Michael Gordon was born in Florida and spent his early childhood in Nicaragua, where he first studied piano. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Miami, where he continued piano lessons and began writing his own music at age ten. Gordon attended Yale University for a graduate degree, studying composition with Martin Bresnick. After graduating, Gordon formed an ensemble and started performing his own works, which often employed instruments that were considered atypical within the traditional orchestral model, such as electric guitar and other amplified sounds. In 1978, he moved to New York City and became involved in its burgeoning underground rock scene. Both Gordon's formal training and his experiences in the post-punk era have shaped and defined his musical style, which has been described as "the collision of mysterious introspection and brutal directness."
Gordon, fellow Yale classmate David Lang, and composer Julia Wolfe (Gordon's wife) founded the Bang on a Can musical collective in 1987. Since its inception, the group has been at the forefront of the contemporary classical music movement, hosting seminal events such as its Marathon Concerts and its annual Summer Institute of Music. Gordon continues to contribute to the large-scale projects of BoaC as a composer and artistic director. Much of his music, both for BoaC and individual commissions, has involved theater or video aspects. His large-scale multimedia collaborations include the BoaC projects The Carbon Copy Building and Shelter.
In his approach to composing Timber, Gordon was influenced by his then-recent work on “" lot of music for a lot of instruments and a lot of pitches." In a video interview, he explains that, for Timber, he "wanted a really stark sound...six percussionists with six instruments suddenly shifting the sound from one percussionist to the next so that you were hearing these sweeps going from high to low." At one point, Gordon had written the music, but hadn't yet settled on the instrumentation. During a visit with Slagwerk Den Haag, percussionist Fedor Teunisse suggested simantras – planks of wood traditionally played by Greek Orthodox monks in liturgical services and used by Iannis Xenakis in his percussion sextet Persephassa. Michael McCurdy of Mantra Percussion describes the effect as a "vast harmonic spectrum that exists in each one of these 2x4s...all of the interactions that the frequencies have with each other actually contributes to the music itself...it's almost like there's a chorus that is behind the sound that comes from the harmonics..."
Timber is an hour-long tour de force that sets a new bar for the endurance, execution, and energy of percussion performance. For the piece, each 2x4 hardwood board is cut to a slightly different length (providing a slightly different pitch), then mounted on a stand and amplified. The musicians stand in a circle facing each other, using mallets and fingertips to play the formidably complex patterns set forth on the page. In some sections, the parts beat in unison, with the crescendos and diminuendos of individual lines dovetailing alongside one another; in others, players manage precise polyrhythms in both hands and across the ensemble. The result is a pulsing, meditative, psycho-acoustic study on the relentless vibrancy and vigor of rhythm and sound unleashed in a stripped-down form.
Co-commissioned by Club Guy and Roni, Slagwerk Den Haag, and Mantra Percussion, the dance version of Timber was premiered in October 2009. The concert version was given its world premiere by Slagwerk Den Haag in June 2011, with U.S. premieres by Mantra Percussion following in October 2011.
— Deanna Hudgins
Percussionist Deanna Hudgins is Publications Coordinator for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.