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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Simple Instruments, Complex Listening: Michael Gordon's Timber

Mantra  Percussion rehearsing Timber

I begin by disclosing that my percussion career ended somewhere after eighth grade when I ceased playing the marimba, timpani, and (sometimes) snare drum under the tutelage of my amiable band teacher, Mr. Hasler. (He was awesome and let us form a “jazz” band which played a bangin’ version of "Satin Doll" at our school’s spring arts festival in 1990.)

Yet Timber had all of the right elements to pique my attention: Michael Gordon, an avant drum circle, 2 x 4s, ancient lore, Michael Gordon, a clever pun title, Michael Gordon, and Mantra, a young, fearless, experimental percussion ensemble that I’d seen and loved at ISSUE Project Room.

After watching a couple of rehearsals, it is clear that these elements combine for a completely fresh, deep listening experience. As the piece progresses, the swelling and ebbing volume is warm and dense, filling the room to the ceiling with wood-induced overtones that emit a surprising electronic sound, reminiscent of William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loop.” It begins to feel like meditative breathing, rooted in cyclical poly-rhythms under a metered ritardando that go in and out of sync, challenging the ears to decipher when the time signatures change among the players.

Part of Timber’s beauty is that such complex listening comes from sublimely simple instruments. Traditionally, simantras are a single slab of suspended wood hammered by monks with mallets during liturgical services.

(While it is said that simantras pre-date bells, Eastern Orthodox monks actually considered them wooden “bells.”) They have been used by some classical composers, most notably by the avant-garde Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. Simantras’ rich, complex timbres and luscious spectrum of tones are different for each piece of wood, based on type, length, imperfections, and decay. In fact, Gordon and the group tested lumber made from purple heart to poplar, and everything in between, before settling on douglas fir for its resonant quality. Add the effect that temperature and humidity have on unsealed lumber, one Mantra member points out, and chances are that no two performances of Timber will sound the same.

Pipe insulation foam creates nodal points
The simantras themselves have been kept as pure and humble as possible for Gordon’s piece. Due to the duration and physical demands of a 60 minute-long percussion piece, they are turned on their sides and “suspended” above sawhorses—which basically means that the planks are resting on two tiny stacks of pipe insulation foam, creating nodal points. To keep from bouncing off the base, a wooden peg is placed on each side of the board. A contact mic is puttied in place equidistant between the nodal point and the end of the board, feeding sound through an amplification system that is hooked up to six speakers with a subwoofer, which is especially imperative for the longest board. At 75" long, it emits only 50 hertz.

After you hear it, it is easier to understand why Michael Gordon has called Timber “primitively electronic”—it’s a delicate art to combine ancient elements with contemporary composition and digital enhancements. As a whole, it seems to speak to the underlying philosophy of nature’s most enduring themes—balance, exponential atrophy, and renewal.

Michael Gordon’s Timber is its own religious experience, and the members of Mantra are the rhythmic monks who make it so.

—Sarah Garvey, Publicity Manager 

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