Cold Blue Music has announced the release of Darkness and Scattered Light, a new CD of solo works for double bass by John Luther Adams. The album contains three pieces that capture the impressive grandeur of nature from the unconventional perspective of the double bass. Darkness and Scattered Light is extraordinary music, masterfully performed on this CD by the late Robert Black, a long-time collaborator of the composer. John Luther Adams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose work has long embraced the natural world and chronicled its unsettled relationship to humanity.

Three High Places is the first work of the album and its three movements revisit string quartet music first heard on Adam’s 2015 CD, The Wind in High Places. On that album, the needle-sharp pitches in the violins and craggy passages in the lower strings brilliantly captured the Alaskan winds in all their snowy magnificence. Three High Places was originally composed for solo violin and Robert Black is the first to play it on double bass. Adams writes that this piece “…contains no normal stopped tones (created by pressing a string against the fingerboard of the instrument). Instead, all the sounds are natural harmonics or open strings. So, the musician’s fingers never touch the fingerboard. If I could’ve found a way to make this music without touching the instrument at all, I would have.”

“Above Sunset Pass” is the first movement of Three High Places and was inspired by one of the most fiercely inaccessible places in North America. Sunset Pass is located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge near the shore of the Arctic Ocean in the very far north of Alaska. The area is uninhabited, has no roads and is reachable only on foot. It would be hard to imagine a more forbidding place, especially in the winter. The opening of “Above Sunset Pass” is a combination of deep, sustained tones with slow moving notes in the middle registers. As lovingly played by Robert Black, there is a suitably distant and lonely feel to this, but it is never intimidating. Despite the obvious climatic intensity of Sunset Pass, the music is beautifully warm and welcoming. With its broad foundational tones and primal harmony, “Above Sunset Pass” has a hospitable feel and powerful pastoral sensibility that invites the listener to experience the extreme Alaskan nature on its own terms.

“The Wind at Maclaren Summit”, the second movement, follows, and this is a portrait of another Alaskan high mountain pass. This begins in a deep rumbling with a bouncy melody in the middle registers that is active but never rushed. There is a layered and mystical feeling to this, skillfully played and very effective. High pitches fly by that suggest the stinging wind in a snow squall. The string quartet version includes many sharp tones but the double bass version here is wonderfully burnished. Despite its roiling texture, “The Wind at Maclaren Summit” manages to evoke the intensity of mountain storm without the menace.

The final movement is “Looking Toward Hope” and this opens with low, growling sounds and a rugged texture accompanied by an elegant smoothness in the middle registers. Overall the feeling is warm, solemn and marvelously expressive, especially in the deepest tones of the double bass. There is a sense of craggy magnificence, as if looking at a rugged mountain face. All the movements of Three High Places deliver a compelling musical argument that counters our traditional adversarial relationship with nature. The compassionate viewpoint of the music and the sensitive playing by Robert Black bring a new level of expressive power to this important conversation.

Darkness and Scattered Light is the second work on the album and this is scored for five double basses. All parts are performed by Robert Black. This opens with a deep and sustained tone that is somewhat rough around the edges. More notes join in, long and low with a gradual crescendo – decrescendo dynamic. The tones move in phrases that layer into each other and this produces a somewhat alien feel. The piece continues in this way, the phrases multiplying in a series of comings and goings. There is mystery but also a sense of power in their movement and tone. The texture of five double basses overlapping is impressive to the ear and evokes a sense of greatness.

By 7:30 a bit of tension has seeped in, with the phrases rising in pitch. The anxious feelings increase as the notes climb higher and higher, finally arriving at a hint of desperation. The pitches soon turn lower again, with the rough edges of the opening. By 13:00 every voice is now active in the lower registers, and express a more confident feel. Some of the pitches are very low, more like a grumble or a growl, and all are reduced in tempo with simplified phrasing and a smaller dynamic change. These sequences trail off with a solid, grounded feeling before fading out at the finish. Darkness and Scattered Light is a marvel of massed double bass timbre and resonance, masterfully played by Robert Black.

The final piece of the album is Three Nocturnes, scored for solo bass and employs the standard double bass tuning of perfect fourths. The piece was commissioned by the Moab Music Festival and the premiere performance was by Robert Black, to whom the work is dedicated. “Moonrise” is the first movement and opens with a deep, grumbling chord and continues with slow, deliberate tones. The sounds are sustained and darkly mysterious. The very lowest notes occasionally have a brassy timbre and sound almost as if they came from a euphonium. The chords gradually rise in pitch – just as the moon rises – but overall the sound is deep and satisfying. Towards the finish, the tones are less mysterious and more purposeful, just as the moon seems to sharpen itself in the clear night sky as it ascends above a hazy horizon. A long sustained note marks the finish.

“Night Wind”, the second movement, follows, and this is filled with rapidly jumping notes and arpeggios played over several strings. A nice groove develops that enhances the active feel. There are no sustained notes and this makes an effective contrast to the smooth bass lines present in the other pieces. There is the sense of the organic, as if listening to the buzz of busy bees. This is elegant playing; always precise and accurate despite the brisk tempo and widely scattered range of the notes.

“Moonset” is the final movement and this nicely book-ends the piece. High, thin notes open along with a series of deeper sounds in the lower registers. “Moonset” proceeds at a slow and deliberate pace with an interesting contrast developing between very high and very low tones. Everything takes place at opposite ends of the normal registers, always with a solemn and serious feel. The playing is extraordinary; reflective and thoughtful, but never melancholy. Towards the finish the tones soften somewhat, as if the moon is disappearing into a murky horizon while trying to maintain its previously bright countenance. Robert Black and “Moonset” stretch the expressive limits of the tones that can be conjured from the double bass.

Darkness and Scattered Light artfully extends the environmental dialog that is the signature theme of composer John Luther Adams while at the same time establishing a lasting testament to the expressive virtuosity of bassist Robert Black.

Darkness and Scattered Light is available from Cold Blue Music, Amazon and other music retailers.