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Schuman Award Concerts: John Luther Adams

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. 

           It’s only in the past few years that the music of the 62-year-old Adam—long a cherished secret among his loyal aficionados—has begun to gain more widespread recognition. His vast orchestral canvas from 2014, Become Ocean, won both the Pulitzer Prize in Music and a Grammy Award, and a larger public continues to be exposed to his unique musical philosophy through immersive performances of his recent outdoor epics: Sila (premiered last year at Lincoln Center) and the expanded, “urban” version of Inuksuit, which was presented at Morningside Park by the Miller Theatre in 2011. 

           This three-concert series devoted to Adams pays tribute to the 2015 recipient of Columbia University’s William Schuman Award by focusing on a trilogy of works from a crucial transition period in his development. Each of these works can be appreciated either independently or as part of a trilogy; the latter presentation, in turn, does not require performance in the chronological order of creation. Whether viewed as discrete, self-contained compositions or in the larger context of the trilogy, these pieces offer a fascinating window into a transformational creative period for a musical thinker with whom the world finally seems eager to catch up. 

           Notwithstanding the recent wave of recognition, Adams has always regarded himself as outside the mainstream—a restless but patient seeker who believes the composer’s task is “to follow the music wherever it may want to lead me.” By the mid-1970s it had led the Meridian, Mississippi-born Adams from his student years at the California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with Leonard Stein and James Tenney, to the vastness of Alaska. In the great northern wilderness, says Adams, he was “just lucky enough to stumble onto something large enough, vague enough, deep enough to encompass a whole lifetime of work.” 

           Referring to the obsession with natural place that is both a tangible and metaphorical key to his musical philosophy, Adams regards Alaska as his spiritual home — even though he and his wife, Cynthia, currently triangulate their time in a Morningside Park apartment and a home in the Sonoran Desert. Alaska is also where Adams’s earlier musical career as a percussionist converged with his increasing environmental consciousness, forging a composer, as he puts it, “in search of an ecology of music.”

           The belated recognition that has come to Adams has largely centered attention on such recent works as Sila and Become Ocean. In these, the composer has notably altered his vision from the great breakthrough compositions of the 1990s and early 2000s: Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, In the White Silence, and for Lou Harrison. Adams points out that these three works — spanning the years from 1991 to 2003 — constitute a trilogy he didn’t realize he was creating “until after the fact.” On one level, all three are memorial works honoring the composer’s father (Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing), his mother (In the White Silence), and an artistic “parent” (for Lou Harrison). All three take the form of concert-length pieces for comparable forces—“big works for smallish orchestras”—and all three define a specific period in Adams’s work, as evidenced by their similar approaches to form and even at times shared textures. These Miller Theatre concerts not only present their New York premieres but offer the first-ever opportunity to experience them as a trilogy.

           Their position as “transitional” should by no means be construed to imply “less important,” Adams stresses. In fact, he regards these compositions as “among the most significant works in my catalogue. Each one is a singular piece and stands on its own terms.” The transition in question marks a change in the composer’s larger understanding of music’s capacity to “become itself more fully: music that is no longer about place or landscape, with a protagonist slowly moving through it, but that is place, allowing the listener to become the protagonist.” 

           Here Adams found himself turning away from the narrative pattern of his earlier music toward something more abstract. Although the works in the trilogy still trace an essential narrative structure and still betray his obsession with a specific sense of place—“these are very much products of my life and work in Alaska”—the composer describes “a sense of maturing, of wanting to move beyond place and inching toward music that is more fully itself.” 

           What prompted the urge toward transition at this point in his career? Adams cites a complex of factors involving artistic, philosophical, and personal influences. But it was also a sense of loss that led Adams to begin following a new direction in Clouds of Forgetting, beginning with the death of his father in 1991—setting the pattern for the series of memorials embodied by each part of the trilogy. Along with the loss of people close to the composer, he refers to the “loss of a certain Romanticism or idealism about Alaska as a world apart. This happened when I started realizing Alaska was inextricably, inescapably tied to the rest of the world.” 

           Yet another reason for the shift in direction is simply “the natural progression of an artist’s life and work over time, as you assimilate influences and find yourself creating from within the work itself.” On a conscious level, Adams says he had already been striving for a long time “to leave the story behind to get to this primary experience of listening, where it is no longer about what the composer is telling you: you are in the musical wilderness and need to find your own way. But that turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined.” 

           As found in the works of the trilogy, the transition toward this new outlook gradually took shape as a winnowing down of surface textures—again, a strategy Adams came to understand only in retrospect, after following his intuition. He summarizes this as a drive toward working with just one texture in such compositions as The Light That Fills the World, Dark Waves, and Become Ocean. In contrast, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing juxtaposes four textures across its span, while In the White Silence and for Lou Harrison reduce that number to three and two, respectively. This paring down of texture, however, is not to be equated with overall simplification of the compositional thought. All three subject the material to several complex layers of algorithmic processing; indeed, Adams’s more recent oeuvre displays an even higher level of complexity.

Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1991-95)

           Not surprisingly, this ground-breaking first part of the trilogy proved the most difficult to birth. Adams began writing the piece in 1991, the year of his father’s death, but put it aside and completed the bulk of the composition between 1994 and 1995. For the final version of the score, Adams radically cut what had expanded to some 90 minutes by nearly a third. “It had become too regular and predictable, so I introduced a negative template in the form of silences to subvert the regularity.” Note that merely chopping off sections was not an option: he would have considered this easy way out to be “cheating.” One signature of Adams’s compositional method throughout the trilogy is the rigorous application of predetermined formal processes: in Clouds, for example, these are framed by a progressive exploration of the spectrum of equal-tempered chromatic intervals from minor seconds through major sevenths.

           As with Bach in the Well-Tempered Clavier, such severe rationalism is only one dimension and cannot—must not—be divorced from the emotional and sensuous reality of the sounds that are produced. The paradox of these works is that, in subjecting himself to impersonal processes, to schematic, “dry” discipline, Adams creates structures that exert a remarkable sonic allure. “I want to write music that combines both rigorous formalism and the unabashedly sensual,” declares the composer. “I want my music to be intellectually, mathematically airtight and beautifully constructed, but then why can’t it be sensual an ravishingly beautiful at the same time?”

           The title is taken from an anonymous fourteenth-century mystical text which envisions entering into a state of mindfulness: to achieve communion with the transcendent reality we must hover timelessly between heaven and earth, separated from God by a “cloud of unknowing” our reason cannot penetrate, and from the earth by a “cloud of forgetting,” abandoning the desires and consciousness that pull us earthward. The mystical text’s image of being suspended in the sky seemed analogous to the “auroral clouds I would see every night in the Alaskan sky while walking back from my studio,” Adams explains.

           Four kinds of musical textures alternate in the continuous movement of Clouds: the exploration of progressively increasing intervallic relationships, the shimmering, cluster-like sonorities of the pulseless “clouds,” melodic ideas framed by silences, and percussion-piano textures Adams labels “bells.” Overall, Clouds attempts to lose the worldly perspective of “self-expression” through its distribution of these textures across an intensely chromatic canvas. Adams says the rich ambiguity that results “may have something to do with the unresolved complexity of my relationship with my father.” But the piece’s “unrelenting chromaticism” eventually reaches closure with “the perfect clarity of octaves.”

for Lou Harrison (2003-2004)

           The last work in the trilogy to be written and, like the other two works, cast in a single continuous span, for Lou Harrison is comparable in duration to Clouds. Adams wrote the piece not on a commission, but out of an inner compulsion to pay tribute to this pioneering composer. Harrison (1917-2003) became a lifelong mentor to Adams after the latter won second prize in an organ composition contest for which Harrison had been one of the judges. “Amid the daunting realities of today’s world,” writes Adams, “Lou Harrison and his joyful ecumenical life and music seem more vital and more pertinent than ever.”

           In a dream soon after Harrison’s death, Adams imagined he had written a piece for chorus and gamelan and initially considered scoring his tribute for precisely those forces. On further reflection he decided it would be presumptuous to undertake his first attempt at a gamelan composition as an homage to the master of the American gamelan and decided to score it for string quartet, string orchestra, and two pianos. Even so—with a pleasing irony Harrison would have relished—Adams came to realize that despite himself, the piece ends up sounding uncannily like a gamelan in certain moments. 

           The paring down to two principal textural elements here—arpeggios that ascend joyfully above “harmonic clouds” and a more “processional” texture in which solo lines are foregrounded—alternate to generate a readily discernible structure of nine interlinked sections. But, as throughout the trilogy, other processes simultaneously obey patterns of their own, including harmonic transformations (which vary for each of the nine sections) and four distinct layers of tempo. Overall, this ensures that despite recurring formal structures, the music continually yields a harvest of unpredictability and surprise.

           The sheer joy of sonic lushness in for Lou Harrison is unmistakable, but so is the sense of longing embedded in this music. Adams suggests a point of reference for such dualism in a choral-instrumental work Harrison wrote for  a group of nuns:  A Joyous Procession, and a Solemn Procession. “It occurred to me after the fact that for Lou Harrison itself is a sequence of joyous processions and solemn processions—and it ends with joy.” 

In the White Silence (1998)

           Remarkably, while the same musical gestures recur through all three pieces in the trilogy, each evokes a distinctive emotional aura related to the context and timbral coloration Adams has devised. In contrast to the saturated complexity of Clouds and the alternating joy and solemnity of for Lou Harrison, In the White Silence sustains a state of still contemplation throughout its “single breath.” Scored for string quartet, harp, celesta, tuned percussion, and string orchestra, it also expands the large-scale architecture of its companion pieces even further, to some 75 minutes. 

           Adams describes the formal and harmonic mechanisms that drive In the White Silence as “like a white-note version of Clouds, that is, with no accidentals.” Within each of its five sections, a sequence of two types of texture alternates in a palindrome (simplified as ABA), while a third texture featuring sinuous solos serves to connect each section to the next. Such “perturbations in texture,” according to the composer, “produce whites of varying opacity.” As in Clouds, the piece proceeds by gradually expanding the intervals, which are here restricted to the diatonic intervals of the base C, and ends with a short coda section. 

           The result, in the words of longtime Adams advocate and performer Steven Schick, is “an open and uncluttered soundscape in which rising and falling melodies of a small group of soloists play against the backdrop of the smooth mirrored surface of an ensemble of strings. It is a study in the nuances of consonance, in the sensuous beauty of sound itself, and, metaphorically, in the reach of man-made art within the great spaces of the natural world.”

Program notes by Thomas May, memeteria.com