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.
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).
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.
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.
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one of a withdrawn through-composed piece, another of an improvisation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.
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.