Songs from the wood: Third Angle’s ‘Timber’

Percussionists coax big sounds from unlikely sources.

Mallets in hands, the six musicians stood onstage, arrayed around a hexagon of wooden plank of varying length. One started to play, rapping a persistent pattern on the plank in front of him with one mallet, another on the plank next to him with the other. The sound, surprisingly rich, echoed through Alberta Rose Theatre, and the pattern soon flitted around the hexagon, with each member (four from New York’s Mantra Percussion, two from Portland’s Third Angle New Music) in turn picking it up and passing it along, rippling around like a wave across a pond.

During the next hour, playing continuously, the musicians’ bodies swayed to the main beat as the individual interlocking patterns grew more complex, volume rose and fell, at one point halting entirely, then resumed, until the whole theater seemed to reverberate with a rich variety of tones and rhythms—all generated by twelve hands and six planks.

Members of Third Angle New Music and Mantra Percussion played the planks in Michael Gordon's Timber. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

Members of Third Angle New Music and Mantra Percussion played the planks in Michael Gordon’s Timber. Photo: Tom Emerson Photography.

The single, hour-long piece that comprised the entire program in Friday night’s opening concert in Third Angle’s 2014-15 season, eschewed or de-emphasized two of music’s most familiar traditional qualities, melody and harmony—which consequently cast the aural spotlight on others, especially rhythm and timbre (that is, the sonic quality of the instrument itself). It also contributes to the work’s double entendre title, Timber.

That’s a typical strategy in the classic pulse minimalist music that originated in the 1960s and ‘70s: less is more. But if New York composer Michael Gordon’s 2009 composition didn’t achieve the depth and richness of its most obvious predecessors, such as American composer Steve Reich’s 1970s minimalist classic Drumming, it did provide, for most of the journey, an often mesmerizing sonic experience unlike any other we’re likely to hear this year.

Unlike the other two members of New York’s Bang on a Can composers group, David Lang and Julia Wolfe (whose music Third Angle has also performed recently), Gordon tends to rely on a single, striking concept and pretty much beat you over the head with it. But this time, the concept is rich enough to sustain its limited means much longer than usual. His score instructs the musicians to continuously strike the recycled, locally grown Douglas Fir planks (donated by Portland’s Viridian Reclaimed Wood) using different rhythms with each hand—three beats in the left while simultaneously playing two with the right, for example—and to change those rhythms (five against four, for example, then five against eight, etc.) gradually in strictly prescribed patterns.

Nevertheless, for much of this performance, Timber came across as more magical than mathematical. Because the boards were cut in ratios that produce haunting overtones (that is, pitches that resound both higher and lower than those produced just by striking each board; the same thing happens with stringed instruments), the sound, amplified by contact microphones affixed to each board, blossomed, becoming almost orchestral. The lowest bass notes in particular rumbled mightily. Once I stopped trying to count the rhythms and just let the music’s shimmering (and untempered) sonorities wash over me, I was free to marvel at the richness of the huge tidal waves of sound, rising and receding, and how it changed as the polyrhythms evolved.

The musicians’ exquisite control of dynamics (soft and loud) and tight integration with each other throughout the extended piece made the best possible case for Gordon’s creation, especially in the softest moments, a solo by Oregon Symphony percussionist Sergio Carreno using only his hands, not mallets. I’m usually critical of most amplification in classical concerts, but the theater’s sound engineer, Jeff Lyster, deserves a shout (or whisper) out for his supremely sensitive miking, an essential part of a performance like this. And because each performance will sound quite different depending on the kind of wood used, the acoustics of the venue, even the length of the boards (which affects the pitch), Timber will never sound like this again.

As the piece stretched on into what felt like a third movement and the polyrhythms grew more complex, the novelty of the concept wore off, and the spell faded —something that hasn’t happened in my experience with Reich’s long compositions. Still, as the colored stage lighting dimmed at the end, both I and my two companions were surprised to find that the full hour had passed; it felt much shorter.

The relatively brief duration also probably encouraged many audience members to stick around for a delightfully informative post-show Q&A session with the players and Third Angle music director Ron Blessinger, rather than rushing home to relieve the babysitter. It was inspiring to see the group’s voraciously curious fans asking so many insightful questions about how the piece worked, and they did manage to fill about two-thirds of the theater for the performance.

But even though I’ve long lamented the excessive length (and consequent inadequate rehearsal time) of many classical and contemporary classical concerts, I worry that charging $35 —for a single, extremely unconventional work by a composer probably not too familiar to most Portlanders—might have discouraged younger audience members and those not part of Third Angle’s core audience (which doesn’t look much younger than the Oregon Symphony’s) from venturing into territories unknown, and left those not so enchanted by the single piece on the program feeling shortchanged.

In fact, Timber would have fit perfectly in Third Angle’s new, hour-long series of more-affordable ($20) studio concerts at Southeast Portland’s splendid Zoomtopia studios, which begin next month. The idea is to make it easier to sample the new sounds Third Angle brings Portland without so much risk of time or money in case you don’t like it—an issue not so prevalent in the familiar music most classically oriented performers play. Third Angle’s forward-thinking ideas about how to present a show are becoming as innovative as the music it plays.

This review made possible by Oregon ArtsWatch’s partnership with Artslandia.

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4 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    sadly, this $30-35 a ticket business is beyond the reach of many limited-income folks.

    because of these high prices, several people i know could not attend:

    + timber
    + tanya tagaq
    + maya beaser

    what to do, i wonder?

  2. I completely agree, Bob. I’ve written before that too-high ticket prices are the elephant in the room, especially for new music/dance/art, but also for the arts in general. I’m sure the presenters want to attract to big audiences, and there is the Arts for All program for some low income Oregonians, but it’s not enough. Clearly this is a — maybe THE — big issue in the arts here and deserves extended discussion. We need to hear from the presenters about the economic realities behind these prices, and from arts fans who’ve been discouraged by them. We can start in the comments here, but I want ArtsWatch to devote some serious space in future to a thorough conversation about this crucial issue. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Jeff Winslow says:

    Brett’s review pretty much sums up my thoughts and feelings about this concert too. Unlike last year’s similarly audacious (measured by minutes of music per ticket dollar) Third Angle season opener at the Planetarium at OMSI, the composer didn’t keep up his end of the bargain. Haas had something interesting to say all the way to the end, but the increasing complexity of polyrhythms towards the end of the Gordon, which no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time, just wasn’t shaped in a very interesting way.

    One of the percussionists made a revealing comment during the Q&A – his favorite moment in the piece was a particularly dramatic contrast… 1/3 of the way through. It was my favorite moment too, but the proportion’s a bad sign.

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