Mantra Percussion's Timber is a tale of two-by-fours
According to Mantra Percussion’s Mike McCurdy, composer Michael Gordon had one simple, straightforward idea in mind when he began work on what would eventually become Timber. “He wanted to really focus in on something very stark,” says the percussionist, reached at his ensemble’s Brooklyn headquarters. “Just box himself in.”
It’s ironic, then, that the materials Gordon ended up calling for would be simple framing studs—the kind of Douglas-fir two-by-four beams available at hardware stores from coast to coast. To build a sturdy container, two-by-fours are where most people would start. Yet Timber went through several incarnations before becoming the work that will be presented here this weekend, as part of Vancouver New Music’s Big Bang festival.
Gordon, the cofounder of New York City’s acclaimed Bang on a Can new-music society, first started thinking about banging on planks in 2009. He’d been jointly commissioned by Mantra Percussion and the Netherlands’ Slagwerk Den Haag to come up with something for six percussionists, and he started by reimagining his 1998 percussion solo XY. Working closely with McCurdy and his colleagues, he developed some basic structures before heading to Holland for further explorations—but despite experiments with various woodblocks, marimbas, and small drums, the piece had still to find its voice.
That’s when the members of Slagwerk stepped in.
“They have an extensive armoury of instruments and whatnot, and one of the things they had was six of these simantras that Iannis Xenakis had used on one of his works, Persephassa,” McCurdy explains. “Xenakis had brought this instrument, which is from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, into western classical music. And so one of them said, ‘We’ve got these really cool, very simple wooden planks downstairs. I’ll go grab them and we can try them out.’ So they did, and it was exactly what the piece needed. It was one of those serendipitous things.”
Simantras aren’t easy to come by, however, so for North American performances of Timber, Mantra Percussion turned to the lumberyard. Yes, the two-by-fours they’ll use here are identical to those for sale at Home Depot and elsewhere, but they have been slightly modified postpurchase. One of the Mantra players has been detailed to select the straightest, most knot-free boards he can find, which are further conditioned by months of meticulous dehumidification in the musician’s basement. And then, once cured, they’re equipped with a contact microphone and connected to a powerful public-address system.
Without amplification, Timber would still function on the structural level, McCurdy allows, but it would be a far less impressive experience.
“The piece wouldn’t be the same,” he says. “What the amplification does is it takes these harmonics and these partials and it amplifies those. And so we’re able to select certain partials that we want to hear, because they interplay with each other in the space itself, above the rhythms and the fundamental pitches that are going on. I describe it as an aurora borealis of partials; it’s sort of like a chorus of sound that’s projected into the space and floats above the music.”
The hourlong work is not aimed at those with a short attention span. As with much music rooted in American minimalism, repetition and duration are integral parts of its effectiveness. But for those willing to sink into Timber’s surprisingly seductive sound world, it’s an experience not to be missed.
“It is very much a journey—a journey through the music, where the atmosphere changes very subtly and you’re kind of drifting through space and time,” McCurdy says. “Of all the music I’ve performed in my life, it’s unique; it’s not like anything else I’ve ever done as a performer.”