By Josh Schonwald
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane
Imagine you wrote a composition as part of your school's music program requirement, and then it went on to become one of the signature pieces on a Grammy Award-winning album.
That happened to the University of Chicago's David M. Gordon, a PhD student in music, last month.
eighth blackbird—an ensemble-in-residence at the University of Chicago that won a Grammy in the "Best Chamber Music Performance" category—has its pick from among the world's best-known classical composers. Still, the group chose a student composition.
Gordon's piece that would ultimately become "Friction Systems" was first composed in 2002 during his second year at Chicago. A graduate of the BA and MA music composition programs at Northern Illinois University, Gordon was excited by the prospect of writing for and having his worked performed by professional musicians of the caliber of eighth blackbird—most of his earlier compositions had been performed by student ensembles.
Working with musicians with abilities that he described as "bordering on the superhuman," he was able to compose a complex piece with little concern for being "too difficult." In the piece, then called "Dramamine," Gordon did things he'd thought about but never dared try. He used complex rhythms and non-standard tunings and unusual instrumental techniques.
It was equally exciting for Gordon to get feedback from virtuoso musicians. "When you work with student musicians, you ask them whether or not certain techniques are possible. You are never 100 percent certain if the answers they give you are accurate. With eighth blackbird, you know for certain that whatever they tell you is absolutely correct."
Gordon's decision to write for eighth blackbird back in 2002 rather than Contempo—then known as the Contemporary Chamber Players, an umbrella group of the Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird and other musicians—was, in part, shrewdly practical. He thought that if he wrote for the small group, his work would have a better chance of getting a repeat performance, as eighth blackbird wouldn't need to bring in extra musicians to perform it.
Even with his strategy, the young composer admits, with a laugh, "I didn't really think they would take it on tour."
But they did. The contemporary classical sextet liked the unusual composition. For the next few years, Gordon would occasionally hear that they were playing it.
Then, in 2005, came the big news: eighth blackbird wanted to record it. "I was ecstatic. I was just happy they were playing the piece, but a recording gives it a greater sense of permanence."
Gordon, who normally hadn't revised his work because there hadn't been an opportunity, was happy to edit. He tightened the piece and changed its name from "Dramamine" to the more fitting "Friction Systems," which he describes as "a piece with a lot of tension that has a mechanical quality."
Two years later, the song was released on the new disc strange imaginary animals. Then, on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles, the disc was honored with a Grammy. Writing a track on a Grammy Award-winning album in the best "Chamber Music Ensemble" category is quite a bit different than winning, say, best Rock album. It's certainly not instant fame and fortune.
Still, Gordon, who is nearing completion of a PhD, said he believes that "Friction Systems" will have a lingering impact. "It certainly raises the exposure of my work like never before."
Fans interested in hearing Gordon's sound will get that chance during Contempo's concert, "Tomorrow's Music Today" on May 23 at Roosevelt University's Ganz Theatre.
Originally published on March 4, 2008.