A Mesmerizing Michael Gordon World Premiere at the Miller Theatre
Isn’t it cool when you see a piece of music that’s so much fun that it wouldn’t be fair to spoil the ending? The world premiere of Michael Gordon‘s Material, a work for percussion quartet performed by Yarn/Wire last night at the Miller Theatre, actually ended pretty much where it started, on an vividly uneasy note. The trick ending about ten minutes before that was the highlight – and is too good to spoil.
In between, it was hypnotic to the point of being hallucinatory, and also troubling, and grew far louder than you would expect a single concert grand piano could possibly be without amplification. Is this roughly hourlong suite a cruelly sardonic commentary about how citizens of a city can be lulled into complacency? A bitter critique of the blight of gentrification that’s destroyed so many New York communities? Or just a playful exploration of all the cool sounds you can get out of a piano if you hit it in places where it usually doesn’t get hit? Maybe all of the above? What’s unquestionable is how mesmerizingly fun it is. Last night’s program was sold out, although there were a couple of no-shows. The group are reprising last night’s indoor fireworks with not one but two marathon performances, at 7 and 9 PM tonight, May 12, which are also sold out. But those with the energy to head up to the box office at 116th and Broadway in hope of earning some cred for being there – or just the sheer fun of it – might get lucky.
Was Gordon’s almost imperceptibly whispery intro a wry French-language pun on the name of the Tribeca street the composer calls home, where the incessant thud of a luxury developer’s piledriver inspired him to write it? Were the long, rapidfire, pointillistic passage – beaten out with metronomic, motorik timing via the mallets of Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg – a challenge to electronic composers to do it the old-fashioned way with real instruments, because that’s so much more interesting? Reduced to lowest terms, this roughly hourlong piece is a follow-up to Gordon’s rumbling, similarly hypnotic 2014 epic Timber, which is performed on a massive installation of amplified wooden sawhorses. But this is considerably different, packed with subtle rhythmic shifts, soothing lulls and contrastingly disturbing crescendos. Pianists Laura Barger and Ning Yu joined the pings and rings and eventual rumble, beating steadily and using the entirety 0f the piano’s sonic spectrum, the strings muted in places with tape and what appeared to be tile grout.
The piano wasn’t the only object that got hit. Tubular bells suspended from the ceiling of the intimate, sixty-seat space custom-built right on the Miller stage provided gentle harbor buoy bell tones during a brief starry-night interlude. Other percussion instruments were also brought into the picture, an effect that’s also too funny to give away here. Let’s just say that if someone in the ensemble gets into your space, it helps to smile.