“Timber”, the word, conjures images of trees falling in the wilderness as lumberjacks yell out, of fragrant wood crackling in a fireplace, and of stacks of lumber waiting to be crafted into furniture by carpenters’ rough hands. Michael Gordon’s 2010 work Timber is just as evocative. It builds on these sensory associations – of explosive energy, warm texture, and aesthetic refinement – to create one of the most exciting and innovative works by an American composer in recent memory.

Soprano Amy Foote with the specially built simantras
Soprano Amy Foote with the specially built simantras

It is a massive piece, rewarding yet exhausting for both the performers and the audience. And on Thursday night, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players presented it at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Lam Research Theater.

On its face, Timber appears to be just a novelty, a work for six percussionists playing amplified two-by-fours of unspecified tuning, length, or species of tree. But the catch is that Timber is an evening-length work, making the stakes much higher. The question becomes: is it possible to sustain interest in six people banging on wood for an hour?

It is. Spectacularly so.

Although Timber was clearly the centerpiece of the concert, the brief work Two Cat Songs by Russian composer Elena Langer opened the concert, and it provided charming contrast to the mammoth scale of Gordon’s music. The two songs are settings of two children’s poems by Daniil Kharms, a Stalin-era writer who died in prison after being arrested for treason during World War II. There is more than a little Stravinsky in Langer’s music, especially in her use of repeating piano patterns and vocal ornamentation. But the leanness and playfulness of Two Cat Songs make it more of a fresh evolution of his style. Soprano Amy Foote gave a wonderfully charismatic performance, helping make the piece much more than simply the prelude to what followed.

While the novelty of watching six players bang away at construction materials for an hour may have filled some seats (and possibly kept others empty), it quickly became an afterthought as the the music began and a captivating, unearthly texture emerged. The chugging pulse that opens the music and never stops is exactly what we expect from a post-minimalist composer like Gordon, but the unexpected grandness of wood’s resonance is felt in the body as much as it is heard. It fills the hall with a full spectrum of sound while simultaneously rattling the listeners belly and bones.

Because each ensemble must create its own set of instruments, every performance of Timber has its own character. As the composer himself points out, there is no mention of instruments whatsoever in the score, and the decision to use framing lumber was made long after the music itself was written. The instruments are also not intentionally tuned to any particular scale, so it is up to chance whether their combined sound is sonorous or discordant. The San Francisco Contemporary Music Players managed to cut pieces of wood that more or less fall within conventional tuning, but one two-by-four in particular was just out of tune, providing a fantastic, at times poignant, rub to the melodies that emerged from the cloud-like texture.

Melody, though, is a relative term here, since there are no composed melodies in the music. Hearing them has as much to do with the listener’s brain searching for patterns in the undulating cacophony as it does with the composer’s intent. But they are certainly there, and they depend on the length of each piece of wood, the resonances of the hall, and even where an audience member has chosen to sit.

The main so-called theme results from the overarching pattern of the music – a slow, clockwise shift of emphasis on each of the six performers. This endlessly looping motif fades in and out of prominence. While it never disappears, it often shifts to provide the foundation for the interplay of complex rhythms. This ever-changing palette of pulsing texture fosters a trance-like state that is at once hypnotic and meditative. It crafts a timeless space where the audience is simply invited to abide with its ears open.

When the piece eventually reached its ultimate resolution – after a remarkable section where the performers kept a steady pulse with their right hands while slowly shifting the tempo as well as the meter with their left – the audience seemed to hold their breath. It felt like the end, but it also felt like only 20 minutes had had passed. Perhaps this was just momentary pause before starting the second half. But it was over. And it had been 60 minutes, not 20.

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