Wednesday, July 19, 2017

John Luther Adams and the Act of Attentive Listening

A little less than a week ago, I wrote about the outdoor performance of “Inuksuit” that will be given as part of the John Luther Adams Festival organized by SFJAZZ in conjunction with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The other concerts in this series will be preceded by a “Listening Party” that will be held in the Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center, which Adams himself has curated and will introduce. I must confess to a bit of skepticism where this idea is concerned.

I have pursued a generous number of Adams recordings that go all the way back to a vinyl of songbirdsongs that I had to sacrifice when I gave up my turntable while downsizing for my current condominium accommodations. I do not regret that loss, only because there was too much subtlety in Adams’ music to be captured by the equipment used to make that recording. Digital technology enabled significant improvements in capture technology; and, as a result, if one had the proper playback, one could at least begin to appreciate what made Adams’ music so special. Nevertheless, for the better part of his catalog, there is no substitute for being in the presence of musicians performing his scores.

Having said all that, I should still reiterate what regular readers of this site already know. If one is planning to attend a performance of a piece not previously heard, there is much value in a good recording that will provide some basic orientation and probably set more than a few expectations. It is thus important to note that the first actual concert in the Festival, on Thursday, July 27, in Miner Auditorium, will present the JACK Quartet playing the three selections on The Wind in High Places. They recorded two of those selections for a Cold Blue Music album, which was released in January of 2015. Those pieces are the title composition and the final track, “Dream of the Canyon Wren.”

I have previously written about how Adams shared Lou Harrison’s interest in the use of just intonation. “The Wind in High Places” takes that interest to a more refined level. The members of the string quartet performing the piece play only on open strings, touched only at nodal points to yield the pitches of the natural harmonics of the overtone series. As Adams’ put it in his notes for the album, the string quartet serves as as a sixteen-stringed Aeolian harp, translating the wind of the composition’s title into the vibrations of overtones on one or more of those strings.

This can be a challenge for many listeners. This site previously cited the psychological phenomenon of “categorical perception,” which fools mind into “hearing” the pitches of an equal-tempered piano when the frequencies differ by a small amount. Thus, when listening to “The Wind in High Places,” the cerebral cortex has to do more than a little work to keep the auditory cortex from incorrectly classifying the pitches of those vibrating strings. A recording provides one way to “train” mind to accept that it is listening to “the right thing” and must “disable” any attempt at categorical perception. Personal experience has taught me that this is best achieved on one’s own, rather than as part of an audience, which advocates “private listening” the the Cold Blue Music album.

Private listening is also likely to serve better any preparation for “Dream of the Canyon Wren.” From a personal point of view, this piece took me back to the songbirdsongs album, which was based on bird songs Adams had encountered in rural Georgia during the late Seventies. We tend to associate Olivier Messiaen with making music out of transcriptions of birdsong. However, once the mind behind the ear comes to accept Adams’ conscious decision to move beyond the limitations of equal temperament, there is no confusing his music, whatever instrumentation he may engage, with Messiaen’s!

The album The Wind in High Places also includes Canticles of the Sky, a suite in four movements that was written originally for the Calder Quartet. Adams subsequently rescored this piece for an ensemble of cellos with sixteen separate parts. That is the version on the recording, performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, conducted by Artistic Director Hans Jørgen Jensen. Each of this suite’s movements amounts to a musical impression of different visual features observed in the sky in different geographical settings. The textures of the cello version are clearly thicker than those of the string quartet version, and Adams seems to have exploited this difference to provide clearer distinctions across the visual impressions. Nevertheless, the album should go a long way towards preparing those listening to the string quartet version, which the JACK Quartet has included on its program, particularly when it comes to orienting those subtle changes through which Adams distinguishes motion from stasis.

Another Cold Blue album will serve to prepare listeners for the final Festival concert in Miner Auditorium on Sunday, July 30. Percussionist Doug Perkins, who will be organizing and directing Saturday’s performance of “Inuksuit,” will join forces with pianist Adam Marks for a performance of “Red Arc/Blue Veil.” Given how much attention has been given to Adams’ interest in natural harmonics, it may seem more than a little ironic that he would devote such attention to the piano. However, “Red Arc/Blue Veil” requires electronic processing of both the piano and the vibraphone and crotales played in the percussion part. This is as much a piece driven by the pursuit of unique sonorities as “The Wind in High Places” is; and the curious listener will definitely be introduced to those sonorities through the Cold Blue album, which was also given the title Red Arc/Blue Veil.

Indeed, this album is also a valuable source of orientation for what has become Adams’ best-known composition, his “Become Ocean,” which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and whose recording received the 2015 GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. This piece, whose duration is about 40 uninterrupted minutes, amounts of an auditory reflection on large masses of water in the same way that Canticles of the Sky looked upwards, so to speak. While the album Become Ocean is still readily available, it is worth noting that many of that piece’s contrapuntal textures can be traced back to “Dark Waves,” which Adams composed in 2007 for two pianos and electronic sounds. This piece, which is about one-third the duration of “Become Ocean,” occupies the first track of the Red Arc/Blue Veil album, on which it is performed by pianists Stephen Drury and Yukiko Takagi.

The album also provides one of the most fascinating efforts by Adams to evoke diverse sonorities from limited resources. “Qilyuan” is scored for four bass drums, played by Scott Deal and Stuart Gerber. Adams is far from the only composer to appreciate and explore just how diverse the bass drum can be; but “Qilyuan” is definitely one of the most compelling expressions of that appreciation. The album also includes Drury playing “Among Red Mountains,” a rich and rhythmic evocation of full-handed chords. As was the case with birdsong, one can appreciate Adams following a direction similar to that of Messiaen’s approach to large stone masses of geographical features; but here, again, Adams’ voice will never be confused with Messiaen’s.

On the other hand Adams’ use of such chords can be found in an entirely different context in “Four Thousand Holes,” the title track of another Cold Blue Music album. In this case Drury is accompanied by Deal playing vibraphone and orchestra bells, while Adams himself provides an electronic drone, which he calls an “aura.” In his notes for the booklet, Adams explains that this piece is based on “the most basic elements of Western music—major and minor triads and four-bar phrases.” One may be reminded of how triads emerge as the “punch line” of “Grand Pianola Music” by “that other John Adams;” but, in “Four Thousand Holes,” the triads constitute the alpha and the omega, so to speak, rather than the exclamation mark in the finale. The Four Thousand Holes album also includes Drury conducting his Calithumpian Consort in a performance of Adams’ “…and bells remembered…,” composed in 2005 and scored for percussion ensemble.

Since plans for a listening party served to trigger writing this article in the first place, listeners should be advised that Cold Blue Music is definitely one of the best sources for those curious about Adams. To date five albums have been released, each devoted entirely to his compositions. Thus it seems fair to accord the other two at least a brief summary:
  1. The Light That Fills the World is the earliest of the Cold Blue releases. The booklet offers little background information; but the Web page provides a Product Description beginning with “Three darkly textured pieces for bass clarinet, marimba, vibraphone, piano, organ, violin, and doublebass.” All three of these piece were written within the relatively short interval of time between 1998 and 2001.
  2. the place we began, on the other hand, is a single composition that consists of four tape-based soundscapes. In this case Adams provided a brief note for the booklet, explaining that his source material came from “several boxes of reel-to-reel tapes that I’d recorded in the early 1970s.” He did not mention that this would have been when he was a student at the California Institute of the Arts, where his composition teachers were James Tenney and Leonard Stein. On the other hand he does explain the title of the composition. It turns out to be a misquotation of T. S. Eliot, but the actual source is just as relevant. It comes from the beginning of the final stanza of “Little Gidding,” the last of the four poems that Eliot published as Four Quartets:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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