Michael Gordon’s Timber & Rushes
Durham Fruit & Produce Company, Durham
Saturday, April 23, 2016

On Saturday night, the Durham Fruit & Produce Company brimmed with thousands and thousands of tiny pulses. Each on its own was fairly insignificant, but the aggregate was overwhelming.

This concert marked the first attempt at pairing Bang on a Can co-founder Michael Gordon’s Timber (2011) and Rushes (2012), a pair of hour-long pieces. Both are built from the same DNA—multiple copies of the same instrument; wave after wave of quickly pulsing notes; slow-moving or static harmonies. But from there, the two pieces diverged wildly.

Rushes went first. Seven bassoonists (including former Durham resident Rachael Elliott and NC School of the Arts teacher Saxton Rose) formed a circle in the middle of a low-ceilinged, cinderblock room and began pulsing, each on a single note, with rhythms ricocheting. The effect was hypnotic and engrossing, sitting somewhere between the effervescence of John Luther Adams and the primal howl of Battle Trance.

Gordon takes advantage of the bassoon’s complex buzz to build chords that are simple but thick. When all seven players were going at once, the overtones made me swear I could hear flutes, saxophones, and organs at various points. Gordon’s control of rhythm is equally powerful; for much of the piece, no two members of the Rushes Ensemble seemed to play the same pulse, a move that accentuated the overall thrum.

We were encouraged to move around, and I found myself sitting as close to the group as possible, so I could feel the sound as much as hear it. I wasn’t alone in this; over the course of the performance, I spotted a number of people dancing. After fifty-six minutes that somehow seemed like less, the work came to a surprisingly abrupt ending. A friend of mine commented that it “doesn’t ever have to end,” and I agreed.

Then we moved over to a garage for Timber. If I wanted to be fancy, I would say the piece was for six simantras, Greek Orthodox liturgical instruments. But, really, the piece is for six two-by-fours of varying lengths, each sitting on top of sawhorses with some subtle amplification. The six-note chord that results was beautiful and sonorous. After the performance, I asked a member of Mantra Percussion how long they spent determining the proportions. To my surprise, he responded that they essentially bought two long two-by-fours and just cut them.

From this limited palate, the group teased out an improbably large range of sounds. If Rushes is about some bottomless humanity, Timber concerns the insectoid and alien. While the sound could sometimes approach that of a giant marimba, it often sounded like a teeming field of crickets, all engaged in vigorous conversation. There was also a light show, with the players illuminated in various ways depending on how hard they pummeled their boards.

I couldn’t help but feel that Timber felt just a little too monochrome after the vivid colors of Rushes, that somehow hearing Rushes first had made it harder to appreciate Timber. Maybe flipping them would have created a more natural progression, from simple to complex? It’s also possible that the visual saturation of Timber would have made Rushes feel flat. These are big, intense works, after all, and to pair them is pretty audacious, anyway—satisfying, but audacious.