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John Luther ADAMS (b. 1953)
the place we began (2008)
COLD BLUE CB0032 [38:19]
Experience Classicsonline

I am sure the informed readers of MusicWeb International really don’t need this warning, but just in case: do not confuse the Alaskan composer John Luther Adams with the minimalist John Adams. There is a huge difference, and how you react to minimalism will pretty much determine on which side of the fence you sit.

Readers of my reviews will remember that I have been disillusioned with John Adams (minimalist) on several occasions, most recently at the Proms (Grand Pianola Music, as part of the Multiple Piano Day). I did however find some good things in Doctor Atomic at the English National Opera. John Luther Adams is another kettle of fish entirely. His music is heavily influenced by the music of Lou Harrison, who was his friend and mentor. Indeed the piece For Lou Harrison (2003-04) is a major work that demands hearing (available on New World 80669). 

The title of the present piece, the place we began, refers to found sounds: Adams came across reel-to-reel tapes he had made in the 1970s and used these as the basis of the present piece. T. S. Eliot is quoted in the sparsely-annotated booklet: “ … to return to the place we began and know it for the first time …”. The sounds are positively hypnotic. The disc was realised at the composer’s studios near Fairbanks, Alaska. 

There are four movements. The first, “In a room” takes raw material, sounds recorded on a Summer’s day in 1972 with very primitive equipment: two cheap speakers and a microphone. Now with much more sophisticated equipment at his disposal, he reshapes the music into what he has called a “twelve-part motet” - although do not expect anything traditional here. The music describes a gradual ascent. 

The second movement, “at the still point” finds Adams using two tapes from 1974 recorded on his Fender Rhodes electric piano, one of a withdrawn through-composed piece, another of an improvisation on the spirit of Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos. There is also the inserted sound of a tam-tam - that the composer apparently bought for $50 – a steal! This music, in keeping with the title, tends towards the static, only meandering side-to-side, almost like a tendril of seaweed wafting from side to side in a gentle sea. The organ has a muffled sound, as if distanced; the piano sound is quiet but more in focus, as if heard from a different perspective. 

“In the rain”, the third movement, uses a tape made in 1973 as its starting point. Pots and pans in Adams’ yard, activated into sound by a Spring shower form the basis; indeed we hear the rain quite clearly at the movement’s outset. Adams manipulates these sounds and their spectral shadows to create what he calls “veils” that occasionally part to reveal traces of a 1974 ensemble piece.  The music here is more identifiably “metallic” in sound. The final section, “the pace we began” gently oscillates and slowly descends, to balance out the gradual ascent of the work’s first section. 

Adams’ music is as hypnotic as it is different. Well worth hearing despite the low playing time.

Colin Clarke



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