On Saturday night, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space was the perfect location to recuperate from a stressful week. Unassigned seating, including piles of black pillows, lined all four walls of the space, with Mantra Percussion’s set-up in the center. This set-up consisted of six elevated two-by-fours arranged in a hexagon. The percussionists (Joe Bergen, Al Cerulo, Chris Graham, Mike McCurdy, Jude Traxler, and Nick Woodbury) entered the darkened space and then proceeded to strike said two-by-fours with mallets for a solid hour.

Mantra Percussion perform Timber © Mike Benigno
Mantra Percussion perform Timber
© Mike Benigno

This might sound juvenile, ridiculous, silly, or a combination of the above, but Michael Gordon’s Timber was in fact one of the most meditative happenings I’ve experienced in recent memory. Mr Gordon, born in Florida in 1956, has become one of the most significant figures in the new music world in New York, effortlessly blending jazz and classical and even rock into his musical language, which some would describe most succinctly as “post-minimal”. Mr Gordon, along with his wife Julia Wolfe and David Lang (whose love fail was performed at BAM just last week), is a co-founder of contemporary music collective Bang on a Can, which consistently promotes new music in and out of New York. Some of his most well-known compositions include Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, the multimedia Gotham for orchestra, and Sunshine of your Love, a piece conducted by John Adams at its première and which was composed for over 100 instruments split into four sections – each section adhering to a different system of microtuning.

After ten years of composing mostly for orchestra, Mr Gordon wanted to compose something “stark” and avoid the usual emphasis on pitch, as he explained in the program notes. So when he first started working on Timber in 2009, he chose to write for non-tuned percussion, and eventually settled on Eastern Orthodox instruments called simantras, which basically resemble graduated planks of wood. These planks of wood may not have definite pitches as normal instruments do, but they create overtones when struck, and can produce a wide range of sounds depending on which section of the wood one hits, and how gently or forcefully one hits it, and what the weather is like on the day of performance, and so on. For this reason no two performances are exactly alike.

This percussion piece was simultaneously reminiscent of yet starkly different from Steve Reich’s 1973 Music for Pieces of Wood. Steve Reich was one of the first minimalist composers; his groundbreaking early works, such as Piano Phase and Four Organs, emphasize the completion of a process, usually mathematical and relentless in structure, as opposed to traditional aesthetic goals revolving around melodic, harmonic, and formal development. Both composers’ works can be seen as a rhythmic process unfolding in time and an exercise in deep listening, not to mention a demonstration proving that pieces of wood can be just as musical as a full orchestra. Timber, because of its length and the brilliant lighting and sound design, was more intense and stirring than minimalist classics such as Music for Pieces of Wood. Mr Gordon used the same sort of technique involving a gradual process to create an all-consuming, almost cleansing atmosphere of sounds: experiencing Timber was like watching rain clouds glissade across a dark sky.

The drumming began as a pitter-patter, then swelled and shook with crescendos until I was shocked to realize that the rhythms had morphed into a stormy explosion of phrases thundered out in unison, pulsing through the Fishman Space like a heartbeat. The explosion was followed by a lull. Then a similarly quiet patter, like raindrops, crept calmly through the space, and the process began anew. The music was matched with Jim Findlay’s brilliant lighting, which intensified and then receded along with the drumming. The lights, which became a truly integral aspect of the experience, elevated an already captivating performance – along with Jamie McElhinney’s exemplary sound design. Timber was overall a fascinating, mind-numbing performance. Thanks to the extraordinary team of percussionists, and of course to Michael Gordon himself, I will never look at a two-by-four the same way again.