Composer’s work for seven bassoons to premiere

“I asked Dana Jessen of the New Music Bassoon Fund to bring over the greatest bassoon music written

Writing for the bassoon had never been composer Michael Gordon’s choice.

“I’d been avoiding it,” he said. “I wrote for it in my orchestral pieces, but I perceived it as the quietest instrument in the orchestra. You don’t hear it a lot. It doesn’t project. And people made fun of it in a way. . . . Those low notes honk away.”

Then three years ago, along came Dana Jessen and the New Music Bassoon Fund consortium of 30 bassoonists. In 2009, Jessen had done an arrangement for four bassoons of Gordon’s “Low Quartet,” which is written for any four low-sounding instruments.

“We asked him to make a real piece for bassoon,” Jessen said.

Gordon decided to take the plunge.

The world premiere of “Rushes” will take place on Saturday at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, on the RPI campus.

“I asked her to bring over the greatest bassoon music written in the 20th century and she showed up with barely five pages of music,” Gordon said with a laugh. “I saw it as a chance to do something special.”

‘Rushes’ by Michael Gordon

WHERE: EMPAC, 110 Eighth St., Troy

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

HOW MUCH: $18, $13

MORE INFO: 276-3921,

His next step was to see what the bassoon could do. “I had never felt like I knew the bassoon and it had not been well written for,” he said.

Point of inspiration

Five bassoonists came to his studio and spent three hours trying things out and experimenting. “It became a point of inspiration. It was a great discovery,” Gordon said. “I didn’t know how beautiful the bassoon was.”

But he didn’t want to do a solo piece or even a quartet. Instead, he decided seven bassoons was the right number.

“Once you start, you want to make this spectacle and do something special to make a sound world . . . to live in that world and convince the listener that they’re having an experience,” he said. “I wanted to create a spectacular sound.”

Gordon, co-founder of the music collective Bang on a Can, is known for merging rhythmic invention with various sound textures in pieces as diverse as 100 instruments divided into four microtonally tuned groups in “Sunshine of Your Love” or a reworking of Beethoven’s seventh symphony for string quartet, solo cello, or works for theater, dance or opera.

But the sound he wanted for the seven bassoons was not to involve electronics, effects or multiphonics.

“The bassoon is a delicate, gorgeous instrument,” he said. “I wanted to create a beautiful landscape.”

He worked on the piece from January 2011 until this past June, when the bassoonists got together for the first time for rehearsal. The bassoonists, who come from all over the country, are Rachael Elliott, Michael Harley, Lynn Hileman, Jeffrey Lyman, Saxton Rose, Maya Stone and Jessen.

Untypical challenge

The piece — 60 minutes of continuous playing — is not typical woodwind music and it’s very challenging physically, Jessen said.

“We’d had our parts six months before rehearsal,” she said. “They’re all a challenge in different ways. They stretch the limits of the bassoon. The repetitive articulations in the upper register for four or five minutes are very difficult. Concentrating for 60 minutes while standing up to play and the need for polyrhythmic accuracy are very challenging.”

There are no discernible melodies. Rather, it’s the collective sound of the seven bassoons, which is established through the harmony and travels through the ensemble with patterns that shorten or lengthen, she said. Notes are often repeated rapidly and the whole range of the instrument seems to move.

“It’s a spatial experience,” Jessen said.

Gordon agreed. “The sound is dense, propulsive, rhythmic and visceral,” he said.

He chose the title “Rushes” to reflect the double reeds that the players use to blow through and the concept of the rush of euphoria. His hope is that listeners will walk out of the concert hall and feel that what they heard was a special world and how cool the bassoon was, he said.

The players are already ecstatic with the result.

“The piece is just gorgeous. . . . How the parts fit together is very beautiful,” Jessen said. “They have a mesmerizing effect and we get into a kind of Zen to play it.”

Musical milestone

It’s also a bit of a milestone for Gordon.

“I never knew anyone who played bassoon and now people stop me in the street to tell me how much they like bassoon or that they play it,” he said. “It’s always thrilling to do a new piece and I’m really excited about this one. I was thrilled to work with the players. I can’t wait for the performance.”

Because “Rushes” is a consortium commission, there will be several other performances, some of which will be in Europe, Jessen said. And because Gordon is finishing up a recording residency at EMPAC, the bassoonists have spent all this week recording the work for the Canteloupe label.

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