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January 19, 2012

Guest blogger Logan K. Young previews Mobtown Modern's Mantra concert

In advance of what promises to be one of the most kinetic concerts from Mobtown Modern this season, a performance Thursday of Michael Gordon's "Timber" for six percussionists, guest blogger Logan K. Young offers this preview. If I didn't have a BSO concert tonight, I know I'd be happily Mobtowning. -- TIM


It was only a matter of time — and circumstance.

With a host of smart, progressive composers disenfranchised by the politics of big choirs and even bigger orchestras, three indefatigable grad students — David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe — left Yale and started their own ensemble.

They christened it as only they could: Bang on a Can.

A music festival, the all-day-and-all-of-the-night Bang on a Can Marathon, soon followed. It’s still going strong (and late) today. In March 2001, BoaC’s record label, Cantaloupe Music, was born. In fact, the label just put out a wonderful sampler to celebrate its silver anniversary.

A thriving summer school, commissioning consortium and one Pulitzer Prize later, Bang on a Can has become the paradigm for DIY classical music in every stuffy college, every staid conservatory throughout the country. Not bad for a start-up, indeed.

Of the founding BoaC trio, Michael Gordon (Wolfe’s husband) has always struck me as the most unique voice. His music is consistently the most original. To be fair, that 2008 Pulitzer actually belongs to Lang. Like Brahms, he’s a real composer’s composer.

Baltimore got to hear this for herself when Evolution Contemporary Music Series presented Lang’s "The Little Match Girl Passion" at An Die Musik late last year. As duly noted, that performance did not disappoint.

Now it’s Gordon’s time. And with Mobtown Modern bringing the fine, rotating cast of Mantra Percussion to the always cooperative Red Emma’s, no one will leave 2640 discouraged either.

Apropos of their name, Mantra Percussion will be performing Gordon’s "Timber," a nearly ...

hour-long work for what amounts to a consort of two-by-fours you might find in the yard of Horstmeier Lumber on the Camden side of town.

In reality, though, these graduated boards are legitimate liturgical instruments from the Byzantine era known as simantras. Moreover, no less a composer than Iannis Xenakis utilized them to striking effect in his antiphonal opus, Persephassa.

As with Xenakis’ composition, Gordon’s work is also scored for six percussionists. Whereas Xenakis used an entire battery of percussion however, Gordon — the consummate minimalist — wrote only for the simantras, themselves. But the end result is hardly monochromatic.

In other words, you will not be, well, bored.

Each of the piece’s five movements, ranging from just over seven minutes to nearly twice that length, is a careful, yet pliant study in timbre. Sure, Gordon’s trademarked ‘rhythmic dissonance’ is certainly here in all its polyrhythmic grandeur, but it’s the sound alone that’s truly stunning.

On the recording from Cantaloupe (cleverly packaged in a one-pound fibreboard box, no less) you can hear the wooden overtones darting back and forth across the stereo field. It’s quite an achievement in audio engineering.

Of course, the best way to experience Michael Gordon’s Timber is always going to be live and in person ...


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:38 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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