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John Luther ADAMS (b. 1953)
The wind in high places (2011) [18.32]
Canticles of the sky (2013) [17.46]
Dream of the Canyon Wren (2013) [7.41]
JACK Quartet; Northwestern University Cello Ensemble/Hans Jørgen Jensen
rec. 2013/14; Oktaven Studio, Yonkers; Evanton, Illinois
COLD BLUE MUSIC CB 0041 [43:59]

I don’t imagine that Johann Christian Bach ever concerned himself overmuch about the possible confusion of his identity as a composer with his father Johann Sebastian; the latter being safely consigned to the ‘historical’ category in the eighteenth century. Allowing for that, I do suspect that the Scottish composer William Wallace, a very serious composer, might have been troubled by confusion with the Irish composer of light operas William Vincent Wallace. Similarly John Luther Adams must find it wearing always to avoid confusion with his fellow-American and much better-known near-contemporary John Adams, born a mere six years earlier. This is all the more pertinent in view of the fact that both composers began their creative careers in the sphere of minimalism. Whereas John Adams has over the years moved consistently away from pure minimalism towards a more intricate style, John Luther Adams has developed in the contrary direction, with his refinement of minimalist techniques down to their barest essentials. That is certainly the case in his string quartet The Wind in High Places, where the sounds are entirely produced either on open strings or by harmonics so that the instrumentalists totally avoid the use of the fingerboard. The composer in a note with this release rather plaintively expresses a wish that “if I could have found a way to make this music without them touching the instruments at all, I would have.”

This self-denying ordinance might lead to fears that there would be insufficient interest in the music to justify three subtitled movements – Above Sunset Pass, Maclaren Summit, and Looking towards hope. In the event there is a surprising amount of variety here with each movement displaying a distinct character of its own. The avoidance of any tones except the open strings and harmonics might lead the listener to expect a sort of ‘New Age’ contemplation. In the event the sounds we hear are far removed from this. There is an excoriating sense of openness, and no feeling at all of warmth such as would have been provided by string vibrato on the fingerboard. This serves well to express the cold and frozen landscapes which the composer seeks to illustrate. Indeed, in places the fortissimo sound of the high harmonics can be quite painful on the ears. That is clearly part of the effect that Adams seeks to create, however, and the results are unexpectedly exciting.

The other two works on this disc, Canticles of the sky and Dream of the Canyon Wren, are less approachable and indeed somewhat forbidding in style. The first of these is scored for an elaborately sub-divided ensemble of forty-five cellos. The sound does not entirely avoid the sense of congestion that the listener might expect, with the slowly constructed clusters of notes sounding rather like fingers being squeezed progressively down onto an organ. The work was originally written, according to the composer’s website, for four choirs, and its transcription for cellos is not altogether happy. The website does not state whether there are any sung texts which might have helped to elucidate matters. Presumably this version was designed for a specific occasion, given the large number of performers involved.

The final track, Dream of the Canyon Wren, brings us back to the medium of the string quartet, with a title that might conjure up expectations of Messiaen. This is not really the case, with a limited series of imitations of birdsong repeated over and over in the style that we have come to associate with minimalism in its most severe form. I cannot say that the depiction here induced much desire in me to hear the bird concerned in its native habitat. However John Luther Adams does ring the changes in a middle section, and the work as a whole is blessedly short. After listening to the piece I took myself out into the garden, where a similar repetitive warbler in the tree on the mountainside across the stream seemed far less insistent.

The disc is admittedly short measure, and the sleeve-notes by the composer do not say very much about the music, or even give the dates of composition; those above have been supplied from the composer’s website. Nor are we given any details about the performers, or who plays what, or their involvement with the music in performance. This should not however deter potential purchasers from making the acquaintance of pieces that have a peculiar fascination of their own. The recordings are perhaps observed rather too closely for ideal comfort, but the presentation in a gatefold sleeve is highly atmospheric. Those who already know the music of John Luther Adams will need little incentive to investigate this release.
Paul Corfield Godfrey