH So it seemed better to strike out on your own and go in a different direction—

PG Yeah, I mean I don’t know how conscious it was, but it was just less interesting to me to follow that path.

NH So who were your mentors in composition around that time?

PG Well, at that point I didn’t really have mentors—

NH Are we talking—are we still in high school?

PG I mean, I moved back to the States for my senior year, Los Angeles, and that’s when I met Captain Beefheart. He was a big influence.

NH How did you meet Captain Beefheart in high school?

PG Basically, he lived in our neighborhood. My friend Richard Benedon had met him and we would go over to his house all the time. This was when he was recording Trout Mask Replica and the whole band was living in the house and we used to hang out. And my friend would go make out with his girlfriend or whatever in the other room, and I’d be stuck and just have to talk with Captain Beefheart for hours. And that’s where I really saw that here was someone doing rock music, influenced by blues, but really treating it as an artist. It wasn’t coming out of [John] Cage or an academic lineage, but he was really informed, I think. And through Beefheart there was that Zappa connection.

NH So through the arty, West coast freak-out rock thing—

PG I don’t think there is any genre you could have put Beefheart in at that time. One the reasons I never sold a million dollars in records is that I never really consciously thought of those genres, I was always interested in the spaces in between. Around the same time, my father—who was a radio journalist­—went to interview Harry Partch, so I was basically there for the interview. It was at the UCLA production of Delusion of the Fury. Then when I got a copy of the record of Terry [Riley]’s In C, that sort of blew my mind in a certain way.

NH Did you meet him around that time?

PG No I didn’t meet him until later until I went to Mills. And I didn’t know anything about him, but a friend of mine, Steve Bartek, said, check this out. And it was like, wow. I had always been fascinated with simple patterns and the layering of simple patterns. I started thinking that if you could change any aspect, any parameter of a pattern, then that might suggest a different world. It might even suggest a different genre, just the placement of where you put the bass note or the kick or whether it’s irregular, whether it’s a syncopated pattern, or the phrasing of that pattern. So if you have just a four-note pattern and you start shifting its rhythmic components, you will start suggesting a whole different range of genres.

NH Well that’s definitely exemplified in Machomusic, and I kind of want to talk about what brought you to that because that kind of seems like a milestone piece for you in terms of defining a sound you went with and expanded upon. You developed a whole practice around it.

PG Well, I think it was probably in many ways my farewell to San Diego, UCSD, at that time. Before that I had written a very finely intricately notated string trio. I wrote a really nice piece for like six flutes, prepared piano, harpsichord and celesta. These earliest works had been more pointillist and textural in a certain way. But this one had more to do with the saxophone and you know I began looking for the music inside myself rather than anyone else’s idea of what music should be. Basically I was interested in hearing this type of music and I guess I was the one to make it.

NH So was it a reaction? Was it a rejection?

PG Yeah, originally the title was “Eat Shit, Fatherfucker.”

NH (laughter) And you want that to go on record in BOMB?

PG Let me think about that one. Actually there were six saxophone players all in drag, all wearing beards. We had a quad sound set up where we were all mic-ed.

NH And you had analog oscillators.

PG Yeah, we had 16 Buchla oscillators turned to that F, very loud, which then started to drift over the course of the piece. It was almost like a shout in a certain sense. At that time I was interested in pattern music, becoming curious about repetitive music and also open structures, and just that physical act, that relationship you have as a saxophone player in just blowing. So in that sense it was like a scream, a bursting out. And it was double-billed with a performance of [Robert Ashley’s] The Wolfman.

NH That seems like a nice pairing!

PG Yeah, it was great because the only way you could beat Machomusic was with Wolfman.

NH (laughter) I mean, in a very different kind of way I feel like Bob Ashley works with trying to reconcile these ideas of the “vernacular” and the “experiment” and I’m curious how studying with him at Mills encouraged or influenced you.

PG I liked Bob’s ability to recognize a performance ensemble as a social unit, a community, which can have many different types of organization and any one of those organizational types of the players or musical material was as valid as the other.

NH And then his community ended up having a big influence on who you would end up collaborating with when you moved to New York.

PG Well, I think that tends to happen in establishing networks, whether it’s people from a certain town or a certain college. I think that’s really New York’s story, you know. So Bob moved to town and a number of us moved to New York at around the same time. For me it was kind of unplanned because I still hadn’t finished school yet, but I was on the road with a rock band, a 1950s-type revue and we did a month in Chicago at the Playboy club there and then suddenly I arrived in New York. That was in 1975 and I stayed in the East Village and met Rhys [Chatham] and Arthur [Russell].

NH But you were just on tour then, you hadn’t settled?

PG The tour ended in Chicago and I went to New York. Everyone else went home. I just ended up staying. Everything just seemed to be jumping.

NH So what energies were you drawing on in New York when you first moved here and how did the community, not just the people that were coming from Mills and Bob Ashley’s circle, conflate with the people you were meeting?

PG Well, a lot of the scene was centered around the Kitchen, certainly. I think Arthur was probably music director then. I met him shortly after I moved here, when Rhys and I were looking for a place to jam. Arthur briefly had a storefront on East 4th Street, and so he let us go and jam there and we sort of talked about this unabashed interest in pop music as well as in experimental music. It was like a common bond and a secret between us. I mean, not a secret, but it was like everyone else thought we were both crazy in that sense. And at the time everyone was playing in each other’s projects. Doing a concert at the Kitchen was a really big deal, but I was able to get a date at Artists Space and so I asked Rhys and Garrett [List] and I think Arthur played on that as well. In that same way, Arthur was writing his Instrumentals at that point and he brought me in and I helped him copy the score. And he brought me in to play sax on some of the [John] Hammond sessions, which were my first recording sessions in New York, at Columbia Records. Then I started doing these ad hoc ensembles, like we’d perform at Phill Niblock’s loft or at Sobossek’s, which was a bar between 5th and 6th on the Bowery where Rhys worked sometimes as bartender, and we could go in weeknights or whatever, book a date, and then we’d put together a band and play music. Like a precursor to LOLO [Love of Life Orchestra] was the Normal Music Band. I think we did a performance as the Dukes. But it also had a bunch of horns and stuff, I had an interest in big band voicing as well. I seemed to mix a lot of different styles at that point.

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Gordon (right) with LOLO co-founder David Van Tieghem.

NH So what was the intention with LOLO? To be a band, like a pop band? Or was the intention for LOLO to be something more-or-less like an experimental ensemble that engaged with the rubric of pop music? Where did you define it?

PG Well, initially it was thought of more as a process. I was interested in creating a band in which musicians and even artists—non-musicians from all sorts of genres—could create music that had a shared core. And so some people might relate to notated music, others might respond to process or instruction, or maybe chord changes.

NH But you still were approaching this from the viewpoint of a composer as opposed to a band leader who doesn’t think in terms of the history of experimental music—

PG This really came as much out of conceptual art as anything else.

NH But it was never a joke band in the sense of “we’re composers making pop music.”

PG We weren’t joking, but we had fun with it. Jill Kroesen and I would do a version of “I Got You Babe.” And then in the Max’s Kansas City generation, we did “Crimson and Clover.” I wouldn’t say it was all naïve either. LOLO really came out of a joy of loving this music and enjoying going from a hypnotic pattern into a very funky anthemic type of pattern into something more abstract and pointilistic. And it’s like taking a journey through the music and the music is a very big house and it has lots of different rooms in it and it’s multi-dimensional—you can go into one room and it’ll take you into outer space or you go into another and suddenly you’re on this river or something. And somehow just by turning this doorknob you enter into this whole other space. And it’s like by shifting the prism, by slightly shifting the point of view you find yourself in this totally different world, which is a musical world.

NH Now we’re getting somewhere. I think it also has to do with the memory of music—

PG Well, the memory of music and also, in one sense, the way I felt about musical choices. I came to this from Cage in the sense that what Cage has taught us is that anything can be music: any type of sound, any gesture. Well, what that also means that music can be treated as music, which was very freeing. So in that sense I was never really interested in copying a style, but more like we would walk through different styles. Now this was also the time of disco and even before I moved to New York, the first time I heard those early disco records, early Donna Summer or Van McCoy “Do the Hustle,” for me that was like a light bulb going off, because basically what it meant was that—especially in what Donna Summer showed us—if you could keep that groove going, then you can do whatever you want on top of it. It really frees you intellectually because it breaks down that form, you know, it extends that verse-chorus hegemony which had been really dominating music for so long. So I think a combination of both disco music, Phil [Glass] and Terry’s music, minimalism, James Brown, came together to form an extended framework for me. Then there was electronic music, which became part of the palette we had to work with as well as recording, even though studio recording was very expensive and you had to find ways to get in the studio. Still, this became both more accessible to us and also a way of making music. The x-y axis wouldn’t be, you know, treble, bass and the different instruments in an orchestral score, but would actually be frequency and time and that’s really how you could work. And you could make your own stage, thinking orchestrally, but represented by tracks on the tape recorder. So rather than a score for a 16-piece ensemble, you’d have a 16-track tape composition and with tape what you could do was record intuitive impulses and either keep them or not keep them but then work with them selectively.

NH What was the audience for LOLO when it first started?

PG Well, we played in SoHo and the East Village for the community of different artists working, different visual artists, neighborhood people.

NH I want to romanticize it as something that was very much for the in-crowd, but that might just be my preconception—

PG I mean, it was. We got criticized at the time for it because we were being seen as geared towards a small community, and it was accused as just being directed toward those in-the-know. It wasn’t necessarily heterogeneous racially. But there was a big mix of men, women, different ages, gay, straight. Then it was around that time when punk sort of hit—I mean punk was there, right around the corner—


PG At CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City, the Ramones or whatever would be playing, and we were playing in the same club. And at that point New Wave began happening and I think between every cusp, there’s always a brief window when the rules are opened—

NH A Rococo kind of period—

PG Where sort of anything can sort of fit in.

NH And what happened when disco gave way to New Wave? Did you feel like you associated with one side of things more than the other, or were you just going along for the ride and hoping to find a place for your music?

PG There have always been lists like this, you know especially since the Beatles, or even before, whether it’s the Crickets or Elvis, it’s been these rock trios or quartets of attractive guys. But that always came down to the rock band image, the rebellious rock band. So in that sense I never saw LOLO as a rock band in that vein. But I always liked instrumental pop bands. Growing up I really liked the Shadows or the Ventures as well as different sax instrumentals. The way I thought was, every year or two there’s some instrumental pop hit, so I was hoping to create something that would break through and maybe we would get a shot at one of those instrumental slots, which usually happens in a very fluke-y way.

NH But it’s interesting because this thinking actually paved the way towards more serious concert work and commissions for stage works that still imbue that kind of energy and process but are on the more high-toned side of things.

PG I started getting invited to participate in different theatrical or choreographic pieces. I met [John] Sanborn and Kit [Fitzgerald] and we started running video along with the band. At the time it was on monitors. Then Kit and I really started working on our collaborations together, like in ’82. Around that time I had already started writing the music for Birth of the Poet for Richard Foreman, so I began thinking in terms of larger scale.

NH You’ve played Otello for me and what’s really exciting to me about that piece is that you really see the—I don’t want to say the graduation of—but you really hear the same ideas that you hear with LOLO, but more finely tuned. The music still maintains this sense of abandonment that you want to feel when experiencing pop music, but it’s still very clearly within the rubric of a serious concert work. It’s almost like a vernacular kind of music for New York in the 80s. And this is one reason why I’ve wanted to focus our conversation on this area where the popular impulse and the experimental technique combine and connect because I find that a challenging and problematic space but also a place where you can find just an immense amount of basic satisfaction in the making of music.

PG I think this has always been the function of opera or music theater or Broadway or Gesamtkuntswerk. I think that’s where you find the culmination of research that’s done within music, which is also done within drama and within the media of the time. I think that when you’re dealing with a text such as Otello, really closely dealing with such a brilliant director, Mario Martone, who was the director of [Neopolitan theater group] Falso Movimento. I think creating that narrative or that dramatic map, whether it’s narrative in a linear sense or narrative in a cumulative sense or whatever, creates that need for musical problem solving. There were questions which I might not have thought of myself, but which would require musical answers. Music theater also provides opportunity to work in longer phrases, of 30 or 90 minutes, rather than pop music which is based on a three or maybe a six-minute model.

NH Otello to me almost sounds like a pop song that’s been expanded to 45 minutes—

PG Yeah, very much, but that’s also because it was a cover song, a cover of the Verdi—

NH But mixed with hip-hop.

PG (laughter) It’s funny, it had a low budget production and at that time a cheap rhythm box was the Roland 808. I mean I didn’t know that twenty years later the 808 was going to be…

NH A pioneering machine…

PG (laughter) Whatever. But I think I’ve always had that curiosity to know what’s happening in pop music because that’s where I guess I hear new sounds and patterns.

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Gordon in 2010, photo by Kit Fitzgerald.

NH The wall that I’ve always hit as a composer is that pop music surrounds us whether we like it or not. We are engulfed in this world of pop music, so to attempt existence in a small bubble of sonic research is to deny the world outside. I feel like it’s the composer’s job to kind of interpolate the human experience, the contemporary, the relevant. To just remain within the bubble is to risk missing out on what the world is all about.

PG But in a sense, that’s where you roll the dice and see where your music is with the culture at the time. There’s a lot more interest in my music now than there was ten years ago and part of it is how the Zeitgeist works.

NH It’s interesting, I’ve been a big supporter of the DFA since they started and it’s almost like their label was created just to put out your music ten years into the project. Perhaps it’s in their press release or I saw it somewhere else but someone’s taking great pride in saying that this is some of the artiest dance music ever put on wax.

PG It’s funny how that is because it’s contextualizing the music in a certain way…or re-contextualizing the music.

NH Do you think it’s accurate?

PG I mean I think it’s very real. I was unfamiliar with James Murphy and LCD [Soundsystem] when I got an email that he was putting a compilation together for the Fabric label in London, but I got curious and actually really enjoyed what I heard and in the process sort of sought out and met James at one of his DJ sets. In one sense for me it reinvigorated my interest in dance music and disco music because it was kind of weird in the early 80s when the whole “Disco Sucks” thing happened, the backlash. I’m not the only one to think that it was racist and homophobic but that’s really what that was it was about because it suddenly became marketed by British hair bands and became New Wave dance music, which was a way of rebranding the beat. But around the time that happened I became more interested in the long form theatrical, dramatic pieces and concert pieces and I started moving away from dance music. So then hearing James, what James was doing both as a DJ and then hearing what else LCD was doing really helped reignite my own interest in this side of my music. In one sense it was like replacing a missing ingredient that I had taken out of the music for a while and then putting it back in—I find things coalescing in a certain way, going through the process of sorting through scores and recordings, listening to the pieces in a fresh manner, removed from all the different signifiers of the time. Also we were the Love of Life Orchestra. Everyone else was doing songs about death—

NH I was going to say this was the height of angular No Wave.

PG Right, so we were very contrary to that—

NH Contrary to the contrarians…

PG Yeah, contrary to contrarians. And we were criticized as being too sweet and too jolly in a certain sense and too musical, because at that time it was very much a know-nothing sense of musicality. I mean, there was some very interesting stuff.

NH Oh really interesting stuff, but it’s avoiding the tonal choices as opposed to indulging in them.

PG I’ve always been interested in harmony and in counterpoint. I see my music being predominantly contrapuntal music, invertible counterpoint and different types of displacement and relations of symmetry and repetitions. I never think about, oh there’s this style or that style. I think, how do these intervals work? How do these rhythms work? What are these patterns? That’s the sort of stuff that I think about when I’m actually writing the music.

Peter Gordon & The Love of Life Orchestra is available now from DFA Records.

Nick Hallett is a composer, vocalist, and co-curator of the Darmstadt new music series, which hosted a performance of the Love of Life Orchestra last Fall. A retrospective of Hallett’s dance-pop project with Ray Sweeten, Plantains, is out later this month on I, Absentee.