As an ostensibly cultured person, I pay embarrassingly little attention to current activity in the modern classical and jazz scenes, which is likely a lingering remnant of my uncompromisingly punk/DIY-centric formative years. For the most part, this has not backfired on me, but occasionally something absolutely amazing manages to pass by me totally unnoticed, such as Michael Gordon's staggering minimalist epic Timber (2011). Thankfully, fate has conveniently intervened to give me a second chance to celebrate the joys of this singular percussive masterwork, as it has now surfaced yet again as a live album with a companion disc of remixes from a murderers' row of experimental luminaries like Fennesz, Tim Hecker, Oneohtrix Point Never, Squarepusher, and Ikue Mori. For the most part, the original piece proves extremely difficult to improve upon, but several of the remixers certainly make a compellingly valiant effort.
"Timber" is a wryly prosaic title for this piece, as it was composed specifically and solely for the simantra, which is an obscure Eastern Orthodox percussive instrument. In reality, however, the simantra is literally just a common 2x4" piece of wood. More specifically, "Timber" is composed for six such pieces of wood, each cut to a different length in order to provide a different pitch. Amusingly, the sheer simplicity and mundanity of that instrumentation is illustrated in an NPR video of Mantra Percussion performing the piece at a Lowe’s hardware store to an audience of mildly curious shoppers and employees.
While the original piece was separated into five movements and clocks in at just under an hour, the live version here (not recorded at a hardware store, sadly) is presented as just a single uninterrupted piece. Admittedly, six boards and some mallets do not offer a hell of a lot in the way of melodic possibility (Gordon is a composer, not a magician), but the piece nonetheless reminds me favorably of Steve Reich's similarly percussive and pulsing Music for 18 Musicians, albeit with the harmonic and melodic components replaced entirely with waves of waxing and waning hollow wooden textures. There are some quieter interludes, but the piece is primarily just an elegantly simple and hypnotically pulsing motif shifting through endless dynamic variations.
Unsurprisingly, that brilliantly hyper-minimal theme presented all of the aspiring remix artists with quite a comically limited palette to exploit. As a result, many of the remixes sound quite similar to one another, as even the most inventive and distinctive artists had a difficult time finding unique ways to reinvent the material. Naturally, I was most interested in hearing how Fennesz and Tim Hecker dealt with the puzzle, which turns out to be "somewhat similarly," though Hecker admittedly bolsters his busier and more tense textural and rhythmic transformations with some bass throb while Fennesz opts for some densely mind-warping drones. While he still sticks largely to the script, Fennesz winds up being one of the more adventurous re-shapers, injecting some bizarrely Lynch-ian (if understated) noir-jazz touches into his piece. Perversely, however, it is largely the artists that I am not obsessive about that completely steal the show, most specifically Squarepusher, Oneohtrix Point Never, and HPRIZM of Anti-Pop Consortium. To their credit, all three artists find a way to radically change the tone of the piece into something uniquely their own: Squarepusher with an uncharacteristically understated and melancholy guitar motif, OTP with an uncharacteristically understated and dreamlike piano motif, and HPRIZM with a darkly sexy post-industrial groove. Elsewhere, Ikue Mori succeeds by simply embracing the aesthetic more completely and intuitively than anyone else, warping "Timber" into a deeper and more hallucinatory piece without tampering at all with its fundamental spirit.
Of course, it is still Gordon's hugely complex and ambitious original that most inspires awe here, but there is certainly something to be said for condensing its essence into a more easily digestible dose. In fact, that has long been a sticking point for me with Gordon's original pieces (he more frequently interprets the work of others in his role as one of the artistic directors of Bang on a Can): he is certainly prone to flashes of genius, but his work can sometimes be so radical and uncompromising that I have a hard time making it through an entire piece (the most striking example being his brutally out-of-tune score for Decasia). That said, Timber Remixed is quite listenable and absorbing for an entirely percussion-based album. As enjoyable as the main course is, however, it is primarily the much shorter reworkings that will keep me coming back to the album again and again. I certainly do not love all of them, but the original material is more than strong enough to sustain twelve variations from some of the greatest talents in experimental music and it is a delight to hear so many musicians I admire trying their hand at something outside their well-worn comfort zones.