Let a composer like Michael Gordon loose in a midtown percussion store with the whole afternoon ahead of him, and you might expect him to emerge with a plan for a full choir of noisemakers. Percussionists, after all, play a vast and varied collection of objects—wooden, metallic, leather, paper, pitched, unpitched, soft, hard, struck, bowed, tapped, and scraped—and they command a rainbow of instrumental colors. But Gordon couldn’t find what he was looking for.“I had made the decision to write for a single kind of instrument, and I knew that the piece was going to be long,” he says. “So I felt like I was tying both hands behind my back.”
Gordon wrote out much of the score for a 70-minute work before figuring out what instrument was going to play it. That answer came only when he started rehearsing with the Dutch percussion ensemble Slagwerk Den Haag, and one of its members emerged from the basement with a stack of simantras, long wood blocks used in Greek Orthodox liturgy. To Gordon, the slabs looked exactly like ordinary lengths of lumber of the kind you can buy at Home Depot. He was thrilled.
The result is Timber, in which the simplest materials—mallets beating on six plain two-by-fours—yield such intricate rhythms, such dense canopies of overtones, and textures so complex that they sound positively electronic. Two ensembles have each been honing their performances for over a year—Slagwerk Den Haag released a recording in 2011, and Mantra Percussion gives the local premiere at BAM on December 13—and the effect of their labors is simultaneously dizzying and austere. In a sense, Timber returns to the earliest, strictest days of Cagey minimalism, when composers declined to lead their listeners down particular expressive paths. “I’m trying to get the most out of very basic materials and spare, stark landscapes,” Gordon says. “When you’re in the room with these players, you realize, Oh, okay, I can’t be waiting for the melody and the chord changes. It’s going to be up to me to discover what to listen to.”