Rushes Ensemble, Michael Gordon: Rushes

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 03.24.14 in Reviews

Michael Gordon’s music has become increasingly ambitious since “Trance,” his watershed piece from 1995. Writing for ever-larger ensembles and combinations of acoustic and electric instruments, though, can soon become a kind of game of “can you top this?” Gordon’s solution: find an entire sonic world inside a group of similar instruments. Wanting to “clear my mind of pitches and orchestration,” he created “Timber,” a work for six percussionists playing what were essentially amplified pieces of lumber (2x4s, for those of you heading to Home Depot to try to play along). This piece, “Rushes,” is a natural progression — it was written for a group of seven bassoonists, so that elements of pitch and orchestration are reintroduced, but in unconventional ways.

Post-electronic post-minimalism from a most unlikely source

“Rushes” is an hour-long ride through what often sounds like electronic music. The title refers both to the reeds used in bassoons and the rush of adrenaline that fuels the piece, especially its first movement. Using a fairly restricted set of pitches and an uncanny sense of how to weave the seven identical instruments together, Gordon creates a piece that will startle anyone who thought they knew the bassoon’s capabilities. It’s likely many bassoonists will be poring over the score (which must be almost black with notes), trying to figure out how Gordon creates the textures that pass through the work’s three movements. Among the surprises: the first part’s echo-effects, which grow out of intricate interlocking notes from the seven bassoons and result in what sounds like an instrumental stepchild to Steve Reich’s early tape pieces, “It’s Gonna Rain” and “Come Out.” (Though some will hear a likeness to Reich’s later “New York Counterpoint” for multiple clarinets as well.)

The relatively short second part consists of a series of chugging phrases that descend and trail off, as if a machine were wearing down — a gesture Gordon used to great effect to evoke decay in his music for the Bill Morrison silent film Decasia. And in the massive third part, notes pile up as if demonstrating the so-called overtone series, building increasingly “tall” chords and looping back on themselves over increasingly extended periods — again, using a devilishly tricky rhythmic intensity to do what simple tape loops or even digital delays could not. Toward the end, the piece slows and you can pick out the individual instruments. Finally the reedy, familiar sound of the bassoon can be heard.