Gordon's Timber at Kings Place Festival

Aurora Orchestra premiere Michael Gordon’s Timber; plus Different Trains from the Duke Quartet

Gordon's Timber at Kings Place Festival

Minimalism is only truly minimalist when you can hear the maths. Its thrill lies in the aural equivalent of staring at the dots until large forms emerge. This is music in thrall to a process; its soul is self-denial, its poetry rigour. In his piece Timber Michael Gordon keeps the faith, and has produced a 21st century masterpiece.

Performed on six pine simantras (that’s mounted planks to you and me) by percussionists from Aurora Orchestra and the Royal College of Music, this is a work in the tradition of Reich’s Music for pieces of wood, but inspired surely, too, by Xenakis’s more wildly dramatic Persephassa. I was told this UK premiere performance took 20 days of rehearsal: such dedication paid off. 

In the first part, an antiphonal exchange begins across the group, a falling interval answered by a rising one in undulating waves of dynamics, the two phrases gradually coming closer together in time producing a climax of hot colour. Gordon has said of the piece that it was 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.’ Indeed, Timber’s subtle pattering conjures the aural equivalent of rippling heat hallucinations. Though a simantra is traditionally made from hardwood, which would have produced a greater depth of resonance, the range of timbres to be found in these six soft pine planks was impressive. In the second part we heard 12, against, 15,16,18,21 and 24. A crotchet beat dominated the final part, splattered with dense cross-rhythms. Of course, it’s been done before, by African drummers, by Stockhausen, Ligeti or Berio: but it’s the transparency of the engineering that compels here, not its complexity.

Steve Reich remains the godfather of system music, and has never stopped believing in the power of its principles. In his inspired Different Trains, performed here by the Duke Quartet, rhythm, speed and shape are determined by the fragments of taped voices. Only in a live performance can one really feel the jolting gear changes that result: as the recorded quartet keeps jumping from one speed and rhythmic pattern to another, it becomes a fiendish exercise in adjustment. Tension ratchets up, and here the whole thing threatened to come off the rails. It didn’t, but the violinists struggled to keep up with the taped Kronos Quartet in the high-velocity third part. Violist John Metcalfe anchored the performance (indeed the viola is in the driving seat throughout), though his sound was curiously one-dimensional. Only cellist Sophie Harris seemed sufficiently relaxed to be expressive. This felt under-rehearsed, and the sound diffusion was not clear enough for the moving testimonies to be heard.

In complete contrast, the Brodsky Quartet dazzled in Borodin’s delightful Scherzo from Les Vendredis. This was the only item I managed to catch of their concert, which sadly overlapped with the Duke Quartet’s. Here was an audience on the edge of their seats for all the right reasons: scintillating virtuosity, pin-sharp detail and expressive daring.


Minimalism Unwrapped begins on 7 January 2015 at Kings Place. Visit: kingsplace.co.uk




Radio Rewrite

PRS Foundation for New Music Biennial, Southbank Centre

Review: Michael Gordon Decasia


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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