This Friday Cold Blue Music will release its sixth album consisting entirely of the music of John Luther Adams. This past July, prior to the John Luther Adams Festival organized by SFJAZZ, this site discussed the preceding five of these recordings prior to a “Listening Party” offered as part of the festival. The most recent of those five was The Wind in High Places, featuring the JACK Quartet, which participated in the festival, performing two of the selections on the album, the title composition and “Dream of the Canyon Wren.” The new recording consists of only a single piece, not quite an hour in duration, “Everything That Rises,” which was commissioned by SFJAZZ to be performed by the JACK Quartet, currently consisting of violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell. As usual, Amazon.com is taking pre-orders for this recording.
Adams makes several appearances in Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, the authoritative and comprehensive biography by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell. Adams shared Harrison’s interest in just intonation, founded on the premise that intervals should be based on integer ratios, in contrast to the proportions based in irrational numbers required for equal-tempered tuning. “Everything That Rises” is Adams’ latest effort to explore to sonorous possibilities behind those integer ratios; and the result may well be described as a lyric poem in honor of the natural harmonic series.
Since there are an infinite number of natural harmonics (the “enumerable infinity” of the natural numbers, for those with enough mathematics to know that there is more than one kind of infinity), Adams clearly could not take in the entire series. However, by choosing a fundamental pitch that is below the range of audibility (C0), he allows himself enough scope to take in a generous sector, which extends so high that the intervals between the upper harmonics are almost no longer distinguishable. Furthermore, the listener appreciates the onset of this condition, because the entire composition is based on pitch sequences that rise through the harmonic series.
These ascents take the form of what Adams calls “clouds.” They are realized by score pages that lack both time signatures and bar lines. All that is indicated is the ascent through the harmonic series; and that ascent emerges as a (cloudy) cluster in which each of the four instruments rises at roughly (but not exactly) the same pace. The overall structure consists of sixteen of these rising clusters, which unfold over that roughly hour-long duration. As the final cluster rises to its ultimate height, the very sense of pitch “evaporates into the cloud” through bowing that no longer yields a pitched vibrating string but, instead, a sigh-like sound of “pre-vibration.”
My guess is that, at this point, there will be skeptical readers, who already know most of my thoughts about recording technology, wondering whether any recording can do justice to such a prodigious theoretical vision. Indeed, the same question may even be asked about concert performances. “Everything That Rises” was given its premiere performance as part of that SFJAZZ Festival. By now anyone familiar with concert venues in San Francisco knows that the Robert N. Miner Auditorium of the SFJAZZ Center is, for all intents and purposes, entirely devoid of natural acoustic qualities, meaning that all listening is mediated through electronic technology. Thus, for a piece like “Everything That Rises,” quality of listening is likely to be always (or almost always) dependent on the quality of that mediating technology, whether at a public performance or in the privacy of one’s own listening room.
With that as a disclaimer, I think it is important to credit the full spectrum of production values assumed by Cold Blue in creating this release. The attentive and sympathetic listener should have no trouble apprehending what Adams’ wished to achieve; and this is due to not only capture and reproduction but also the keen sensitivity to natural harmonics cultivated by all four of the JACK players. Perception might not take in every last detail of the physical signal that Adams aspired to generate; but there is definitely enough there to “get the message.”
What about the duration? By all rights sitting still for an hour should be no big deal. Most “feature-length” movies require at least that much attention, not to mention individual acts in an opera by Richard Wagner or a full symphony by Gustav Mahler. When it comes to “extreme listening,” “Everything That Rises” is a walk in the park when compared with Morton Feldman’s second string quartet, whose performance requires a little over six hours! However, as Philip Campbell observed in reporting on the JACK premiere performance of “Everything That Rises” for The Bay Area Reporter, Feldman may provide the appropriate mindset for listening to this Adams composition. Campbell cited “the almost painful beauty of slow musical evolution and the silence between the notes” in Feldman’s scores; and, while I do not find Adams’ music painful, I would credit it with a poignancy, which I suspect arises from the sense the listener gets of how small (s)he is in the presence of the composer’s attempt to evoke a vision of cosmic proportions.