John Luther Adams
The Wind in High Places
Cold Blue Music has released The Wind in High Places, a new CD of string music by 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. The album consists of three pieces: The Wind in High Places, a 3-movement work performed by the JACK Quartet, Canticles of the Sky, a 4-movement piece for four cello choirs as performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble and Dream of the Canyon Wren, by the JACK Quartet.
The first movement of The Wind in High Places is titled Above Sunset Pass and this begins with high, needle-like violin tones riding above sustained lower pitches. There is the feel of wind whistling through rocks in remote isolation. Sunset Pass, Alaska is, in fact, one of the most isolated places in North America; a low point in the Brooks Range that opens onto the Arctic Coastal Plain deep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The overwhelming sense of removal from civilization in this place might produce a certain intimidation, but that is not what we hear in this music. The initial feeling of a vast remoteness is gradually replaced by a warm, introspective sense of place that is both welcoming and intimate. The harmonies are ruggedly beautiful and precisely played by the JACK Quartet, especially the very highest pitches that are the most evocative. Above Sunset Pass, with its pastoral sensuality and primal harmonies offers the listener an invitation to dwell in this wild place on its own terms.
Maclaren Summit follows and this has a busier feel with a series of fast, sharp passages in the higher registers, like snow swirling along a ridge line. There is an ethereal feel from the continuous motion in the violins, pleasantly complimented by a slightly more rugged texture in the lower strings. This feels like more mountainous terrain and is almost pointillist in its depiction of the snowy landscape. The playing here is very delicate and has just the right touch, as if the air itself is moving the strings. With its roiling and crisscrossing passages, Maclaren Summit manages to evoke the intensity of a snow squall without any of the menace.
Looking Toward Hope is the third and final movement of The Wind in High Places and this begins with a low, steady cello, now mixed with higher sustained tones. This has a craggy feel, like looking at a rugged mountain face. The texture is rich and warm throughout, evoking a feeling of grandeur. All three movements of The Wind in High Places offer the listener a peaceful alternative to the adversarial and often politicized relationship with nature that we moderns have inherited from a problematic past.
The four movements of Canticles of the Sky follow, as performed by four cello choirs – some 48 players – all members of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble directed by Hans Jørgen Jensen. Sky with Four Suns is the first of these and begins with warm, deep tones in the bottom registers, building up on thirds and fifths. Lovely harmonies rise up like a cathedral tower, beautiful and lush, with a bright upper line arcing overhead. The feeling is a bit like that sense of the mystical one hears when an orchestra is tuning. The notes rise in volume and pitch, with a powerful fulness of texture, and then slowly decrescendo back to the lower tones and a peaceful finish.
Sky with Four Moons is next and this movement opens on a single sustained high tone, soon joined by lower pitches, almost as an inversion of the first movement. The volume swells as the piece progresses and a deep rugged sound is heard as the tones reach the lower registers. The pitches reascend, becoming quieter at the finish. This movement has a slightly more remote and distant feel, as a quiet night sky might appear.
Sky with Nameless Colors follows, again opening on a sustained high note with tones added in close harmony above and below. This develops a thicker feeling, especially as the pitches settle in at the bottom. As the piece progresses the texture thins out to a somewhat brighter feel as it ends quietly on a single note.
The final movement of Canticles of the Sky is Sky with Endless Stars and this begins with a low, deep tone that builds upward in a dark harmony. There is a somber feel to this, like a dirge played very slowly on a pipe organ. The volume builds as tones are added, rising upward to a higher, brighter register that brings out a feeling of expansiveness. As with the other movements this concludes by way of decrescendo and a thinning out of the harmonies to a single tone.
The final track on the CD is Dream of the Canyon Wren as performed by the JACK Quartet and this has a more surreal quality than the previous pieces. This opens with a series of low repeating figures in the cello that are followed by similar passages in the violins. The sound is suggestive of a series of dreamlike bird calls. Silences follow, and then a flurry of fast figures in the higher registers that devolve into lower, slower echoes. This pattern continues, slowing to a low, gauzy wash before concluding on one last high-pitched burst. Dream of the Canyon Wren is perhaps the most abstract of the works on this CD and the playing by the JACK Quartet is meticulously precise.
The music of The Wind in High Places precedes Become Ocean, the 2013 symphonic work that won Adams the Pulitzer last year. But this album of string music is cut from the same cloth, perfectly expressing the gentle sensibilities that inform a highly sympathetic view of nature. In a recent Facebook posting John Luther Adams wrote: “That’s been my lifelong obsession… Place as Music. And Music as Place.” The Wind in High Places is compelling evidence of just how completely he has succeeded.
The Wind in High Places (CB0041) is available from Cold Blue Music.