At first glance the combination of Elena Langer’s brief Two Cat Songs for soprano, cello and piano, with Michael Gordon’s Timber, an hour-long work for six pieces of raw lumber, might seem strange. (Though I suppose the first question is, what would go well with an hour-long piece for six pieces of raw lumber?)
However, the initial shock of the pairing doesn’t come so much from differences in materials and length as it does from what seem to be two very different emotional and stylistic worlds. Elena Langer, an engaging young Russian composer who lives in London, is fond of small dramatic moments rendered in brilliant, colorful settings. She has written a provocative prequel to the great Stravinsky work in Towards Les Noces, and has a set of gorgeous songs inspired by Russian folk melodies. By apparent contrast the score of Timber consists of page after page of undulating cross-rhythms. It starts innocently enough with six players sharing a single pulse. But soon enough the pulse divides itself and a listener is led on a path that explores increasingly abstract poly-rhythms. By the time we get to 7:4 where every player has an independent crescendo and decrescendo cycle we could be forgiven for feeling like an abacus should be sent with every set of parts.
So how do these two worlds mesh – the one with the consonant harmonies and a winsome text and the one with a snarl of ratios,
repetitions, and phase cycles?
This might be a good moment to remember Schoenberg’s famous distinction between style and idea. A central premise of his dense and polemic text on the subject is that a listener can reach a deeper and more nuanced level of musical perspective by following the ideas embedded in music rather than by responding solely to its style. He had a point: reacting to music simply on the basis of style leads to remarkable lapses in judgment like, “I just don’t like atonal music.” Or, “Progressive music shouldn’t have a beat.” I cite these two examples, but there’s plenty of blame to be assigned along a full aesthetic spectrum around the lonely campfires of arbitration by style.
So by listening “beyond style,” we can hear a lot of shared ideas between the short lyrical piece and the long rhythmic one. The poetry in both pieces has something to do with rubbing. Rubbing, that is, among the layers of the multifaceted lives of each composer and the music that results.
I met Elena Langer while I was teaching at the Centre Acanthes in Avignon on a course organized by the French electro-acoustic behemoth IRCAM. She was a very evident bright spot among the doctrinaire modernists of the course, but troubled, seemingly, by the fact that she couldn’t (wouldn’t and didn’t want to) forget the history of music. She strove for reconciliation between past and present that would allow her to create as the artist she was, not as the composer the course leaders wanted her to be. This rubbing of past against present led her directly to Towards Les Noces and to the haunting quality of her current music. We listeners feel we have heard this music before, but never with the perspective that Elena offers us.
Michael Gordon is one of my oldest friends. More than twenty-five years ago he, along with fellow Yale alumni David Lang and Julia Wolfe, invited me to perform at the second ever Bang on a Can Marathon. From that moment to the present one – including ten years as the founding percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars – I have loved his music and been grateful for his support.
Like Elena, Michael is a multifaceted person, sometimes seemingly at odds with his surroundings. He is a devoutly spiritual man who lives in one of the most secular cities in the world; he is an intellectual who chafes at the stiff collars of doctrinaire theory. He is a gentle soul who is completely at home in a world of loud music. This multiplicity has always been represented in his music as strong internal friction, and therefore enormous power. I have seen the way he rubs musical textures bac kupon themselves to create heat in ensemble pieces like Trance and I Buried Paul and in the percussion solo XY, which I premiered and which serves as the structural template for Timber.
So when I listen to Timber a predictable Gordon-esque transformation takes place. At first the piece seems to be about nothing except repetition: bar after bar of the same rhythm where the only variation is the out-of-phase patterning of crescendos and decrescendos.
Then at a critical instant – and I know no other composer as gifted at finding this catalytic moment as Michael – he injects a new element. A new rhythmic subdivision seems like such a small thing to add – a single integer in a sea of numbers – but it alters the eco-system and suddenly the rubbing starts. The piece becomes about more than repetition. It becomes about the way the ongoing repetitive texture resists change at the same time as the newly charged rhythmic environment is devoted to it. In the crosshairs of these opposing forces the music begins to tremble. It trembles gently at first, and then, later, more profoundly as the idea of cross-rhythms is extrapolated in an “XY” dynamic pattern. This means simply that each percussionist plays two rhythms at the same time. The rhythm in the one hand gets louder as the one in the other gets softer. Then the process reverses itself. At the extremes, where one hand is very loud and the other very soft, one rhythm dominates clearly over the other.
But where the music becomes truly interesting – and where it reflects Michael’s own internal frission – comes at the moments of crossing, when the passing rhythmic lines chatter to one another. In two quite different styles each composer chooses a single idea: friction over organization. How different they are from the recent classicists, from early Stockhausen to late Reich, in whose music the goal of every note is to find its rightful place! But tonight we celebrate uncertainty. We celebrate the rub of ideas and the rush of warmth that always follows.
– Steven Schick