John Luther Adams: Strange and Sacred Noise

Percussion Group Cincinnati
Mode 153 (CD or DVD)

In the small corner of that small corner of the world known as the new music community, John Luther Adams seems to be what I guess I’d call a monopolarizing figure. Most of the names that get tossed around in informal aesthetic discussions of contemporary music are very much of the “love them or hate them” variety; any cursory glimpse at a Sequenza21 or NewMusicBox comment thread will yield the usual suspects””Babbitt, Glass, Ferneyhough, Zorn, and so forth ad nauseam. One could probably devise a fairly accurate aesthetic barcode for composers based on their binary responses to a list like that: love, hate, love, love.

Not so with John Luther Adams. It seems, rather, that one either sees him as a relatively unheralded but extremely important composer, a musical and musico-philosophical pioneer and inspiration, or as a creator of briskly beautiful, rigorous music that is very well done indeed but not fundamentally earth-shaking. One either loves him, that is, or likes him.

I find myself, based admittedly on the limited and exceptional example of the present hour-long cycle of pieces for four percussionists, in the latter camp. These are compelling pieces, moving in their austerity. All but one of the nine pieces is scored for a quartet of identical or very similar instruments””that exception is scored for ten very similar instruments””and each explores a very limited ambitus of material and gesture, usually enveloped in a slow and simple structure of swells and fades. In fact, in his reliance on pure symmetry and self-similar patterns, Adams seems driven to attempt to do away with form altogether, regarding it as a mere nuisance that must be dispatched with given music’s inconvenient reliance on time and memory. The goal is rather a focus on sound, on the grain of a snare drum, on the intricacies of the absolutely unforgettable sound of four air-raid sirens wailing in fractal patterns.

The conceptual austerity, the bare confrontation with maximally stripped-down forms and sonic blocks, is distantly reminiscent of certain early works of Cage, and more distantly still of Satie, but the effect is entirely different. The most direct precedent is probably James Tenney’s epoch-making Having Never Written a Note for Percussion (indeed, solitary and time-breaking waves, the second constituent piece of Strange and Sacred Noise, is scored for four tam-tams and dedicated to Tenney). It’s true what they say, that Adams’ work evokes the frozen expanses of his home state of Alaska, that it seems””at least to the listener armed with the knowledge of the composer’s geographical situation””very much bound to a sense of place and an attendant attitude towards scale and geologic change that can only be palely reflected on a city boy like me. Had Adams lived and worked in, say, Rochester, I’m sure the explanations, and thus possibly the effect, would be quite different. But say the word “Alaska” in the context of this music, and it sticks, indelibly, until it is impossible to hear it any other way.

The performance, by the Percussion Group Cincinnati (whose approach to ensemble performance is detailed in a fascinating short essay in the liner notes by Steven Schick) is exemplary, and the sound quality of the recording is well nigh miraculous. I’m not yet convinced of Adams’ genius, of the claim to enduring influence as a singular creative figure that many seem ready to make on his behalf, but I am willing to be persuaded.

One Response to “Dispatch from the Frozen North”
  1. david toub says:

    nice review. You may be interested in other works by JLA, in particular:

    Dream in White on White
    Always Coming Home
    The Light That Fills the World

    Very nice stuff. Plus, Adams is a really, really nice person.

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