When the recording of Michael Gordon’s Timber dropped last fall, critics justifiably drooled a little on the impressively weighty, laser-etched, inch-thick wooden box (with magnetic closure, no less) that held the CD and its booklet inside. I’m a sucker for a pretty cover myself, but while I appreciated that the Cantaloupe label had effectively packaged the disc in a representative sample of the featured instrument (okay, not really, but I doubt I’m the first to try hammering on the case with my fingertips while listening, regardless), it was actually the recent experience of hearing Mantra Percussion play the piece live here in Baltimore that drew me more deeply inside the transfixing power of a score designed for six percussionists and lumber.
Slagwerk Den Haag, the ensemble that recorded and jointly commissioned the piece from Gordon, led the composer to the unique sound when they turned up a number of wooden simantras (a simple Greek percussion instrument) in their storage space during the work’s development. Gordon had embarked on the commission with the desire “to clear my mind of pitches and orchestration […] I thought of composing this music as being like taking a trip out into the desert. I was counting on the stark palette and the challenge of survival to clear my brain and bring on visions.” The simantras further inspired this concept.
The resulting five-movement, 55-minute piece puts the musicians in a circle of sound, literally and figuratively. In their recording of the work, Slagwerk Den Haag offers a sharp, precise delivery of the intricate rhythms and ever-undulating dynamics, haloed by the rich overtones the instruments generate. The sonic focus moves around the stereo field in a languid hula-hoop of generally dense, rapid-fire mallet-against-wood action. In live performance in a reverberant acoustic space, that constant spiral moves the sound around the room with almost spiritual power, perhaps harkening back in some ways to the whirling dervish who inhabited Bill Morison’s film for Gordon’s Decasia.
In their concert presentation, Mantra Percussion performed the work in near-darkness, with specially designed and timed lights to accent the movement of the piece. Out in the audience, the sensory deprivation added to the immersive effect and made the concert experience feel particularly intimate—even though the circular setup of the hall with the performers at the core meant everyone was staring at someone’s back. The shifting light emanating from the center of the room gave the impression of a campfire, the music as storytelling by firelight.
You might expect that nearly an hour of relentless pounding would leave your ears, if not you entire psyche, a bit bruised by the journey. In my experience of the work, however, time actually fell out of focus. It wasn’t until well after the last echoes of the piece faded from the room that the hypnosis drained away and the clock began its proper forward motion once again.