He explains: "I thought of composing this music as being like a trip out into the desert. I was counting on the stark palette and the challenge of survival to clear my brain and bring on visions."
Such unpredictability is the hallmark of this Downtown Manhattan composer, a founding member of the Bang on a Can collective that also includes his wife, Julia Wolfe, and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang. Every year, they produce a Bang on a Can new-music marathon. Last year in Philadelphia, it included groups ranging from the Sun Ra Arkestra to the Crossing Choir. With such input, who wouldn't change artistic directions radically and often?
In many ways, though, the piece is a throwback to music that is no less radical for having been composed 40 years ago - Steve Reich's percussion manifesto, Drumming. The 85-minute piece is based on the same rhythmic pattern and became the launching pad for works that are widely considered 20th-century masterpieces, such as Music for 18 Musicians and Tehillim.
But in Gordon's view, that so-called minimalist movement grew up too fast. "These pieces were monumental and so important, but there are only a handful of them," says Gordon. "They happened, and very quickly minimalism went on through changes and grew in a certain way and left some of the ideas behind."
The idea to build on Reich, to go to the desert, to eschew typical pitches of sound, reflects the sort of pre-compositional decisions that delightfully contradict the old romantic notion of composers' being seized by inspiration.
"I like to make a puzzle for myself, to paint myself into a corner . . . in this case, six percussionists playing only one instrument each for an hour," he said. "This is the starkest piece of music I've ever written." But while Drumming methodically points to possibilities beyond itself, almost like Bach's Art of the Fugue, Gordon was after something that just feels good.
Early workshops of the music with typical percussion instruments didn't come out that way at all. "It sounded like a bunch of Harleys roaring down the street," he said. "I had imagined something that would sound more electronic, like a very primitive Moog synthesizer."
An odd request, though not in Amsterdam, where members of Slagwerk Den Haag, co-commissioner of the piece along with Mantra Percussion, sensed what he wanted, leading him into a warehouse full of percussion instruments and recommending some lean-sounding wood-block simantras once used by the cutting-edge Greek composer Iannis Xenakis.
Having found his sound, Gordon was able to finish the piece, which Slagwerk member Fedor Teunisse describes as "this huge, cyclical ritual that accelerates, expands, contracts, and resonates, like a universe of sound."
Gordon talks more in shapes than sounds: "There are constant waves of sound from high to low . . . and those waves increase in speed and go in different speeds among themselves, giving off this resonance . . . so that you can hear the movement of the sound around the space. It's almost architecture in sound, and it's moving constantly."
Microphones have a way of literalizing such sound, especially in music that would obviously benefit from surround sound - one reason the recording of Timber on the Cantaloupe label might not seem as rich as the live performance. Gordon describes the recording as "a lot more meditative and ambient" than the live experience.
He also takes the credit and/or blame for the singular packaging: a bulky wood box that encases the booklet and CD, with hinges that can pinch the unaware consumer. "I think it comes with a medical disclaimer," he says.
Such ultraminimalist territory has been occupied for years by his wife, Wolfe, who has written works for massed bagpipes, cellos, and other homogeneous groups, often testing the parameters of how little basic material a composer needs to create a significant piece. Gordon sees himself subscribing to a similar severity with a new piece for multiple bassoons. Might he paint himself into too small a corner?
"Then I can just walk out," he says. "It's music. If it messes up, no building is going to collapse. It's not like being a brain surgeon. That's what is so great about this. A couple wrong notes won't kill anybody."
But how practical are such pieces?
"I don't think about that. My life is really impractical already. If I wanted to do something sensible, I would've chosen some other field. I feel like the responsibility of an artist and composer is to daydream for society. Everybody is busy doing practical things. I don't want to be practical."
He claims that his most impractical piece is also his most popular, and that's Decasia, whose score requires 55 musicians (a lot for new music), all amplified. Besides having had live performances in festivals around the world, the score has been heard by infinitely more people, thanks to the home-video DVD.
Timber, however, represents a different kind of impracticality, since it's so specific to the musicians who commissioned it. With impractical pieces come intangible rewards: With Timber, Gordon created a halo. But it comes at a price.
"The piece is incredibly demanding for the performers, so much that they don't have the time to turn pages. They're reading music off their laptops and flipping the pages with their foot" button.
"But you're going to hear all of this resonance. People think it's some sort of electronic delay. But every single note is written out."
Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at email@example.com.