in the distance two pianos are playing. Slowly, very slowly,
the sound comes towards you, and just as inevitably the sound
recedes. This takes twelve and a half minutes. No development,
no real movement, but no stasis either. What’s going on? Nothing
and everything. Where’s the music going? Nowhere and everywhere.
This sound world is our universe. It exists solely for itself.
begins Dark Waters, the first track on this new John
Luther Adams CD.
we go any further let’s get one thing clear, this is not the
well known John Adams, the laid-back, new music guru, California-based
composer of The Chairman Dances and The Transmigration
of Souls, this is Meridian, Mississippi-born and, for the
last thirty years, Alaska-based John Luther Adams. Starting
as a rock drummer he discovered Frank Zappa, from Zappa’s notes
he discovered Edgard Varèse, from Varèse’s sleeve-notes he discovered John Cage, but it was his discovery
of Morton Feldman that gave him his epiphany. He studied at
Cal Arts and after graduation started working in environmental
protection, which took him to Alaska in 1975 where he moved
permanently in 1978. If he’s known in this country at all it’s because he had a piece broadcast
as part of the Masterprize competition some years ago.
Red Mountains, for a solo piano,
is a study in clusters and opposing registers. Hard and brutal,
unrelenting, yet strangely spellbinding and impossible to ignore.
Just like Dark Waters, there’s no development of material
as we understand the concept of development in the classical
sense but this music does progress, if only in a very basic
way, through repetition of the material. It’s hard to believe
that there’s only two hands playing, considering the number
of notes the poor pianist has to play.
Qilyuan is a duet for bass drums, and here the concept of minimal movement/maximum
progress fails. Without actual pitches on which to hang our
perceptions we’re left a bit at sea. And the bass drum isn’t
renowned for its variety of timbre. True, it can play loud or
soft, rolls can be executed, it can be hit with different sticks,
but, and the percussion mafia isn’t going to like me for this,
it isn’t an expressive instrument, it’s something you hit. One
of the most impressive things about the other works on this
disk is just how expressive they are; Dark Waters is
quite beautiful in its hypnotic way. Just as Dark Waters
and Among Red Mountains seem too short for their material,
Qilyuan seems interminable.
Arc/Blue Veil, which gives the CD
its title, is, in form, similar to Dark Waters. Starting
quietly as a neo romantic nocturne for piano and vibraphone,
it builds in intensity and volume, as the percussionist changes
to crotales, and a big climax is built. Then a return to the
music of the beginning, piano and vibes, gentle, restrained,
beautiful. If the work has one fault it’s that there’s an overuse
of the crotales – the overtones from the high frequencies over
a period of time can be quite painful to listen to.
in all, a very exciting issue from a composer who’s been working
quietly and methodically for some time and he should be investigated
because his music is haunting and quite unforgettable.
assume that the performances are as good as we could ever hope
for and the recorded sound is clear and very bright, oh yes,
very bright indeed. There are no notes on the music, merely
the names of the works and the performers, though the six sides
of the “booklet” are very colourful. There are nine other CDs
of Adams’s works and they are all worth investigating.
Harrison called Adams "one of the few important young American
composers," and he might just be right.