Michael Gordonís Timber is performed entirely on six wooden 2x4s. Theyíre technically called simantras, instruments of Iannis Xenakisí design, but are little more than blocks of wood adorned with a fancy name. When composing the music, Gordon imagined its execution on some form of simple untuned percussion, and when the members of Slagwerk den Haag, the Dutch percussion sextet who co-commissioned and premiered the work, introduced him to the simantra, it was a perfect fit. After all, itís tough to get much more spartan than simple wooden planks. Thankfully, thereís more to Timber than the simultaneous oddity and familiarity of its instruments. The gimmicky novelty of the simantra isnít exactly swept under the rug (the disc comes housed in a handsome, laser-etched wooden case), but the album is more about Gordonís construction than the wood of which Timber is made.
Gordonís composition is anything but stripped down and wooden. The piece is a test of dexterity and endurance for the players, a polyrhythmic panoply that turns the individual impacts of mallets on wood into cascading waves of sound. With their pitch defined by their physical form and how and/or where they are hit, the simantras are played against each other to create intricate webs, the percussive strikes colliding, overlapping and intermingling. Single lines slowly build into bustling, criss-crossing traffic, and dramatic about-faces transform the patterns wholesale in a sudden instant. Like the sea of tiles in one of those massive, record-breaking domino arrangements, the notes rush past in highly orchestrated formations that vary from simple dances between undulating lines to flurries that bring to mind the clattering chorus of a dropped handful of ball bearings, or an unnaturally coordinated rainfall during a heavy storm.
What could be cacophony is instead a complex choreography, and even if Timberís original duration of 75 minutes is cut by almost a third on this CD, the pinpoint accuracy and unflagging endurance of Slagwerk den Haag is still on great display. Much of the musicís spatial play is undoubtedly lost when recorded, but the albumís stereo mix retains some of the effect, putting the listener smack dab in the center of the sextetís circle. It sometimes sounds as though the ensemble spontaneously becomes an octodectet; strangely some of the busiest bits come on the albumís first few sections, before the players have doubled their arsenal to two simantras each. This isnít the only unforeseen alchemy wielded by these deceptively plain planks: though crisp in their attack, the simantras can create ghostly overtones, adding ambient shades to the music that linger in the background like a barely visible fog. One can only imagine how different Timber would sound if performed on different instruments. The serendipity that sent Slagwerkís Fedor Teunisse to the basement to seek out the simantras not only gave the composition its name, but define the very character of the piece.
At times, Timber falls prey to its own flirtation with virtuosity. Itís easy to get so caught up in compositionís technical proficiency that you never let the sound sweep you away. That the music can resemble the finely tuned machinations of a miniaturized clockwork is nothing to scoff about, and I wouldnít dream of calling Timber anything less than an achievement in league with Gordonís best. I just wish that this highly impressive album was as consistently exhilarating as it is interesting. Mantra Percussion has taken the baton from Slagwerk den Haag, and will perform Timber across the U.S. in the coming year. I have a sneaking suspicion that seen live, Timber wonít fail to fell any reservations I have about this CD.