On November 16 in Philadelphia at Congregation Rudolph Shalom and November 17 at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, The Crossing and cellist Maya Beiser (Donald Nally, conductor) premiere Michael Gordon’s new work Travel Guide to Nicaragua. Commissioned by Carnegie Hall and the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia, Travel Guide to Nicaragua is written for The Crossing and cellist Maya Beiser, with projections by Laurie Olinder and lighting by Eric Southern.
Drawing upon family histories, anecdotes, chance encounters, and speculation, Travel Guide to Nicaragua chronicles Gordon’s family’s long, complicated journey from Poland to the United States, by way of Cuba and Nicaragua. Among the many threads Gordon traces are his grandfather’s flight from Poland to Cuba; his grandmother’s subsequent journey to Cuba from Poland, where she left Gordon’s father behind; and his father’s journey from Poland to the United States—where, upon being drafted into the military, he was shipped to the Philippines. Within each of these stories are gaps where, by omission, neglect, or destruction, the story can no longer be fully pieced together. But unifying all of these threads are Gordon’s own hazy memories of life in Nicaragua, where he spent the first eight years of his life, and the stories and artifacts from their old country that haunted his childhood home.
“No one knows exactly the circumstances surrounding my grandfather’s departure from Dzyatlava, (Zdzięcioł in Polish, Zhetl in Yiddish) to Cuba in the early 1920s,” Gordon explains, “The various accounts include: that he abandoned his family in search of a different life; that he was gassed in WWI and lost a sense of himself; that he got himself into some kind of trouble. It was possible at that time to get a visa to Cuba. Also, there is no clear explanation as to why, in 1927, my father’s mother Goldie chased after her husband to Cuba, and why she left one child, my father, back behind in Poland. In Travel Guide to Nicaragua there are different streams of information that are hazy, even contradictory, and very little is conclusive.”
In spite of the lack of reliable information, Gordon is nonetheless able to coax difficult and unspoken truths from the spaces in between. Travel Guide to Nicaragua was meant to premiere in March 25, 2020. In the ensuing years, Gordon was able to rethink the focus of the piece, fine-tuning the narrative to approach another largely unknown factor: his own father’s life in Dzyatlava, the massacre of its Jewish populace by the Nazis and their local collaborators which he narrowly avoided, and the people whom he could know only as faces in his father’s old photographs.
In isolation with my family, I took time to rethink the piece. Things were missing. I began to focus on the shoe box that served as a container for the remnants of my father’s former life—old photographs of friends and family from his town Dzyatlava, WWII medals and documents from when he served in the Philippines, and small trinkets. Everyone in the photographs had been killed by the Nazis. That memory, ever present, loomed silently over my childhood home, like an invisible bird hovering overhead. Also missing from Travel Guide was my chance meeting with a survivor from my father’s town, a woman who at age 16 fled into the surrounding woods when the Nazis began shooting. She brought that hovering bird into a clearer reality. None of this has been easy to write. Like my father, I put past events in a box somewhere deep in my memory, and move on. My father rarely spoke about his past. He never complained. He moved through life with good humor, with an upbeat disposition. His memories stayed in the shoe box.
This work is written for The Crossing led by Donald Nally and for cellist Maya Beiser. My first work for The Crossing, Anonymous Man, is also autobiographical. It tells the story of living on my block on Desbrosses Street in lower Manhattan, and my interaction there with two men who lived outside, on the street. For both Anonymous Man and Travel Guide to Nicaragua the vocal music is inspired by the great artistry of this ensemble. Travel Guide to Nicaragua continues my long musical collaboration with the spectacular Maya Beiser, a founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, for whom I have written two solo works: Industry and All Vows.