John Luther ADAMS (b. 1953)
Glenn Kotche (drum kit and percussion)
rec. dates and venue not given.
CANTALOUPE MUSIC CA21112 [CD + DVD: 48:00]
Grammy-winning composer John Luther Adams has been receiving a decent amount of exposure on CD in recent years. A brief search on our pages will bring up a handful of titles that give an impression of where his music has taken us in the past.
Glenn Kotche is drummer with American rock band Wilco, and it was his initiative that set up the collaboration which resulted in Ilimaq. This title translates roughly from the native Alaskan Inupiaq language as "spirit journey", and there is an elemental and other-worldly atmosphere to this work which takes us deep into this icy dreamland. Kotche had been following Adams's work for years and knew what he was getting into, while the non-classical background of this performer lead Adams to state that, "in Glenn Kotche, I've found the drummer I always imagined I could be."
This is one of those pieces which work best live, and the impression of a 'one-man percussion orchestra' is hard to glean from the CD recording alone. The electronic effects create a dark aura of windswept vastness while the drums build and receded in grand arcs through the opening track Descent. This drum part is a thrumming and ritualistic beating, the rise and fall of which becomes a static presence rather than something conventionally musical. The electronic soundscape takes a more leading role as the piece progresses into a second movement, Under the Ice. Swathes of strange elongated metallic sounds surround us, blending and mixing into seething cymbals while surreal animal interjections inject moments of swifter animation. Moving on in a continuous stream, The Sunken Gamelan introduces lower frequencies in a gong or bell-like underpinning of the upper ranges, which continue like the sonic embodiment of an aurora borealis. Ticking and creaking like ships' timbers prelude the sounds of thunder and a return of the drums in Untune the Sky. The fast-beating ostinato of the central drum is developed with more elaborate but at the same time more familiar drum-kit gestures, with cymbals and layered patterns adding to the turmoil emerging from the electronic realm. This is where we miss the live effect most, as it must have been a spectacular experience on stage. At nearly 13 minutes of stormy drumming and crashing it can become a bit much just listening. The final, relatively brief section, Ascension, is a coda in which the electronic lines are gathered into a luminous wick that recedes into an infinity of nothingness.
As far as sound quality goes there is nothing to beat the surround-sound experience from the DVD audio disc. I couldn't find any technical information on the set-up for this but it works well on standard multi-channel equipment and the opening up of the perspective beyond standard stereo, also offered on the DVD, is striking indeed. There are some still images which run at the same time as the music but these can safely be ignored. For the total immersive experience this is the way to go, though it doesn't entirely dispel the relentless nature of the more extended sections with all drums and cymbals going strong.
As a work of art, Ilimaq is a piece that is attractive and impressive. As a piece for live performance I can imagine it providing an unforgettable experience. As a piece of music I'm not so sure it's 100% successful, but that's more of a subjective conclusion. It sets a grand stage and raises big expectations, but in the end nothing really happens. We can gaze at it in awe as a sonic canvas, but colourful and even poetic electronics swirling around a strangely amorphous drum part in the end don't deliver something from which we emerge truly moved or transformed. I have nothing against such magnificent and monumental sonic edifices, but Ilimaq is a bit like an art installation through which you move at a fixed pace; occasionally wishing you could fast-forward, just a bit .
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