Michael Gordon’s Travel Guide to Nicaragua, an hour-long autobiographical work for chorus and cello, unfolds like a long bolt of richly woven fabric, with textures that densify and then thin, patterns that seem to return but subtly evolve, colours that intensify and recombine. “My father had a shop in downtown Managua where he sold textiles,” the singers tell us. “I used to jump on the long rolls of fabric and run around the shop talking to everyone.” This eloquent and plush reverie seems to have sprung from this fragment of memory.
Written for the virtuosic vocal ensemble The Crossing and cellist Maya Beiser, Travel Guide has little to say about Central America. It’s not imbued with postcard folklore or local rhythms. It does tell a dramatic story, juxtaposing horrific world events with private loss, but it does so without the aid of showstoppers or arias, rather with a matter-of-fact serenity. Gordon first made his reputation with loud, jagged music bristling with aggressive urgency, but the beauty of this score lies in its refusal of grand gestures and its preference for telling detail, the musical equivalent of a camera zooming in on the expressive hands of a narrator.
The play takes the form of a spotty family memoir. It tells in plain language the half-remembered saga of a Jewish family’s migrations from Poland to Cuba, New Jersey and Nicaragua. The text is accompanied by photographs and vignettes: Gordon’s grandfather’s emigration to Cuba, his grandmother’s transatlantic pursuit of her husband, his father’s early childhood in Poland and his lucky escape just before Hitler’s army annihilated the town’s Jews.
The characters’ names are omitted, their personalities hazy, their motivations impossible to reconstruct. This patchiness can be frustrating, like so much family history. “My sister says our sister’s story is important, so this is it,” the refrain announces, but it’s never quite clear which siblings are which, whose story matters, or why. Evocative snapshots from another time don’t bridge the gap of years, they only accentuate the mysteries left by census records and ship manifests: Who were these people? What did they think, how did they feel? Would I have liked them?
For Gordon, these blanks are material, useful precisely because they lead him to explore the friction between vividness and vagueness. The Crossing enunciate the lyrics – really a series of captions to the photographs clicking on the screen above the singers’ heads – with their trademark clarity. The voices are clean, clear and natural. And then the music leads them into stretches of pixelated shimmer: They sing in unison, then break into two dozen separate lines. Or they slip deliberately out of phase, so you can’t tell the scream from its echo. Thin triads blossom into chords that glitter with dissonance. And through it all, the cello keeps urging and admonishing, a leader cutting through the murmur of the crowd, hoping to get their attention. Gordon offers no explanation of the cello’s role, but I hear it as a stand-in for himself, the memoirist sifting through all the scraps of lore, trying to recreate his own operating system.