This past December at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, six percussionists drummed on wooden planks for an hour in one of the most powerful performances of 2012. The six musicians of Mantra Percussion (Joe Bergen, Al Cerulo, Chris Graham, Michael McCurdy, Jude Traxler, and Nick Woodbury) were performing the New York première of Michael Gordon’s Timber, an immersive and meditative work. Timber is scored for six simantras, which are essentially two-by-fours whose varied lengths result in a range of pitches when struck with mallets, hands, or fingers. During Mr Gordon’s piece, the instruments are elevated and arranged in a hexagon, so that the performers face each other as they migrate through nebulous layers of rhythms and and then precipitate through dense swells of sound and then taper back off into near-silence. At BAM, the audience sprawled across the floor, leaning against pillows and watching the piece unfold in the center of the darkened room. We were fully immersed in the experience; the effects of the simantras caused the sounds to become more of an environment than a performance. We could both hear and feel the pelting and pounding of the mallets, which drenched and drowned us from every angle. A conventional sense of time or place was lost in the rise and fall of Mr Gordon’s rhythms and dynamics.

Michael Gordon © Peter Serling
Michael Gordon
© Peter Serling

This past Tuesday night at nearby Roulette, Mantra Percussion reprised the work while joined by a wide spectrum of visual and sound artists. The remix was curated by Ear Heart Music, a contemporary chamber music series that has formed a partnership with Roulette this year and has collaborated with the Tank, another new music venue, in the past. The atmosphere was similarly laid-back: attendees sat on the floor or in chairs against the walls; audience-goers sipped beers before the show while chatting with each other and even with the composer and musicians themselves. During the piece, which runs a bit over an hour, listeners came and went as subtly and soundlessly as possible.

Similarly, at ten- or fifteen-minute intervals throughout the piece, four different musicians crept onto the stage behind the simantra-hexagon and contributed their own sounds to those of Mantra Percussion. Ikue Mori and Battles’ Ian Williams used laptops, while Brandon Seabrook and Jeremiah Cymerman created some interesting and truly awful noises using both electronics and acoustic instruments – the former with a banjo, the latter with a clarinet. The disjunct between performers detracted from the unceasing drumming happening below them, and the addition of artificial sounds from one direction threw off the spatial aspect of the work. Instead of a submergence in the simantras’ fluctuations, the sound world became somewhat disjointed and unbalanced. Towards the end, all four artists drifted back to the stage to add a layer of mayhem to the final surges and receding tides of the percussion. There was a lot going on for a work that was written with “sparseness” in mind.

The musicians and their simantras were also accompanied by Joshua Ott’s visual projection, which was a charming if unnecessary addition. Mr Ott has developed superDraw, a software program that merges real-time creation of art with a computerized medium. The result is a mesmerizing visual journey through lines and colors and shapes that intersect and mutate and fall upwards and downwards like slow-motion drops of light. As delightful and imaginative as this imagescape may have been, it could not quite hold my attention. At times I felt obligated to watch the ever-shifting screensaver, but for the most part I preferred watching the subtle interactions between the performers, however dimly illuminated they might have been.

Timber’s original performances were not only transcendent but unparalleled. The visuals and extra sounds of Timber Remixed, while amusing, were often, ultimately, distractions. It was thrilling to be given the chance to hear Mr Gordon’s all-encompassing music once more, but only if you succeeded in ignoring the unnecessary appendages.