Yesterday afternoon Seattle’s Seward Park resonated with the sounds made by nearly a dozen-and-a-half percussionists, along with the contributions of nature, of everyday life in a human-inhabited environment, and of the spectator-participants.
On offer was John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit, a remarkable piece conceived for performance outdoors by an indeterminate collective of percussionists (anywhere from “9 to 99” players). Inuksuit had its West Coast premiere at the Ojai Festival in 2012, and percussionist and educator Melanie Voytovich organized this Seattle presentation.
The timing and location couldn’t have worked out better: hints of the coming fall tinged the mid-afternoon mood — the Autumnal Equinox just around the corner — while a changeable sky opted for outlooks from gloomy cloudcover to full-on sunbursts.
As Melanie points out, the word “inuksuit” (which is plural) connotes “a type of stone landmark used by native peoples of the Arctic region”; more generally, it can be a proxy or evidence of a human who has been present in a space.
Bernd Herzogenrath, a versatile author focused on American studies, observes that Inuksuit “enables listeners and performers to experience a place more fully, while subtly presenting a narrative of life on Earth.”
That’s one aspect I valued especially from yesterday’s performance: the sense that both the “audience” and the performers were absorbed in the same task, seeking a more intense experience together, without division or boundary between the two.
Almost reflexively, I initially settled down into position when I realized Inuksuit had actually begun. It was a moment of interesting awkwardness, as I’d been chatting with some friends as people kept on arriving, and we noticed a change of aura — but the piece commences so quietly that you need to have visual cues to notice it’s started. You suddenly become aware of a kind of subliminal wie ein Naturlaut of gentle blowing sounds — JLA out-Mahlering Mahler — which then turn more ceremonial, ritualistic.
That being-caught-short prompted my anxiety about maintaining proper “audience behavior” and made me instantly shut up and stay put. But as the work continued, I felt urged to explore it as much as possible from “inside” by getting up and wandering multiple times around the space, as if joining actors onstage for a play in progress.
It was wonderful: the shifting angles and perspectives — visual and aural — made it all the clearer that there simply is no way to take it all in, to gain a complete perception of what’s happening. And that, along with the John Cagean chance elements of any given performance, is inherent in the beauty of JLA’s conception of this work.
Much of the fascination emerges from such interactions: from seeing other listeners, active audience or chance passersby, as they take note of some gesture or shift in the sound source, in its level of intensity or texture. The unfeigned delight of small children was infectious to watch, and even the attending animals seemed mesmerized:
Usually when I’m attending an outdoor performance the ambient sounds are either a pleasant decoration or, in the case of manmade ones like a flight path overhead, disturbing annoyances that I pretend I’m not hearing in an effort to refuse them entry into the experience. But on this occasion I welcomed all that: I wanted these noises to break whatever vestigial fourth wall was there, to bleed their own music to this sound installation.
My friend Roger Downey remarked that the experience, quite unexpectedly, was like “chamber music” compared to listening to the recording of Inuksuit.
In his preview, Roger points out that “it’s genuinely revolutionary work, representing a new way of playing and listening outside the traditional Western box.”
When I noticed one of the players in a distant corner switch to a siren, I couldn’t help thinking of its difference from the riotous and menacing note the sirens introduce into Varèse’s Amériques, for all their manic humor. Here the effect was almost of a subtle brushstroke.
The inclusiveness of Inuksuit is all. Its random elements gather together across the performance space over the piece’s duration, just as JLA has the players (who were sporting black T-shirts) in-gather in the final minutes, slowly approaching toward the center. This somehow all results in a sense of purpose that is fueled by the energy of everyone present. The music fades back out into inaudibility but has left behind its own evidence.
–(C)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.