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John Luther ADAMS (b.1953)
Earth and the Great Weather
(1990-93): The Place Where You Go To Listen [8:05]
Drums of Winter [6:51]
Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around [7:25]
The Circle of Suns and Moons [8:00]
The Circle of Winds [7:04]
Deep and Distant Thunder [13:05]
River With No Willows [7:08]
One That Stays All Winter [8:34]
Drums of Fire, Drums of Stone [7:25]
Where the Waves Splash, Hitting Again and Again [2:10]
Robin Lorentz (violin, percussion); Ron Lawrence (viola); Michael Finkel (cello, conductor); Robert Black (double bass, percussion); Amy Knoles (percussion); John Luther Adams (percussion; conductor); James Negeak, Doreen Simmonds, Lincoln Tritt, Adeline Peter Raboff, Dave Hunaker (speakers).
rec. 8-11 March 2004, Charles W. Davis Concert Hall, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80459-2 [75:47]
To say that John Luther Adams writes a kind of eco-music would be fair enough, so long as the description isn’t allowed to suggest that his work is merely a kind of propaganda. It is far more interesting than that.
 
Adams’ earliest musical involvement was with rock – as a drummer. The music of Frank Zappa led him, in turn, to that of Varèse, Cage and Morton Feldman. He grew up in a variety of suburbs across the U.S.A., then studied music in California, before beginning work as an environmentalist. This took him to Alaska in 1975; he has lived there since 1978. “As a young man, I came to Alaska in search of home. The moment I arrived I knew I'd found it” he said in a 2004 interview.
 
Adams’ music reflects the extremes of the landscape in which he now lives, full of musical images of power and space; it is also very much concerned with the human life lived there – now and in the past – and with the interaction of human and non-human. Luther Adams himself says that his music owes much to that of James Tenney, with whom he studied in California. Though it certainly draws on a range of avant-garde influences – one might, for example, add Lou Harrison, Harry Partch and Henry Cowell to the names mentioned above – it has a distinctive character of its own. He couldn’t be confused with the ‘other’ John Adams!

Earth and the Great Weather was commissioned by the Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. It carries the subtitle: ‘A Sonic Geography of the Arctic’ and in the CD booklet is described, presumably by Adams himself, as ‘a journey through the physical, cultural and spiritual landscapes of the Arctic, in music, language and sound’ (see concert review).
 
The ‘sounds’ include Adams’ own recordings of some of the natural sounds of the area, such as birdsong, running water and the sound of the wind on small Æolian harp.
 
The ‘music’ includes three extended pieces for four drummers: fierce, compelling and tightly structured, based, we are told, on rhythmic cells derived from the traditional dance music of two of the native peoples of Alaska, the Inupiat and the Gwich’in. Elsewhere Adams writes for strings and digital delay, in an idiom best described in the composer’s own words: ‘This music inhabits a non-tempered harmonic world, based on the first eight odd-numbered harmonics of a low-D on the double-bass. All the sounds are produced either from re-tuned open strings, or natural harmonics up to the 105th harmonic: the seventh of the fifteenth. It is an idiom which owes something to the ideas and practice of composers such as La Monte Young and Lou Harrison, but the result is highly individual.
 
The ‘language’ includes texts in four languages: Inupiaq, Gwich’in, English and Latin. Most of these texts - elaborately detailed in the CD booklet - are concerned with the various names of plants and places, the seasons and the weather, the results strangely evocative and resonant.
 
Earth and the Great Weather demands considerable attention  - and fair stamina – from the listener, but it rewards that listener with passages of extraordinary beauty, with a sense of sublimity. This is not picture postcard music, not cinematic or pictorial in any obvious sense. Yet it evokes a place and a way of living with remarkable power; it is, in a sense, the musical complement to the work of the British poet Tom Lowenstein, whose poetry engages with the life of some of the same Alaskan societies - a recent volume is Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry, published by Shearsman Books.
 
Like Lowenstein’s poetry, Luther Adams’ music has a refreshing newness of perspective, alerting us to the parochiality of many of our own standards and conventions, serving to make us realise that that is just what they are – conventions of our own society, not universal truths. Amongst other things, music such as Earth and the Great Weather cleanses the ears and the mind, makes us better listeners when we return to other more ‘conventional’ music. Along the way it offers us much that is striking and beautiful.

Glyn Pursglove
 

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