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John Luther ADAMS (b. 1953)
Everything That Rises [56:21]
JACK Quartet
rec. 2017, Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada
COLD BLUE MUSIC CB0051 [56:21]

Presented without a booklet, John Luther Adams’s description on the back of the sleeve for this CD serves as our introduction: “Everything That Rises, my fourth string quartet, grew out of Sila: The Breath of the World – a concert-length choral/orchestral work I composed on a rising series of sixteen harmonic clouds. This music traverses that same territory, but in a much more melodic way. Each musician is a soloist, playing throughout. Time floats and the lines spin out, always rising, in acoustically perfect intervals that grow progressively smaller as they spiral upward… until the music dissolves into the soft noise of the bows, sighing.”

These rising scales move in slow motion, but are by no means passive or static. The ‘acoustically perfect intervals’ mentioned are based on the harmonic series, which has notes that sound out of tune to Western ears conditioned by equal temperament, in some ways comparable with those delicious clashes you hear with natural horns in certain registers. The players climbing phrases explore a kind of chance counterpoint, at times unified, but eternally reaching upwards, the phrases sometimes ending in strange trills, the interactions of the four players generating its own electric field of sound which remains restless despite the refined slow elegance of its progression. This is music with an element of process in its construction, but the results somehow prevent the seams from showing. The penultimate minutes, in which the notes go almost beyond their upper limits, are truly haunting, and you come away from hearing the whole thing with your ears re-aligned to a natural tuning that might have you whistling in the bathroom in an entirely new way for some time afterwards.

This is the kind of work that has to be experienced, and describing it in words can do it little justice. As with the music of Morton Feldman, you have to suspend your expectations of thematic development and a conventional flow of time. As with the music of Arvo Pärt, you have to engage something spiritual – a connection with the surrounding air and with natural, aeolian resonances. With this last point I think this recording could have benefited from a slightly more spacious acoustic. The Banff Centre for the Arts is certainly decent enough, but something with a more ‘Rothko Chapel’ atmosphere might have been the icing on this already very well-made cake.

Described as ‘fiendishly difficult’ to play, this is one of those deceptive works that sound less virtuoso but which, like anything by Mozart, would mercilessly expose a wrong note or bad tuning in an instant. The JACK Quartet is a master in contemporary music, and no-one puts a foot wrong for nearly an hour. John Luther Adams has been well served by both these musicians and the Cold Blue Music label in the past, and long may their artistic collaborations continue.

Dominy Clements
Previous review: Stuart Sillitoe


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