Building Sounds: Michael Gordon’s Timber, performed by Slagwerk Den Haag

By Daniel Garrett

Michael Gordon, Timber
Musicians: Slagwerk Den Haag
Production Manager Jillian Barr
Mastered by Sem de Jongh
Executive Producers Michael Gordon, David Lang,
Kenny Savelson, and Julia Wolfe
(Art design by Denise Burt)
Cantaloupe Music, 2011

There is something refreshing—it can be mystifying too—when an artist decides to return to the elemental in his or her work: something that seems simple can appear nourishing and strong, or dull and redundant, depending on the perspective of the viewer or listener.  The elemental can appear childlike or fundamental or tribal, as when sound is reduced to gesture and noise and rhythm, to attention and identification and wonder.  The composer of Timber, Michael Gordon, has written in his album notes, “I thought of composing this music as being like taking a trip out into the desert.”  Michael Gordon traveled to Amsterdam to work with Slagwerk Den Haag, and was introduced to simantras, “slabs of wood, which looked like standard building materials from a lumberyard.”  Six percussionists participate in the music performance: Fedor Teunisse, the artistic leader of Slagwerk Den Haag, and Marcel Andriessen, Niels Meliefste, Pepe Garcia, Juan Martinez, and Frank Wienk.  By turns, the sounds are of a pulsing rhythm, and a pecking sound that becomes lower then rises and becomes low again, and a rattling and rolling that is then ringing, a hammering that heralds, and finally something clocklike, with a quickened tempo that subsequently slows.  It is fascinating.

So much of contemporary culture discourages thinking while providing the distraction of sensation.  Many people want more sensation, not less; but often artists and thinkers are frantic for opportunities to slow down, rest, and contemplate in serenity.  What is the place of music?  Does it offer necessary solace or more useless noise?  Michael Gordon’s Timber comes in a jewel case made of wood (I thought it might be more fragrant); and inside is music that could be a natural occurrence or something industrial.  It could be the sound of men laboring, or an alarm—calling an end to ordinary activity.  A listener can give the music his or her full attention or use it as the score for other activities, such as reading, thinking, or exercising.  Sound is always itself—and usually a sign of something more.  In Timber the patterns do change and shift in length, rhythm, and weight; and only the most attuned ears and quickest fingers could transcribe that.  In fact, the end of the first section sounds to me like the shuffling of checkers; while the concentration and tension in the second section builds into something remarkably complex; and the notes in the third section sound like dripping water.  The full, whole sound in the fourth section is like an echo, but of what?  (Is it just one more wake-up call?)  Yet, the images we attach to music can be no more than the mind’s trying to make what is complex less so.  Listening to the fifth and last section, I thought of how music can make description futile: experience is what is important.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House.  He has written on art, books, business, the environment, film, music, and politics as a member of professional staffs and freelance, with administrative experience as an editorial/production manager dealing with vendors such as photographers and print houses.  “More and more, I think of aesthetic experience as essential and inseparable from life itself,” says Daniel Garrett, whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  Garrett has begun an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.