Notes and Editorial Reviews
J. L. ADAMS
Thad Anderson, Noam Bierstone, Omar Camenartes, Michael Compitello, Nathan Davis, Christopher Demetriou, Rob Esler, Matt Evans, Diego Espinosa, Tim Feeney, Benjamin Fraley, Amy Garapic, Russell Greenberg, Nathaniel Hartman, Phil Hermans, Ayano Kataoka, Kelli Kathman, Danny Lichtenfeld, Ryan Maguire, Shard Mamoun, Krystina Marcoux, Murray Mast, Annie Laurie Mauhs-Pugh, Carson Moody, Benjamin Reimer, Jessica Schmitz, Jeff Stern, Bill Solomon, Christopher Swist, Lisa Tolentino, Alessandro Valiante, Owen Weaver (perc)
CANTALOUPE 21096 (CD: 59: 54, DVD 1:23:00)
Strange and Sacred Noise
video directed by Len Kamerling
This is an event.
was written in 2009, and has become John Luther Adams’s signature piece. It is designed to be performed in an open, outdoor space, with a range of performers from nine to 99 (this recording uses 32). It is loose in its construction, with a flow of events that is similar from one performance to another, but whose details and ensemble will vary, depending on choices made in performance, and the characteristics of the environment chosen. Its title comes from the abstract stone structures made across Alaska by the Inuit over the centuries. It uses mostly unpitched percussion (or more precisely instruments of relative pitch) such as drums, cymbals, and gongs, but it also uses harmonic “whirly tubes,” conches, sirens, and glockenspiels and piccolos near the end. But Adams’s primary focus on less pitched, more “noisy” sound sources is a savvy one, as it allows great density and complexity of texture without all the additional harmonic complications that would result from using traditional orchestral instruments (for the record, lessons he’s learned from
are being applied in a new work for outdoor wind ensembles).
I heard the piece a couple of years ago in New York at the Park Avenue Armory, a performance whose very venue of course contradicted the original premises of the piece, but was nonetheless magnificently executed. But this recording, made in the forest abutting Vermont’s Guilford Sound, captures better the sense of how the piece interacts with the natural environment (especially its birds, who seem quite unintimidated by all the racket). It also gives us a sense of the
that the piece creates and occupies.
The aspect of the work that impresses me the most is its pacing. Sounds are given their natural time to assert themselves before they are overlapped with others that naturally grow from the earlier ones’ timbres and envelopes. Thus “whirly tubes” eventually transform to conches, and are interrupted by drums whose seemingly random attacks become increasingly dense and patterned, which are joined by cymbals and then gongs, with sirens emerging out of the shimmering soup of upper partials, while the drums grow higher in register and more patterned … until it all crests like a tsunami and we are left with the twittering of birds, both musical and real.
The piece lasts roughly an hour (though the literature on it suggests a longer span, c.75–90 minutes), but with each repeat listening I never find it long. Rather, it is like the weather; one sees a storm front approaching and is mesmerized by the growing darkness, the rising wind, the smell of coming rain. It’s a tribute to Adams’s instinctive feel for the natural that he can pull this off; that it feels so open and spacious, and resists judgment.
The headnote may be a little confusing, but this release is the sort of hybrid to which we’re becoming more used today, and yet it also
presented a little confusingly. There is a standard CD of the piece. But there is also a DVD, which includes 1) the same recording, but with multi-track surround sound (
as well as
straight DVD stereo)
a video of a different piece,
Strange and Sacred Noise
(1997). This work is a sort of prelude to
, for percussion quartet in several different monotimbral scorings, and using many of the same process-driven techniques (you can read my review of the Mode 53 release in
29:5). It’s led by the amazing Steven Schick, and Adams provides succinct commentaries between each of the eight movements. I particularly love the long third one, inspired by the overlapping accelerandos and decelerandos of Nancarrow and Adams’s contemporary Peter Garland. The performance is filmed in the Alaskan tundra, and is stark and dramatic in the juxtaposition of the players with the vast landscape.
I can’t fully review the surround-sound version because I do not have that configuration. But I can certainly testify that the DVD recording is more detailed, and has more presence and depth. (You also get about a dozen nice slides of the stone sentinels and the Alaskan landscape, that cycle endlessly through the piece.) But the CD sound is just dandy as well.
OK, I must briefly carp: While the piece is divided into five tracks for access-convenience (in both audio versions), Cantaloupe nowhere tells you the timings (even on the page for the disc on their web page). It also takes a bit to realize that the video on the DVD is under “extras.” It would have been nice if the contents had been presented just a little less elliptically. This is a minor kvetch; it’s just a little irritating in what feels to me like the label’s slightly cavalier attitude toward the listener.
But I don’t want this to color my overall enthusiasm for this release. This is a visionary work, in the tradition of Ives, Cage, Harrison, and Tenney—all acknowledged ancestor-mentors of the composer. Adams is deeply tuned into the eco-sensibility of the era in a humane, unpretentious, yet grand way. Indeed, I could express it more simply by saying that his art is grand but not grandiose. Want List for the coming year.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Inuksuit by John Luther Adams
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