Michael Gordon Wrote the Best Piece of Music for Six Two-by-Fours You've Ever Heard
The composer explains his approach and shares a video for the Squarepusher remix of "Timber."
My first encounter with Michael Gordon was a YouTube performance video of his 1996 composition, Trance, at the New York City rock club Le Poisson Rouge. It's a behemoth of a piece, with electric guitars, saxophones, violins, cellos, flutes, synthesizers, and percussion instruments all seemingly jockeying for position, interlocked in inscrutable rhythmic structures. As Gordon aptly described, it's "like being able to hear all the music that [sic] going on everywhere in the world, in one's head, at the same time." Trance hit me like a train, with its myriad sounds barreling pell-mell, ever threatening to derail and crash into cacophonous wreckage. I also noted that, although Gordon has roots in the classical tradition and writes erudite compositions, Trance's presence in a rock club did not feel out of place.
That crossover is apropos of the composer's background. After studying composition at Yale in the late 70s, Gordon moved to New York City "when people that had a huge influence on me, like Meredith Monk or Philip Glass or Steve Reich, were just playing in front of small gatherings of people," he told me over the phone last week. "And then there were people like Glenn Branca, who was doing a lot of exploration with the guitar and microtonality and writing guitar symphonies for 12 electric guitars, all detuned."
He connected the underground influence of the Downtown scene with his academic training, drawing from the "very abstract thinking and long form" schema of the classical firmament, like a "Beethoven symphony or a string quartet by Bartok," and then melding it with the informal, more rock-oriented experimentalism he found in the city.
Over the course of his career, Gordon has cultivated that combination to great success. He's composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and famed ensemble Kronos Quartet, and his pieces have been performed at illustrious venues like Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Gordon is also a co-founder of Bang On a Can, the multi-faceted music organization that has grown into one of the most important vehicles for contemporary music in the world. Both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts have honored him, each recognizing his ability to challenge art music with the more popular milieus that surrounds him. "As a composer today," he wrote in a 2010 New York Times article, "I have always felt that my music has to have meaning in the vernacular."
This past Friday, Cantaloupe Music released Timber Remixed, a two-disc collection of variations on Gordon's 2011 experimental percussion piece, Timber, and it features a number of musicians that lend credence to Gordon's fluency in said vernacular. Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, and Squarepusher—whose accompanying video Noisey is premiering here—are some of the 12 artists who remixed Gordon's piece. "I've been a big fan of [Squarepusher's] work for a long time, so it was really interesting that he wanted to get involved," he told me. "Everyone doing these remixes is incredibly creative and, in their own right, doing really interesting work. From someone like Jóhann Jóhannsson, who is really a composer and much closer to what I'm doing, and then it spreads out from there… it's a pretty eclectic group of people."
Gordon writes mostly acoustic music, but he's very interested in electronica and electronic techniques, and he's joined by all of these artists on the experimental end of the music spectrum. As such, he's crossed paths with many of them at various festivals and other more avant-garde functions. And though the remix artists are experimentalists, they also unassailably wield a lot of clout in today's electronic music landscape. Part of the impetus for this remix record was listeners' error in believing that Timber was already an electronic piece.
"A lot of people think it's electronica because they can't identify the instruments," he said. "It doesn't sound like violins. And it doesn't sound like drums. And it doesn't sound like guitars… In this case, aside from the sound of drumming on these pieces of wood, a lot of these sounds—which are common sounds that exist in electronic music, like delay or reverb—are written into the music because of how the percussionists are playing together. So a lot of people, when they hear the recording, think it's electronic, or that it has electronics."
The sound is indeed hard to place, and with the ubiquity of electronics in today's music, it's not altogether unreasonable to chalk up these written-in effects to the inorganic plasticity of digitization. Gordon's original piece, though, is entirely organic.
Timber calls for six percussionists to play wooden two-by-fours for nearly an hour. The concept is derived from the ancient simantra, an Eastern Orthodox liturgical instrument that dates back to the sixth century. Fellow experimental composer Iannis Xenakis, resuscitated the simantra in the 60s with his piece "Persephassa."
In Gordon's take on the instrument, six boards of varying lengths are suspended on homemade sawhorses and struck by mallets. Small contact microphones and quarter-inch cables carry the vibrations and overtones into a mixer that then amplifies the sounds, allowing them to resonate in a way that resembles electronic effects, like delay and reverb.
"I didn't want it to sound like a drum set so I went looking for a really different sound… Searching for that sound was a journey in a certain way," he said. "We tried a lot of stuff and looked for a lot of things, but we ended up with a very simple solution, which was these amplified wooden boards. It's a very un-baroque sound. It's so plain, so it's kind of wiping the slate clean." In the liner notes of the original Timber recording from 2011, Gordon cites Peruvian shamanist author Carlos Castaneda as an inspiration for this concept, invoking his pilgrimage into the desert and wiping clear the brain to "bring on visions."
"When you start listening to this music, it's almost like walking out into the desert, and you look around and it's just desert—it's just sand," he explained to me. "But as you walk a little further, you start to look a little closer. You start to see things. Things come out of the landscape. And I think of the listening experience to be a lot like that."
And like any true vision quest, Gordon leaves the contours open-ended. He allows the percussionists to choose their own wood and build their own instruments, and he doesn't even specify exact pitches. "It's very simple: it's high to low. The longer the block of wood, the lower [the pitch] is going to be. I just specify six pieces of wood, high to low, and it's up to the percussionist to cut the wood the way they want," he said. "In every case I've heard the piece—and there are a bunch of percussion groups that have played it—the sound always works."
Gordon initially composed the piece for Dutch percussion group Slagwerk Den Haag, who performed it as the score for a piece by the dance theater group Club Guy & Roni. It became a percussion piece of its own accord after that, and since then there have been dozens of performances by several different ensembles. Things like weather, room size, and wood type all yield various results. As long as the wood is dried and the percussionists stay true to the score, Gordon is cool with leaving decisions up to the ensemble that performs it. The most recent group, New York-based Mantra Percussion, re-recorded Timber (playing it on Douglas Fir boards, for what it's worth), during a live performance of the 2014 Bang On a Can Marathon.
"If you listen to the original recording by Slagwerk Den Haag, it's a much higher, softer, more elegant sound. I think of it as being European," he said. "And then the new recording that Mantra did live is a lot lower. The sound is a lot heavier; it's a lot more percussive. I think of it as being more American in a certain way."
Mantra's 51-minute rendition, which comprises the entire second disc of Timber Remixed, is less likely to be performed at Le Poisson Rouge, but it's no less enrapturing than Trance. The rhythms roll and gurgle like the primordial echoes of some great cavern or the scuttling dialogue of age-old arthropoda or even some shamanistic vision quest in the middle of the desert—a concept realized in the yawning, minimalist video for Squarepusher's remix, created by Joseph Cashiola and David Fenster.
The multitude of ideas elicited from Gordon's piece—from the Squarepusher video to the sundry characters of the album's other remixes to the diversity of the many percussion groups' setups—are testaments to Timber's malleability and depth; there's no shortage of inspiration to be found once the nuance begins to "come out of the landscape." But even with its profound implications, Gordon doesn't want to make Timber out to be more than it is. "It's amplified pieces of wood," he told me, laughing. "I don't want to pretend it's anything but that."
Photos: Lead photo by Peter Serling, courtesy of Canteloupe Music; Mantra Percussion photo courtesy of Canteloupe Music
Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.