Released last year on Cantaloupe Music, Rushes takes its place alongside Gordon’s Timber for expanding the boundaries of a single instrument’s repertoire into hitherto unknown (and at times, otherworldly) spaces. Like Timber, which maps new percussive territory for the simantra — a simple two-by-four slab of wood, amplified and played in a group of six to yield trance-like sonic textures — Rushes brings out tonal and timbral aspects of the bassoon that are meant to induce a quasi-meditative, almost ecstatic state in the listener, as well as the performer.
“The name comes from the tall grass that’s reminiscent of the reeds that bassoon players use,” Gordon explains. “It also refers to an ecstatic rush, a euphoria that I’m trying to build. I wanted to create something that was an environment or a spectacle that the listeners and players enter into. It’s very visceral for the players, who are playing basically nonstop for an hour, and that requires a sense of intensity and concentration.”
The players themselves were open to the challenge. “One of my first impressions of the score was that it looked like a percussion piece!” remembers Dana Jessen, who organized the New Music Bassoon Commissioning Fund that commissioned the work, and is one of the seven musicians on the Rushes recording. “There weren’t any obvious melodic or lyrical lines that are common in wind music. Instead, the bassoonists play continuous patterns and rhythms that lengthen and shorten, with subtle changes and shifts in dynamics from one player to the next.”
As technically demanding as Rushes can be in performance, the recording required an equal level of precision and attention to detail. Produced by Argeo Ascani at EMPAC, the result is rich, multi-layered and stunningly lush; there’s an analog and human “warmth” that resides in the natural sound of the bassoon, but Rushes also exposes how deceptively electronic a group of them can sound when played with arpeggiated gusto.
“The bassoon is very beautiful and sensual,” Gordon says. “After taking a good look at several centuries worth of bassoon music, I felt that the instrument had been overlooked. I see Rushes as a bassoon extravaganza or spectacle. The music unfolds gradually, like taking a walk through a landscape — but at the same time, it’s propulsive, rhythmic and visceral.”
The Rushes Ensemble: Dana Jessen, Saxton Rose, Rachael Elliott, Jeffrey Lyman, Lynn Hileman, Maya Stone, and Michael Harley
Gordon describes the work further:
Years ago I pursed my lips and blew into a bassoon, and felt the entire instrument buzz as I droned on the very bottom note, a B flat. I held the long conical piece of wood in my hands with admiration — it was covered with what looked like a New York City subway map of shiny metal keys running every which way. The bassoon had heft and it was primal — the two reeds vibrating against each other produced a poignant and mournful sound.
It all came back to me on a cold sunny Thursday in January 2011. Five bassoonists set up in my living room. Along with 25 other bassoonists from far and wide, they had banded together and asked me to write a new piece. I’m not sure any of them imagined that my response would be an hour-long work for seven bassoons.
In earlier conversations with Dana Jessen, the American bassoonist who initiated this project, I had asked to look at all the influential bassoon music written in the 20th century. Dana showed up with just a small pile of music. I felt a little bit like Magellan. I knew there were worlds to find if I could just set sail.
During that Thursday afternoon, we explored a myriad of sounds and my living room was filled with an exquisite buzzing of dark tones. I was particularly drawn to the short percussive attacks by all the bassoons in counterpoint with each other. The texture had the aural effect of a Seurat painting, and I began to write for the instruments as if they were participants in an extreme sport — a non-stop barrage of ethereal rapid-fire points of sound that seamlessly shifted from one instrument to the next. This architectural movement of sound, which runs throughout the entire piece of music, is a technique that I first used in Timber, a percussion work for six amplified simantras. I imagined entering these waves of moving sound and embarking on a journey through a stark monochromatic landscape that slowly revealed its hidden colors.
The score, with tens of thousand of notes, looks a bit like an Escher drawing or a very long weaving pattern for a loom. In June 2012, in Edisto Island, South Carolina, I met with the seven bassoonists of the newly formed Rushes Ensemble. As we rehearsed, I thought that the piece had become like the thick river winding its way through the marshes and reedy growth surrounding us. I had already settled on the name Rushes, both for its reference to the reeds and to capture the mental state it produced. Now, with the seven bassoonists fully immersed in the music, I felt the primordial flow of sound harkening back to the very first reeds.
— Michael Gordon, NYC, January 2014