Bill Gordh '71

Way With Words
October 1, 2005

 

Bill Gordh '71

Move over, Peter and the Wolf. At a Young People's Concert at New York's Avery Fisher Hall in April, the New York Philharmonic debuted The Roaring Mountain, with storyteller Bill Gordh as librettist and narrator.

Composed by Jon Deak, the orchestral work grew out of a storytelling piece Gordh had created with Carter Bray, the principal cellist for the Philharmonic. "It was a folktale set up for the descriptive powers of the cello," Gordh says. "The story is about a little boy who lives on an island, but doesn't speak. He ends up finding an instrument to speak for him. He becomes the voice of the island. He takes people to the sunset and plays the sunset. He plays the volcanoes and plays the stars on his instrument."

The subtitle of Roaring Mountain is Instrument Village. Gordh says the piece is designed to capture kids' attention and help them learn to listen. "The instruments of the orchestra do everything with their music: paint houses, ride bicycles, roller-skate."

As a self-described storyteller/educator/musician/consultant, Gordh has been helping kids learn to listen for years. He performed at the White House Easter Egg Roll in 1998, 1999, and 2000, and has made many appearances in and around New York, including at the American Museum of Natural History, The Children's Museum of Manhattan, and the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival. He has told stories on the radio for New York's WBAI, WNYE, and WHSU and on television for Good Day, New York on Fox.

Gordh has four published recordings of his stories and music and is the author of several children's books. Want a Ride?, a Golden Book, has sold more than 165,000 copies. His latest, The Seven Towers of Wonder, a limited, letterpress edition of 300 by Thornwillow Books, comes out in spring 2006. He's also director of expressive arts at The Episcopal School of New York City, where he has created a storytelling curriculum for two- to six-year-olds.

At Duke, Gordh was a philosophy major. "But I did tons of theater and ended up working with the Duke Players," he says. From Durham, he moved to New York City and earned a master's in directing at New York University. There, he discovered that he had directed more plays than his fellow students who had been theater majors.

"At Duke, I could just do what I wanted," he recalls. "My senior year, I did ten different pieces. In the Seventies, I moved into performance art and performed all over the country. Then two things happened: I had a kid--which was the most significant--and I got into experimental theater. That got me asking why theater existed, which led me to find out about story and kids and see that it is really something that people need to do, like art. Story is a human need."

Gordh lives with his wife, Jennifer Lewis, a son, and a daughter in Greenwich Village. Of course, every village has its fair, and every fair its storyteller. Since 2003, he has been involved in storytelling during Family Day at the Tribeca Film Festival.

"I come from preachers and teachers," says Gordh, who grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. "My father taught at Hollins and was a theologian. My mother's father used to tell us Br'er Rabbit stories, and would just spin out those tales every Christmas. Both my grandfathers were preachers. It was inevitable."