MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

John Luther Adams at the Miller Theatre

Last night Columbia University’s Miller Theatre presented the opening of its John Luther Adams concert trilogy celebrating JLA as this year’s Schuman Award winner.

Together these three concerts are presenting JLA’s trilogy of large-scale memorials to his parents and to his musical parent (Lou Harrison). Last night Steven Schick conducted ICE in a luminous performance of Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing: music you wish would never have to come to an end.

Especially notable was the sustained realization of the sheer sensuousness of JLA’s voicings, so deftly counterbalanced with the abstract structure of the piece.

Here’s the essay I wrote for these programs:

Extraordinary Listening: A John Luther Adams Trilogy

“Music is not what I do. Music is how I live. It’s not how I express myself. It’s how I understand the world.”
—John Luther Adams

One among many moments of dazzling clarity in the writings and reflections of John Luther Adams, this artistic credo points to a composer deeply rooted in the American maverick tradition of figures like Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Morton Feldman: figures who have operated outside the business-as-usual conventions of making and thinking about music.

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Filed under: John Luther Adams, new music essay

Inuksuit Live

Evidence of human presence

Evidence of human presence

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 colleague 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.

Filed under: John Luther Adams, new music, review

Inuksuit in Seattle

It’s happening on Saturday: at 2 pm in Seward Park.

From Roger Downey’s preview:

It’s hard to convey the effect of Inuksuit in performance, particularly if you haven’t heard it live. And I haven’t: My closest encounter so far is listening to it twice on headphones, in a version recorded live in New England in 2013. Phones turn the piece inside out. Instead of surging in from all sides, the thunder of the called-for “nine to 99 percussionists” in full cry is focused in the center of your skull. It’s an incredible ride, but it leaves you completely unable to describe how the piece is going to sound outdoors, amid the twitter of birds and blat of distant motorbikes….

No two performances of Inuksuit can be the same, and no two listeners can hear it the same way. Your experience will differ, whether you like it or not.

Filed under: John Luther Adams

New Music from Bryce Dessner

Getting commissioned to write a percussion piece to be paired with your mentor David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature is a pretty impressive vote of confidence. And the result was Bryce Dessner‘s enchanting Music for Woods and Strings  (2013), commissioned by Carnegie Hall.

This piece has just been released on Sō Percussion’s new album. Dessner, also known as the guitarist for The National, describes the “chord stick” process he devised for the work: “Using sticks or violin bows, the players can sound either of two harmonies, or play individual strings, melodies, and drone tremolos.” This “hybrid dulcimer” sound, which he likens to “chord hockets,” shows the inspiration of American folk song tradition in its warmly layered rhythmic counterpoint.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic will premiere Dessner’s latest piece, Quilting, as part of the Next on Grand Festival of contemporary American composers, which has just gotten under way (with John Adams to lead a program on Tuesday.

A couple years ago, Dessner compiled a list of his own favorite contemporary works for BoingBoing, including both Adams’s Shaker Loops and John Luther Adams’s For Lou Harrison. I approve the man’s taste.

Filed under: American music, Bryce Dessner, David Lang, John Adams, John Luther Adams, Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music

Earth Day 2015


For the upcoming 45th anniversary of Earth Day.

We’ve become a culture that’s so fragmented that we’ve kind of forgotten how we fit into the world in which we live. I understand music as a way to reconnect, and to reintegrate our awareness, our listening, ourselves with the larger, older world that we inhabit.

–John Luther Adams, from an interview in The List

Filed under: environment, John Luther Adams, photography

Happy Birthday, John Luther Adams!


A birthday salute to the marvelous composer John Luther Adams, who was born on January 23, 1953 — and who was named Musical America’s Composer of the Year for 2015 — on the heels of winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music for Become Ocean.

He also recently garnered Columbia’s William Schuman Award for Lifetime Achievement, it was announced last month.

My feature on JLA and the Seattle Symphony commission of Become Ocean appears in last fall’s issue of Listen magazine — but behind a paywall, so I can’t post the whole thing here.

Explore more of the world of JLA:

— a recent Radiolab feature on the composer

–WQXR’s Meet the Composer spotlight, hosted by Nadia Sirota

–NPR’s Tom Huizenga on JLA’s new CD, The Wind in High Places

–JLA’s essay (he’s also a gifted writer) titled “The Place Where You Go To Listen”

–Kyle Gann’s introduction to JLA [pdf]

–another JLA essay: “Global Warming and Art”

And just listen:

Filed under: American music, John Luther Adams, new music

Become Ocean on CD


I had the fortune of spending an afternoon with the composer John Luther Adams in New York City last May, shortly after his Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral work Become Ocean received its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall. (My article on this Seattle Symphony commission appears in the current issue of Listen magazine.)

And now the SSO’s recording with music director Ludovic Morlot has been released on Cantaloupe.

The spatial conception that informs JLA’s music really needs to be experienced in live performance, but you can get a decent impression of his aesthetic from the recording. This week NPR is making it available to listen to online for free.

Filed under: American music, John Luther Adams, Seattle Symphony

Sila: New Music from John Luther Adams

The composer John Luther Adams has been very much on my mind since I conducted a lengthy interview with him shortly after Seattle Symphony brought his Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean to Carnegie Hall in May.
(Stay tuned for my feature devoted to that commission and the world of JLA in the upcoming fall issue of Listen magazine.)

I couldn’t make it to the recent world premiere of JLA’s site-determined piece Sila: The Breath of the World co-presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival, but I’m eager to encounter it next spring when it will be performed in my old hometown by co-commissioner Washington Performing Arts.

Here’s a vicarious take on Sila from a roundup of reviews I’ve seen:

In “Sila,” as in many such happenings, music is less a finished product than an activity; it both interacts with and creates a space. In the limpid air of a New York summer, it was a sound garden, embracing a multiplicity of narratives as people variously sat in the dappled shade of a stand of trees, or sipped drinks under cafe umbrellas, or talked quietly, or played with their kids, or paced the plaza looking for new viewpoints and that elusive orchestral balance.

–Anne Midgette in The Washington Post

The composer translates the Inuit title of the piece this way: “Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it’s also something more. Sila is intelligence. It’s consciousness. It’s our awareness of the world around us, and the world’s awareness of us.” Even with the buzz of Manhattan so close, Adams and his musicians created a work of music, and of theater, that encouraged listeners to look both deeply inward and out into an imaginary expanse far beyond Hearst Plaza.

–Anastasia Tsioulcas for NPR

[A]s the music evolved, it gained in body and density, though not exactly volume. Choirs of reedy woodwinds and delicate, sometimes scratchy string sounds permeated the space. At times “Sila” was like music depicting continental drift. Halfway through, melodic fragments seemed to emerge, though these were often just instruments rising up the harmonic series.

–Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times

In endeavoring to have the music become part of nature, and vice versa, Mr Adams encourages an open-minded and thoughtful kind of listening. The listeners sat on the ground between and in front of the musicians and, farther back, underneath a grove of trees. A garbage truck growled in the distance; birds chirruped nearby. These unscheduled sounds mingled with Mr Adams’ clouds of sound as they gradually merged and evaporated and grew, letting some motifs imprint themselves and fossilize in our minds.

–Rebecca Lentjes for Bachtrack

JLA’s focus on the note B-flat and its overtones is a fascinating choice. Apparently B-flat has the honor of representing “the lowest note in the universe”, according to the astronomer Andrew Fabian at the Institute for Astronomy at Cambridge University in England in this 2003 report from Dennis Overbye:

Astronomers say they have heard the sound of a black hole singing. And what it is singing, and perhaps has been singing for more than two billion years, they say, is B-flat — a B-flat 57 octaves lower than middle C.

Filed under: American music, commissions, John Luther Adams

Seattle’s Night at Carnegie

Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in rehearsal at Carnegie Hall

Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony in rehearsal at Carnegie Hall

I’m still processing the experience of the Seattle Symphony’s concert Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall — part of this week’s Spring for Music series, which will sadly constitute the final chapter of that worthy festival’s history.

By now the program itself is as familiar as a friend. I heard the second half twice in Seattle, some rehearsal sessions, and the entire program last Friday during the SSO’s epic “preview” evening of the Carnegie adventure for Seattle audiences. But Tuesday included an extra dimension of excitement: the New York premiere of Become Ocean, the reactions of major critics in a world music center, and the unmistakeable ambience of Carnegie Hall itself. Even disregarding my obvious bias, this was received as a triumph for the amazing talent of the Seattle Symphony and its music director Ludovic Morlot.

Of course there’s always a substantial amount of guesswork and gut instinct to rely on when it comes to a new composition. Most premieres tend to be somewhere in the vast “middle” range of quality and potential durability, but it’s certainly all too easy to get it wrong, to err in the direction of fatuous dismissal or foolhardy hyperbole. I know I’ve been guilty of both.

So it’s all the more thrilling when instinct kicks in early on in a first encounter with a piece — as it did for me and the John Luther Adams — and you sense that this might be an even greater achievement than you could have reasonably expected. On both occasions I was able to share the experience with trained musician friends who reaffirmed this “instinctual” response to Become Ocean. This time I found myself tuning in even more to an underlying sense of elegy in the music.

Certainly JLA’s big orchestral piece is at the furthest possible remove from any New Agey connotations or glib “environmental” message that some descriptions I’ve seen imply. (That’s not to deny or diminish the composer’s environmental commitment, which is not reducible to a bland gesture of political art.) Instead, this is challenging music, requiring a major effort from the listener while at the same time profoundly engaging the emotions. The days of either/or cliches like “tough” modernism versus “easy-listening” neo-Romanticism should be behind us.

Live stream of Become Ocean

There’s so much to say about this music and its effect, so much about its implications as a commission, that I’m working on a profile of John Luther Adams and Become Ocean. More on that when the time comes.

Meanwhile, the thoughtful dramaturgy of the program — combining JL Adams with Varèse and Debussy — was justly admired for its contrasts and cross-connections. Here’s a quick round-up of the critical coverage I’ve seen so far:

–Alex Ross, as usual, really gets it. He wrote the first substantial critique of Become Ocean after the world premiere last year in Seattle (which I had to miss). On Tuesday Alex found that “Carnegie’s mellow, resonance-rich space brought out the Wagnerian aspect of Become Ocean, favoring sonorities of strings and brass,” adding that from his position in the orchestral seats, “much of the score’s glittering detail was lost … “and the most delicate percussion effects disappeared as well.”

New York magazine’s Justin Davidson neatly summarized the piece’s overall effect: “Serenity comes tightly wrapped up with terror.” He points out that, while Become Ocean is “about boundless nature,”it’s an indoor piece, ravishingly traditional in the way it relies on walls and floor and ceiling to convert raw sound into the illusion of shimmering surfaces and the violent deep.”

–Tony Tommasini writes in The New York Times of how Adams extends the familiar idea of an “organic” composition that evolves “in a swirling mass of sound,” pushing it in “an uncompromising, courageous way.”

–On that score, I was puzzled as to why Martin Bernheimer, in his positive review, insists on labeling Become Ocean “an extended tone-poem.” Even the loose or distant mimesis traditionally associated with the Romantic notion of that genre is merely one level to which JLA alludes.

–At New York Classical Review, George Grella found the programming concept to be mere “window dressing for abstract music about form, structure, and time.” Fair enough, but I disagree with Grella’s assessment of the orchestra’s playing in the Debussy as “surprisingly thin and light.” It was, in my opinion, anything but — in fact, unusually, and unconventionally, muscular and finely articulated, very far from “idées reçues” of French “Impressionist” music.

–On Bachtrack, David Allen offers an interesting and lengthy reflection in which he quotes Gurnemanz’s famous, enigmatic aphorism “Here space becomes time” anent Become Ocean. (I’ve been thinking of another Parsifal reference that comes to mind when I listen to this music, from the Prelude.)

Incidentally, I notice all these critics are male and would love to see a female critic’s reaction to this music. I know my pianist friend Judith was impressed on her first hearing, aptly likening the experience to an extended encounter with a Rothko painting.

Update: this isn’t a review of the concert, but Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim published a preview for The New York Times. There she writes that Become Ocean “submerges the listener in a swirling, churning wash of sound.”

Update No. 2: Just discovered that the world premiere of Become Ocean was covered for the local Seattle media by Melinda Bargreen. She didn’t much care for it:

But after the first 20 minutes or so, the musical ideas had pretty much run their course, and there were no further developments to justify sustaining the piece. (Some listeners in the balcony areas made a discreet but early retreat.) At least the music fell gratefully on the ear, delivering consonance rather than dissonance, and in its very length, “Become Ocean” evoked a sense of vast oceanic scale.

Interesting, too, to see some of the reader comments from back then:

“spiritdancer47,” mistaking the piece for a symphony, didn’t find much there there:

Having been a dancer for PNB, I am familiar with the extended time it takes for the orchestra in the pit to warm up. Listening to Adams’ symphony took me back to that time…and left me there. I would be one of the “early leavers.”

“proud2Bliberal” gave it more thought by trying to locate precedents:

“Become Ocean” was wonderful. It is the perfect piece for just putting your head back, closing your eyes and letting the sounds happen around you. It conveyed what it must feel like to be in Alaska near the ocean and the forests. The piece had a refreshing and genuine feeling, and somewhat of the personality of American experimentalists Charles Ives and Henry Cowell. Morlot was the perfect conductor for this work. Clearly the piece has its roots in Debussy’s “La Mer” and the ocean passages of “Pelleas.” As a French conductor, Morlot was able to conduct all of those “Debussyiste” sea rumblings (bruits, in French). It would be a great piece to have on a CD at home.

And I hope “vf” didn’t place a bet on this prediction:

“It would be unfortunate if the SSO took the Luther Adams piece to NYC, it would be a disaster, hope they reconsider. In comparison to the works of composers like Arvo Part or Phillip Glass Become Ocean is minor league at best.”

–(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: commissions, John Luther Adams, music news, Seattle Symphony

Earth Day 2014

Two musical selections for this day:

An overview of the world of John Luther Adams:

and a journey with Beethoven:

Filed under: Beethoven, John Luther Adams, nature

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