No, no, this isn’t a plug for the Robert Greene book! On Tuesday night, I attended a performance by Mantra Percussion of Michael Gordon’s new work Timber. I entered the Apple store on Broadway feeling slightly harried, with a million different things on my mind, and an hour later I left feeling as if all that junk in my head had been emptied out and replaced with a wonderful sense of peacefulness. I was so mesmerized that when a familiar face appeared to say hello afterwards, it took an embarrassing amount of time to call up his name.
Although I haven’t listened to the recording yet, which will no doubt deliver much better sonic quality than the wild reverberations of an Apple store, the experience of the live performance was transfixing. Six percussionists with various types of mallets, all arranged in a circle playing amplified two-by-fours balanced on sawhorses may not sound like a big deal, but the unhurried progression of the music combined with the choreography of the players imparted intensity and a sense of ritual. Over the course of fifty-five minutes, the piece unfolded, collapsed, and reformed multiple times in a long, slow meditation of sixteenth note clouds and waves passed constantly around the circle of players. The beauty of this composition for me lies in a) how so much can be achieved with such a small amount of material (both in terms of instrumentation and musical content), and b) the sheer patience involved in a work of music like this—in creation, performance, and listening.
As a former percussionist, I am by nature drawn to all things percussion, and if the opportunity presented itself, I would happily spend the rest of my days writing exclusively for this group of instruments. Because that’s the thing: there are so many amazing instruments to work with and the sky’s the limit. Indeed, when writing for a percussion ensemble it is incredibly tempting to include everything but the kitchen sink (and maybe even the kitchen sink!) in a work. What I most love about works like Timber is that they approach something that appears simple at first glance, and show you how complex that thing really is. It’s a wildy difficult thing to do, requiring the above-mentioned patience and stamina on the part of both composer and performer, to reframe something ordinary to make it extraordinary, especially in a large-scale format. This is the sort of thing that Dan talks about in his excellent post today, urging composers to make the best of the resources that they have. In my experience the very best composition lessons (both the intentional kind, and the unintentional) all ask the question, “have you done everything possible with what you have right here, right now?”