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Review: Michael Gordon’s Timber

August 9, 2011
*tonight in NYC is Mantra Percussion’s performance of Timber at the Apple Store. Details here*
One of my favorite things to hear in a piece of music is a limited use of resources exploited to its full potential. The composers of Bang on a Can have written some pretty great examples of this, including David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion (telling the story through four people and using them to their fullest by having them accompany themselves on percussion) and Julia Wolfe’s Dark Full Ride album for groups of single instruments (finding some seriously delightful music out of multiple drum sets, crafting droney music out of bagpipes). Michael Gordon’s Timber, for six simantras, comfortably fits into this model.
The simantra, if you’re wondering, is a Greek liturgical instrument previously used by Xenakis, but it’s essentially a 2×4. If you take a look at this video (courtesy of Mantra Percussion), you might be led to believe that Timber requires a handful of hip gentlemen to swing by the Home Depot and pick up some overstock planks so they can whack it a bunch of times. In reality, the choice of wood is deliberate and has a large impact on the listening experience. Timber employs a soft wood (douglas fir) to generate the messy blur of harmonics. This is different than the types of wood used in more conventional percussion instruments (such as rosewood marimbas), which use hard woods with crisper in tune harmonics. My nerdiness finds the very specific choice of wood fascinating.
Speaking of those overtones, Timber immediately suggests ambient muic through its echoing soundscape, but much like Gordon’s Trance, there’ is a wealth of motivic ideas explored through the five sections. The first time that the perpetual hammering becomes more jagged, near the end of the first section, is a sort of shattering moment that help to prepare the litener for the journey they’re taken on in the ensuing movements. Ideas are bounced around the stereo image in a way that shows the work was at least considered to be a piece for a recorded medium. The recording is wonderful, conveying a sense of both space and the immediate presence of each attack. All of this, I should reiterate, with the limited reource of a handful of similar percussion instruments with indefinite pitch.
Ultimately, the music leaves me tranformed emotionally and mentally in the most peaceful and energizing ways. Not unlike late Feldman or epic tales, Timber allows you to approach it and view the music from different angles, rather than be swept up in an idea and compelled to react in a single way. While this might not be the sort of peace to convert the unitiated, I this should album make its way onto the ipods of many who already understand the power of music.
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