Gorgon was commissioned by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra with the assistance of the Rochester Sesquicentennial Committee in honor of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the City of Rochester's incorporation. Completed in the summer of 1984, it is dedicated to the then-music director of the orchestra, David Zinman.
Rather than compose an "occasional" work, I decided to use the commission to execute a long-planned project a score inspired by the ancient Greek legend of the gorgons. These three mythical monsters Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa were repulsive beasts with snakes for hair and tusks for teeth; on their shoulders were immense wings of gold. But so hideous were their faces that a single glance from any of them was enough to turn any human unfortunate enough to come across them into solid stone. Medusa, the only mortal of the trio, was ultimately slain by Perseus, who avoided direct eye contact with his deadly prey by following her reflected form in his shield.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, the gorgon has become a symbol for any terror too immense and too horrible to be faced. It has thus become an image of sublimated brutality and savagery, perhaps a metaphor for our own private and subconscious monsters. The work maintains a relentlessly fast pace throughout its seventeen minute duration and is divided into three connected movements, each bearing the name of one of the gorgons in the order listed above. Joining each movement is a brief interlude for percussion alone entitled Perseus Spell. In addition to certain intentional similarities common to musical materials from movement to movement, the unifying force throughout the score remains the consistent violence of its character and the fearsomeness of its subject.
Gorgon is scored for the following:
3 flutes (all doubling piccolos), 3 oboes (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 3 bassoons (3rd doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (4 players), harp, piano/celesta (1 player), and strings. The percussion requirements (in addition to timpani) are: 2 bongos, 2 timbales, snare drum, field drum, tenor drum, bass drum, conga drum, tambourine, 4 tom-toms, quica, string drum, 2 log drums, 2 wood blocks, 2 temple blocks, cabasa, tubo, sandpaper blocks, claves, guiro, rute, slapstick, vibraslap, maracas, 2 ratchets, 3 hammers (like that called for in Mahler's Symphony No. 6), lujon, flexatone, triangle, 3 suspended cymbals, crash cymbals, Chinese cymbal, 2 tam-tams, button gong, sizzle cymbal, brake drum, 3 metal plates, thunder sheet, sleighbells, cowbell, waterphone, Tibetan prayer stones, castanets, wind machine, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba, chimes, and antique cymbals.
© 1984 by Christopher Rouse
These program notes can be reproduced free of charge with the following credit:
Reprinted by kind permission of Christopher Rouse
"Gorgon is unlike any you've ever heard. It's concentrated energy in its rawest form, "The Rite of Spring" on steroids. It is also evil, evil incarnate."
"So much contemporary music is received by the public these days with the polite applause of indifference. This was hardly the case, however, at Thursday's "Discovery" concert by the Dallas Symphony, when guest conductor Richard Dufallo introduced the city to the music of Christopher Rouse.
"The...composer is a native of Baltimore, and his Gorgon for orchestra...is a monster of a piece. It was meant to be, for it is a portrait in sound of three very nasty mythological creatures Stheno, Euryale and Medusa.
"...Rouse's music more than rises to the occasion in describing these beasts, and he has constructed a score that is relentless in its demand for attention and empathy.
"It is, in fact, a sort of orchestral perpetual motion. Although its textures are varied to fascinating degrees, the music never lets up its drive from first note to last. The score is a virtuoso rhythmic achievement. Simply the ability to sustain so frenetic a pace without a loss of variety or a slackening of the music's impact is a commanding feat.
"Beyond technical matters, Gorgon is a highly graphic work (heavy on percussion and brass) and filled with snarling, bristling, cutting sounds that make you hear the gnashing of teeth and the hissing of snakes."
"It was savage, tusk-toothed, mastadon music. To listen was to be charged by a gaping-mouthed monster.
"But Gorgon was just what composer Christopher Rouse intended it to be. And last night's audience ate it up.
"It isn't often that serious contemporary music rouses cheers from listeners. But the sounds of Rouse's three-faced monster did just that.
"And rightfully so...Rouse knew just how long to pound his drum and slash at his strings. And a good old-fashioned driving rhythm gave listeners something to hold onto, throbbing frantically like a drug-injected heart."
"Composer Christopher Rouse whisked his Eastman Theatre audience through a sonic shock chamber called Gorgon...in a Rochester Philharmonic performance much closer to a primal happening than a formal premiere.
"Rouse, an Eastman School of Music teacher, had promised the RPO a "jolt of adrenalin" when it commissioned this work for Rochester's sesquicentennial.
"And he delivered with a vengeance worthy of his subject: three fearsome Greek monsters who could turn men to stone at a glance. Each of these beauties was given its own tone portrait, linked by brief percussion interludes...
"Gorgon proved as intricate as it was violent: a richly textured "perpetual motion" swept along on a single pulse of fear.
"What first caught the ear were the relentless drum and brass attacks. But soon the rhythmic motifs tossed deftly between the strings, winds and drums suggested something quite different: a high-speed concerto grosso filtered through the mind of a Darth Vader.
"Rouse says his original inspiration for the piece was the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, in whch a space explorer discovers a fearful self-operating machine called "the Gorgon." That sinister mechanical quality still speaks through Rouse's dazzling score."
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"It is high time we had a disc devoted to the music of Christopher Rouse (b.1949), one of the more genuinely individual composers working in America today. His Cello Concerto has enjoyed a high profile courtesy of Yo-Yo Ma, but the three pieces recorded here are even more striking...
"Gorgon is an earlier piece, a startling demonstration of the energy...that informed Rouse's previous creative phases, conclusive proof that concert music can explode with the volume and drive of rock. Helpfully, the booklet-notes capture its roller-coaster quality and don't lead you to expect the complexity and gravitas of The Rite or Birtwistle's Earth Dances. Alsop secures a real performance and the recording gives impressive weight to the percussion section. Play loud or not at all.
"... As you will have gathered, this is an invigorating and accessible programme and I do urge you to sample it."
"Gorgon was commissioned by the Rochester Philharmonic in 1984. Depicting the trio of mythical winged women who were so hideous they turned people to stone, the work is utterly ferocious for nearly all of its 17 minutes. Even when the volume diminishes, the activity and dissonance does not as when flutes engage in a busy exchange over percussion clatter, or when violins toss weird, high-pitched glissandos around. Three main sections depict each Gorgon. Percussionists take over in two 'Perseus Spells' (Perseus killed Medusa, one of the Gorgons), the first a thunderous timpani- and bass drum-bashing, the second a deilcate keyboard filigree. And after all that, it is hard to believe what a crashing ending Rouse unleashes."