Saturday, July 29, 2017

John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” at Lands End

This afternoon John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” was given the sort of outdoor performance that the composer had intended by virtue of a partnership between SFJAZZ and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. As had been previously observed, this is an open-ended composition whose score pages may be distributed among 9 to 99 percussionists. Taken as a whole, the piece has a three-part structure.

The first section may be said to be “about” air. It involves different approaches to amplifying human breath, but some of the performers play whirly tubes and other objects that only make sound when spun at a rapid pace. All the performers began in a single location and gradually dispersed themselves to a variety of “percussion stations” situated throughout much of Lands End:

One of the "percussion stations" for "Inuksuit" (photograph by James Parr)

This made for a gradual transition into the second section, which consisted primarily of playing drums, cymbals, and gongs. I also heard one of those sirens operated by a hand-crank from a distance; but I took that to be one of the last vestiges of the first section. Another gradual transition led into the final section, which consisted primarily of metallophones but with some lingering presence of the cymbals and gongs.

Those present for this occasion were not given any “instructions.” Indeed, the most ideal audience members were probably those who encountered this performance by accident, having planned merely to take a hike in the park. However, it was clear that the word had gotten out about this event, because I have never before seen Lands End as crowded as it was this afternoon. The good news was that, for the most part, this audience “got” that this was music to be experienced as physical sensations distributed over a large space, rather than sit-still-and-listen concert music. Many were there with their dogs; and even the dogs seemed to “get it” (except for those who got too close to a really loud cymbal crash).

On the other had there was a downside to this impressive turnout. The Conservancy has some very strict rules about where visitors to Lands End should and should not go. They believe that “good fences make good neighbors;” and any do-not-pass signals are easily recognized. Unfortunately, some of the percussionists were playing on the other side of a few of those fences. The result was that there were a fair number of listeners who felt that, if the performers go could there, they could too. My guess is that the Conservancy was not terribly happy about this state of affairs; but, for the most part, disruption was kept pretty minimal.

As to the act of listening, I came away with the strong sense that every listener was entitled to make whatever (s)he wished out of being in the presence of the performers. Personally, I found myself wandering from one “station” to another. At any particularly station, I would try to get at least a brief look at the score and then try to relate what I saw to what I was hearing. I would then pay more attention to how this “local listening” fit into the context of other stations that were audible but not necessarily visible. Having dealt with listening both in-the-small and in-the-large, I then moved on to another station and repeated the exercise. This kept me rather absorbed into the entire composition all the way into the transition to the metallophones. After checking out a few of the metallophone players (whose sounds did not tend to carry very far), I felt I had experienced enough, allowing the act of taking my leave to be situated in those sound-making processes that were still active. (For the record, when I was leaving I also saw one percussionist stowing his gear!)

Having then boarded the Geary bus, I felt a warm sense of satisfaction over having had the opportunity to experience “Inuksuit,” presumably in the sort of setting that Adams had intended for the composition.

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