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John Luther Adams (b. 1953)
Houses of the Wind (2021-2022)
John Luther Adams (computer)
rec. 2022

I’m not going to beat about the bush: I love this recording!

I have been an enthusiastic admirer of the American composer, John Luther Adams, for some years now and, whilst I am not na´ve enough to assume his music will be to everyone’s taste, I think this must rank amongst his very best. Years of living in extreme isolation in the North American Arctic have pared down JLA’s music to its simplest and most fundamental qualities and this latest project is no exception. In a very real sense, Houses of the Wind should have a co-composer credit for the wind itself as it is shaped out of field recordings made by the composer of the sound of an aeolian harp in 1989. In the process of transferring the tapes of his old field recordings, Adams became captivated by the sound of a ten and a half minute long tape which provided both the inspiration and the basis for the present composition.

All five movements use that ten and half minute recording as their source material with Adams stretching out the sound, layering and transposing it to evoke what I presume are the characters of different types of arctic wind.

Just about every piece by John Luther Adams deploys some kind of natural acoustic effect to generate music and he directly relates this to his passionate concern for the Earth’s environment. These natural sounds used in this way also tend to have a far reaching psychological effect on the listener. In the case of this piece, that effect goes well beyond some pleasant noises produced by an aeolian harp and tunes into a place where man and nature meet or perhaps it might be better to speak of where man can realise his place within nature that he tends to neglect and abuse.

There is a risk that Houses of the Wind will sound, on the basis of this description, like the kind of music encountered at a spa wellness hotel. Such an idea should be banished forthwith! JLA’s experience of working with overtone series on string instruments in his wonderful string quartets means his musical imagination hears in what must be a really wonderful original recording all sorts of aural miracles whether it be vast, limitless landscapes in the bass register or angelic singing voices like the ghosts of violins in the treble. There is a profound absence of hurry which despite each piece only lasting the ten and half minutes of the field recording produces the effect of something genuinely timeless. The timeframe is set by things like the gradual, patient unfurling of an overtone sequence. JLA has contrived to create music that makes us feel we are eavesdropping on the music making of nature herself. What is particularly impressive is that a distinct voice is heard through the music even though in no way does it resemble a human voice. Or rather it is the voice upon which all human voices rest since it is the foundation of all sound. Of course, this is sleight of hand because this is after all a composition by a human being - but a human being wonderfully in tune with the world around him. Thankfully for us a human who can translate that attunement into music in which even our dull ears can hear something of what he hears.

John Luther Adams’ genius lies in taking ideas that often look dry or uninspiring and allowing the most vivid kind of life to shine from them. I have often found that after listening to his music, my experience of all other music seems cleansed and revitalised. I have this experience listening to Houses of the Wind.

The composer has written of how many of his pieces for more traditional instruments were inspired by listening to aeolian harps during his years resident in the Arctic and there is a moving sense in this composition of Luther Adams paying back for that inspiration.

David McDade

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