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With ‘Rushes,’ seven bassoons are together at last

<b>MICHAEL GORDON</b> Peter Serling

This Wednesday, Michael Gordon’s “Rushes” will have its local premiere at Tufts University’s Granoff Music Center. The performers are the seven bassoonists who gave the work’s first performance in 2012, and who were members of the consortium of 30 bassoonists (organized by Dana Jessen) that commissioned the piece from Gordon, a founding member of the Bang on a Can collective. (This performance opens a brief tour marking the release of a recording of the work on Cantaloupe Records.) Even within the classical-music world — which has been trying out different instrumental combinations for a millennium — an ensemble of seven bassoons is a conspicuous novelty. “Rushes,” to its credit, makes one wonder what took so long.

Repeated notes are at the heart of “Rushes,” sustained pitches rendered as ribbons of rapid tonguing. The entire piece is built out of one idea, chords strung together in overlapping, arpeggiated waves. But the idea proves immensely flexible, the repeated notes in ever-changing polyrhythmic layers, the waves subtly contracting and expanding.


The first section of the piece explores a single scale: C-flat major, a flat in front of every note. (It is, maybe, a nod to a first-year orchestration class rule of thumb: sharp keys for strings, flat keys for woodwinds.) As the clusters vary, echoes of traditional harmonic progressions pile up in gently shifting superimposition. A middle section turns to a brighter scale — E-flat major — and a more geometric, zig-zagging architecture. By the end, the waves are compressed, the harmonies turn kaleidoscopic, constant chromatic shifts that give off a pulsing, persistent glow. The instruments’ reediness becomes the basic waveform of a kind of real-time, real-world synthesis; in particular, the sound of close-spaced intervals — major and minor seconds — becomes its own audible thread: piercing up high, buzzing in the middle, rumbling in the bass.

“Rushes” is something of a sequel to Gordon’s 2009 “Timber,” which has a similar time-scale (about an hour long), a similar idiom (waves of repeated notes), and a similarly homogeneous instrumentation (six percussionists playing amplified two-by-four wooden planks). Both works generate musical opulence in inverse proportion to their limited means. Part of that is the paradoxical freedom of a circumscribed sonic and rhetorical palette. But Gordon also sets the stage for the instruments themselves: patiently unveiling the multitudes within each, the crowd of personalities that can be conjured up with wood, metal, and technique.



The Rushes Ensemble performs Michael Gordon’s “Rushes” on March 26 at 8 p.m. at the
Granoff Music Center. Free. 617-627-3564; as.tufts.edu

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.