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John Luther ADAMS (b. 1953) Canticles of the Holy Wind (2013)
Amy Garapic (percussion)
The Crossing/Donald Nally
rec. 2016, St. Peter’s, Great Valley, Malvern, USA CANTELOUPE CA21131 [66:28]
I’m afraid this release didn’t make a good first impression on me because significant information about John Luther Adams’ piece is disappointingly sparse. In the leaflet we are told little except that Canticles of the Holy Wind was commissioned jointly by The Crossing and by the Latvian choir Kamēr and was first performed in 2013. Beyond that we are invited to visit the websites of either the composer, The Crossing or the Canteloupe label. Visiting these websites is pretty much a waste of time, I’m afraid. All I could find online was some very limited information.
In summary, I learned online that the piece “is composed for four choirs of eight singers each, and moves through spaces that are as fantastical (“Sky with Four Suns”) as they are serene (“The Hour of the Doves”), always with a connection to our inner world, as well as the world around us.” Beyond that, I also came across a favourable New York Times review of a performance in that city which mentions that the four choirs stood separately from each other and all facing inwards with the conductor at the centre. I presume that’s the composer’s preferred platform disposition. I think it’s unfortunate, to say the least, that a recording of what is supposedly a significant recent work by a prominent American composer has not been better documented.
The only other thing I can add is that on the disc cover there’s a short statement from John Luther Adams in which he says that the various major and seemingly intractable problems which the world faces today has severely dented his optimism. (I think that’s all too understandable.) He goes on: “I place my faith in the land and the skies, the wind and the birds – in what we call ‘nature’.” I infer that this faith in nature is the key to Canticles of the Holy Wind
The work comprises 14 sections, which are as follows: Sky with Four Suns; The White Wind; Dream of the Hermit Thrush; Sky with Four Moons; The Singing Tree; The Blue Wind; The Hour of the Doves; Sky with Nameless Colors; Cadenza of the Mockingbird; The Yellow Wind; Dream of the Canyon Wren; Sky with Endless Stars; The Hour of the Owls; The Dark Wind. It is scored for four choirs and some of the movements also require a percussionist, playing a variety of instruments. The choir sings wordlessly throughout. It may be that the music is intended simply to be illustrative. However, I think that had Adams chosen to use words a text could have made it clearer what the work is actually about.
I don’t know if John Luther Adams regards himself as a minimalist: probably not. However, Canticles of the Holy Wind seems to me to have the minimalist trait that within each of its movements a fairly limited amount of musical material is repeated a good deal. In some of the movements, mainly those concerned with Skies or Winds, the writing often consists of very long vocal lines, sung at a slow tempo and which grow in volume. At the same time Adams adds more and more individual vocal lines to build up ever richer consonant chords. Having built up these chords he sometimes “dismantles” them in a reverse fashion, allowing the music to recede gradually. These movements are often very beautiful.
The movements that concern themselves with birds depict, I presume, birdcalls through short melodic fragments, which are heard again and again – the movement entitled ‘The Singing Tree’ is the first such example. Usually the female voices sing these movements with percussion accompaniment. I’m afraid that in all these movements I found that the musical material seemed to be repeated endlessly and far outstayed its welcome. The exception is ‘The Hour of the Owls’ which is sung by the men. Here Adams’ music features deep mysterious sounds, which evolve in slow and sustained lines, producing a very evocative effect.
A lot of the choral textures that Adams achieves are intriguing and effective. However, for me Canticles of the Holy Wind doesn’t work for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s simply too long: a work of half the length might have made its point at least as effectively, probably more so. (More means less?) Secondly, I think you can only take wordless singing so far; I’m afraid I came away with the idea that I’d been listening to sounds for their own sake. Thirdly, in many of the movements the musical material itself is thin and stretched well beyond the limits it can bear. I think Canticles of the Holy Wind is a piece which it might be interesting to experience – once – in live performance, especially to take in the spatial effects. I don’t think the work stands up to repeated listening in a domestic situation.
None of which should detract from the performance by The Crossing. I’m sure that Canticles of the Holy Wind is very challenging to perform but Donald Nally’s choir puts it across superbly and I’m sure they deliver Adams’ textures and rhythms with great accuracy. The sheer sound of the choir is most impressive. They’ve also been recorded most successfully. The recording is truthful, atmospheric and handles a wide dynamic range very well. I tried listening both through loudspeakers and headphones and I came to the conclusion that on this occasion headphones are preferable as this enables you to experience the spatial effects better. This work would be a prime candidate for SACD with surround sound but is only offered as a conventional CD.
While listening to Canticles of the Holy Wind and reflecting in it subsequently I thought of some of the contemporary composers whose choral music I much admire. Names such as Ēriks Ešenvalds, Gabriel Jackson and James MacMillan sprang readily to mind. So, too, did the name of Joby Talbot. His astonishing Path of Miracles, which I’ve recently come to admire (review) or James MacMillan’s searing Stabat Mater (review) are, in their very different ways, examples of works that seem to me to offer the listener not just greater challenges but also far greater rewards than does Canticles of the Holy Wind. The work is not for me, I’m afraid, though I readily accept that some other listeners will find much more in it. If you respond to the piece then it’s hard to imagine that it could be better served than by Donald Nally and his amazingly accomplished choir.