Michael Gordon's 'Timber' Speaks Softly and Carries a Loud Stick

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At first, Michael Gordon's newest, evening-length work Timber sounds like a clever, eco-chic gimmick: The piece is a sextet for simantras—a Byzantine-based liturgical instrument keenly used by Xenakis that amounts to little more than a carefully-crafted 2'x4'—clocking in at 54 minutes and comes packaged in a 1-lb wooden box cut to the same size specifications as a run-of-the-mill (and far less biodegradable) jewel case whose cover resembles the sort of wood-burning art you'd make at a hip arts camp adjacent to a Great Lake.

But Timber is more than a ploy, as evidenced by the music never falling flat or stiff, never warping under the changes in tone, pressure or frequency of strikes performed by the tireless Slagwerk Den Haag. In addition to a strong, perhaps unavoidable, not to Xenakis, Gordon revisits the meaningful repetitions perfected by one of his musical idols, Steve Reich, particularly in the instance of the early Reich standard Drumming. Here, however, the repetition and rhythm are less tribal and more naturalistic, evoking the four elements at various turns.

There are elements, however, that are pure Gordon: Naturalism aside, the layers and tonal disparities he crafts out of six players gives way to some of the same controlled chaos heard in earlier works like Trance and Decasia. each of the five movements, ranging in length from just over seven minutes to thirteen and a half, are consistent enough to draw the listener into a near-immediate meditative state, yet with each sonic alliteration comes a fresh intent and purpose at the skilled hands of Slagwerk. Not wanting to break the spell, the work (a strong contender for smart set favorite of 2011) finishes as organically as it starts.