Yesterday this site wrote about the close relationship between Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams and their shared interest in composing music based on the use of just intonation. That account overlooked the extent to which Adams’ imaginative approaches to composing were complemented by his passionate interest in environmental issues. Thus, after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, Adams took a “day job” in environmental protection; and it was through that job that he first traveled to Alaska in 1975. The natural settings in that state became an inspiring influence on his work as a composer, and he ended up living there between 1978 and 2014.
For better or worse, composers only seem to come to public attention after some major prize has been awarded. In Adams case it was the conjunction of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. The work that garnered both of these awards was “Become Ocean;” and, before it thrust him into a bright public spotlight, the composer was known to a relatively limited few, who found that they had to refer to him as “the other John Adams.”
“Become Ocean” was one of a series of compositions inspired by the “classical” elements. Completed in 2013, it was followed in 2014 by “Sila: The Breath of the World,” depicting the element of air. It had been preceded by the depiction of earth in 2009 by “Inuksuit.” (Around the time that Adams completed “Become Ocean” for full orchestra, he also completed a chamber orchestra composition entitled “Become River.”)
There is an old joke (that I have to hear all too often) that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. It would not be out of the question to assert that, in “Inuksuit,” Adams found that he could write about geography through the medium of music. The title is an Inuit noun that refers to large stone makers that would be placed by different indigenous communities in the northern polar regions to provide orientation in the vast and otherwise featureless Arctic spaces.
The composition was scored for 9 to 99 percussion players, but the most significant specification is that the performers should be widely dispersed in an outdoor area. Ironically, it’s first performance in New York took place indoors at the Park Avenue Armory:
Adams used rhythmic patterns and their distribution among the performers to depict the orienting markers. However, at the same time, the flexibility of the score allows for an open-ended interpretation, which reflects the vastness of the space in which those markers have been situated.
At the end of this month “Inuksuit” will come to San Francisco. Its performance will take place as part of the John Luther Adams Festival organized by SFJAZZ, which will run from Wednesday, July 26 to Sunday, July 30. However, thanks to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the score will be given the sort of outdoor performance that the composer had in mind. Doug Perkins will serve as director and will be responsible for situating the placement of percussionists at Lands End and the Sutro Baths, both situated at the western end of Geary Boulevard. Listeners will then be able to explore the geography of the region guided by the auditory cues provided by the percussionists.
Lands End, courtesy of SFJAZZ
As might be anticipated, this performance will be offered free to anyone happening to be in the right place at the right time. This is due in part to support from Art in the Parks, one of the programs affiliated with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The performance will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 29. Adams did not provide any constraints on the composition’s duration.