Michael Gordon, RUSHES: Rushes Ensemble: Rachael Elliot, Michael Harley, Lynn Hileman, Dana Jessen, Jeffrey Lyman, Saxton Rose, Maya Stone (bassoons), Orpheum Annex, November 22, 2014.

Vancouver New Music continued its exciting season by hosting the Rushes Ensemble in Michael Gordon’s Rushes, a newly commissioned, hour long work for seven bassoons. The work is an intense, transformative experience that was in fact commissioned by the musicians themselves, responding to the general frustration with arts funding felt by artists both here and in the U.S.

Rushes is a soundscape. It does have a superficial resemblance to a percussive work, but beyond the use of staccato attacks that evoke the strike of a mallet on surface there is little else to suggest this.  There are no grand pauses or moments within the piece where all bassoons are silent. More frequently, two or more players work in tandem to create effects which are then placed in juxtaposition to other such groups within the ensemble, but these collaborations are in constant flux.  Rushes wafts and meanders, always finding fluidity and subtlety.  When there are moments of rest, the effect is achieved by the repetition of the same motif over and over, rather than by arrival or cadence. Being modal, it is sombre in tone, but not melancholic. Though the length of the piece is substantial, it is not burdensome or gratuitous -- just sufficient to fully absorb and suspend the listener.

From a constructional standpoint, one might refer to a compositional technique that exploits hemiola (or a superparticular ratio) to produce a non-terminating rhythmic pattern. For similar examples, I would look to Terry Riley’s In C and also Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood. But there is also a strong harmonic element present that gives Rushes its lasting interest, for it exploits the unique acoustic qualities of the bassoon itself to produce what Gordon himself describes as the “architectural movement of sound”.

The bassoon is a complicated acoustic instrument that can be succinctly described as a truncated, conical bored pipe, the physical properties of which dictate that its produced sounds have a defined harmonic relation to each other. Because the bassoon is also homophonic, we seldom get to hear a definite representation of its properties. Rushes creates, forms, and reforms harmonic relationships between each bassoon into patterns which are then built upon or put away, at the composer’s discretion.  This is where Gordon’s remarks about architectural sound begin to make sense. A beautiful structure is not just an assemblage of parts, nor is it a fixed set of ratios. It is a marriage between materials and intended use that perfectly suits a purpose. In a great work of architecture – such as Jacopo Sansovino’s library in Venice -- classical elements, such as the Doric columns of the first level, are combined with innovations, like the play of size of Ionic columns of the second level. The result is not a full departure from the classical architecture, which sets the standard for ordered use of columns, but rather an informed re-purposing of known elements. In Rushes, Michael Gordon has re-purposed the known properties of bassoon sound and used them to create a remarkably-innovative conjunction of balance and form. He uses the inherent properties of the bassoon to create music uniquely for an ensemble of bassoons! It’s quite remarkable.

The Rushes Ensemble performance was outstanding.  When artists are mindful of the capabilities of the materials at hand, use them in creative and responsible ways (particularly with respect to patterns of the non-terminating variety), a wonderfully deep-seated sense of rest and ease can be created.  And rarely does one get to see a group that has been steadily performing the same work to the point of absolute mastery.  There was a question raised at the pre-concert talk pertaining to the validity of using a ‘click track’ to assist the musicians for this, but I feel it is unfounded. A click track is a recording of a metronome that all the musicians can hear though an ear piece and assists in the keeping of tempo and rhythm.  But musicians, like all artists, should be able to use all available tools to create the overall effect that they want.  An electronic method of communication during performance is in principle just as valid as any other type of communication, and I was personally grateful for it.

Michael Gordon was clearly inspired when he wrote Rushes, and the performance was genuine and powerful.  The only question that still lingers in my mind is why this ensemble had to commission this work themselves.  Perhaps we are entering a new era of decentralized arts funding, but this approach must be thought about long and hard as to its implications and, indeed, sustainability.


© Kate Mackin 2014