You could make the argument that percussionists are as defined by their musical actions as by the objects of those actions–by the fact that they percuss on whatever can be percussed upon. And they don’t just play snare drums, timpani, and xylophone either. Partly thanks to the influence of “world” percussion traditions (of Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Caribbean) on the aesthetics of twentieth century classical composers like Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Steve Reich, and many others into our current century, there is by now a substantial body of music for percussionists hitting everyday and unusual objects (not to mention indigenous instruments from musical cultures outside the western classical canon) to make music. As long as the object–a flowerpot, a brake drum, a plastic tube–is somewhat resonant and sounds good, you’re in business and ready to make music.
It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that percussion a played mostly decorative role in orchestral music–marking the tonic and dominant on the timpani, cymbal crashes at climactic moments of symphonies, and so on. It seems like it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that percussion in classical music was allowed to come into its own, be itself, and not have to play, umm, second fiddle to anyone else in the orchestra. As Nicole V. Gagné points out in her fine essay, “The Beaten Path: A History Of American Percussion Music”, by the early twentieth century percussion in European classical music was “valued for its association with an idea—or rather, an ideal, be it mechanical prowess and progress, or non-industrial freedom and innocence.” So it was primarily those American composers such as Cowell, Cage and the others mentioned above (plus a few from overseas: Frenchman Edgard Varèse, and the Greek Iannis Xenakis), who helped expand the palette of what “counts” as a percussion instrument and as percussion music.
American composer Michael Gordon’s Timber (2011) is scored for six wooden 2 by 4s mounted on stands and amplified by small contact microphones. The pieces of wood have ancient precedents in the semantron, a long piece of resonant timber of Greek origin.
Pre-dating church bells, semantrons have been used for over a thousand years to call worshipers to prayer; indeed, versions of them are still used today in monasteries across Eastern Europe. So common are semantrons in monasteries that the historian Edward V. Williams describes them as “aural icons of orthodoxy.”
In light of semantrons’ ancient roots, it’s perhaps not surprising how often the word “primitive” comes up when Gordon and some of the percussionists who play Timber discuss the piece for six 2 by 4s. Here’s Gordon in an interview about the sound he was after: “I was almost imagining something primitively electronic.” And Michael McCurdy, percussionist with the Mantra percussion group: “There is a bit of a primitive feel when you’re playing this.”
So here we are in 2012 and Gagné’s primitive ideal is still with us: simple, ancient percussing, percussion instruments and percussive sounds signifying “non-industrial freedom and innocence” and marking a path of musical escapism. I don’t know the source of the primitive-drumming connection, but if I had to guess: drumming is an inherently more violent action than say, bowing the strings of a violin or blowing across a flute. Or maybe it’s that drumming is the most ancient of the instrumental musical arts. Or maybe we still unknowingly carry with us traces of the Eurocentric mindset of early European explorers and missionaries in distant (colonial) lands, unable to make sense of the “noise” of the “primitive” musical cultures they encountered. Suffice it to say that the percussive field–to use a phrase from John Mowitt in his book Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking–is still contentious and still has great social and psychological depths in need of comparative cultural study. After all, if we don’t think of ourselves as primitive, how can we continue to talk about music in such terms?
Nonetheless, Gordon’s Timber is neither primitive nor simple in its musical design and sound. The composed piece’s score gives precise directions to the performers, it has five movements, and runs for almost an hour (in this regard recalling Steve Reich’s four-part, hour-long 1971 piece, Drumming). Timber‘s structure makes use of repetition, shared rhythmic motifs and gestures passed among the players (e.g. moving from the outside edge towards the middle section of the 2 by 4s, or vice versa), and forms that audibly expand or contract. All of these elements help propel the piece forward and keep it interesting. In all, Timber is a pretty rapturous though at the same time austere piece of music that makes for challenging listening.
But the real star of Timber is its timbre or sound quality. One of the most compelling acoustic qualities of so-called “indefinite-pitched” percussion instruments such as cymbals, gongs, most types of drums, and semantrons is the complexity of their sounds. This complexity derives from the fact that the instruments produce not only a fundamental sound (the main pitch you hear) but also an array of overtones or harmonics (multiples of the main pitch that can also be heard). It’s these overtones that make a gong sound so mysterious and ineffable; indeed, overtones are the main reason why no two gongs sound the same.
So while Timber is not really a pitched piece with clear melodies and harmonies, those resonant 2 by 4s produce a complex field of overlapping, swirling and humming overtones that steal the show. If you attend closely to them you can perceive slow-moving, cloud-like melo-harmonic apparitions. In this way, Timber is spectral, ghostly music. Mantra percussionist Michael McCurdy again: “Part of the beauty of this piece of music is the harmonic chorus that floats out into the audience and creates an absolutely rich timbre and texture and this amazing sound palette.”
Here’s a video about the piece:
Click here for another clip featuring a performance in the lumber department of a Lowe’s hardware store.