A year ago the NOVA Chamber Music Series presented a concert entitled “Late Beethoven and New Complexity,” highlighting connections between Beethoven and more recent composers and their ability to build complex works of great intensity out of short, cellular motives. Beethoven’s repetitive use of these motives in some instances foreshadows another movement in modern music, minimalism. His obsessive preoccupation with certain rhythmic themes, heard in Movement 1 of the Fifth Symphony or the Scherzo of the opus 127 quartet, for example, borders on a kind of pre-minimalist music. This evening we present two masterpieces of vastly different eras and attitudes, works that gather an accretion of repeated musical motives with the intent of conveying grand and profound sentiments, the opus 127 string quartet of Beethoven and Timber by Michael Gordon.
The following note by Michael Gordon discusses the composition of Timber:
I began working on Timber in 2009 at the invitation of the Dutch-based dance group, Club Guy & Roni, and the percussion ensembles Slagwerk Den Haag and Mantra Percussion. I had written many orchestral works over the decade, beginning with Decasia in 2001 up to Dystopia in 2007, and I wanted to clear my mind of pitches and orchestration.
For that reason, I decided early on that Timber would be for non-tuned percussion and that each percussionist would play one instrument only. I thought of composing this music as being like taking a trip out into the desert. I was counting on the stark palette and the challenge of survival to clear my brain and bring on visions.
I imagined that the six instruments would go from high to low, and that, through a shifting of dynamics from one instrument to the next, the group could make seamless and unified descending or ascending patterns. After working on rhythmic sketches with Mantra Percussion in early 2009, I went to Amsterdam in June to workshop my ideas with Slagwerk Den Haag. I had the plan but I was searching for the right instruments.
After some experimentation, Slagwerk's Fedor Teunisse brought out a set of wooden simantras. These slabs of wood, which looked like standard building materials from a lumberyard to me, had a gorgeous sound. It was distinct enough so that the clarity of the percussive hits could be heard, and was also extremely resonant, producing a complex field of overtones. With inspiration from this discovery, I returned to New York to finished the music for Club Guy & Roni's extravaganza 'Pinball and Grace,' which premiered in October of 2009.