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More Geographical Soundscapes From John Luther Adams

November 9, 2020

The “other” John Adams — John Luther Adams — has been acquiring close to an equivalent amount of recognition and respect as his older namesake in recent years.  But this Adams arrived on the main stage from an out-of-the-way base of operations, Alaska, which he called home for 36 years and has had an enormous influence on his aesthetic.

Adams likes to “listen” to natural landscapes and filter his response through processes into peaceful soundscapes. Sometimes, they can be very absorbing and mesmerizing like the Become trilogy, especially the much-honored orchestral work, Become Ocean. With a few others, I can’t wait for them to end; The example that comes to mind is the turgid 55 minutes of For Lou Harrison, which was the only time I ever heard boos from some in the famously tolerant audiences that attend the Ojai Festival. This new coupling of his fifth string quartet, Lines Made by Walking with his second quartet, untouched, as played by the dauntless JACK Quartet (Cold Blue Music), falls somewhere in the middle.

In both pieces, there are musical processes at work trying to translate an experience in nature. In Lines Made by Walking, Adams tries to imagine tracing the sonic geography of a walk “Up the Mountain,” then “Along the Ridge” and ultimately “Down the Mountain.” Needless to say, Adams does it a lot differently than Richard Strauss did in his spectacularly colored mountain hike, An Alpine Symphony. For each movement, which correspond to these titles, Adams invents a canon that is repeated at different speeds in as many layers as four string instruments can manage. The first one ascends, the second stays put at a slower tempo, the third descends. This last canon reminds me of Arvo Pärt’s haunting calling card, Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.  

In untouched, we find Adams standing on the tundra somewhere in northern Alaska, with a small Aeolian harp perched on his head. “Music seemed to flow out of the sky — across the strings, down through my body, and into the earth,” he writes. This translates into the four players just using open strings, their fingers not touching the fingerboards of their instruments. It’s all open fifths and associated harmonics.

At first, the piece evokes wide open spaces not dissimilar to what Copland was doing in his Americana period, but this wears off quickly.  Part I (“Rising”) just grinds and drifts in upward patterns, Part II (“Crossing”) charts a slightly different path through the same territory, and Part III (“Falling”) starts with high-pitched harmonics and eventually points downward from its perch up top.

The feeling of this music on this disc is one of peaceful inertia, not going anywhere in particular. Tuning out any hopes for development or direction is the best way to listen.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.