Friday, December 23, 2011
John Luther Adams is probably best known for being the less well known John Adams in the small world of minimalism-influenced contemporary classical music. While the other John (Coolidge) Adams has become one of the most widely performed contemporary composers in the world, as well as a highly respected conductor, John Luther Adams has had an equally long, though less well-recognized career.
Adams has been living in Alaska since 1978, and has been composing quiet, slow, minimal music there, reflecting the Arctic landscape around him. He's released a number of CDs on New World Records, New Albion (which has also released early music from John Coolidge Adams, furthering the confusion there), Cold Blue and Cantaloupe.
"Songbirdsongs" was Adams' first LP, released in 1982. As you might expect from the title, most of the material is adapted from birdsong. The pieces are all very much of a kind, sparse, slow, and quiet, performed on ocarinas, piccolos and percussion only. The music on this album is very different from Adams' later music which I have heard. While much of his work is glacial, featuring very slow development with a focus on harmonic movement and slow polyrhythms, "Songbirdsongs" suggests something of a meeting of Morton Feldman and Harry Partch.
The pieces here form a suite, with relatively little variation between them. Nothing deviates too much from its birdsong origins, with percussion largely consisting of arrhythmic background to the bird-like ocarina and piccolos. Adams says in the notes that these pieces are not meant to be transcriptions, but rather evocations - focusing too much on the details of a perfect transcription would sacrifice the musicality of the pieces, and make them less interesting. With the percussion providing atmospheric background, listening to the LP is like listening to straight field recordings of birdsong, the percussion evoking wind, background forest noise, and rushing water.
While the birdsong origins are extremely clear, "Songbirdsongs" has a very mysterious character about it. There is little melodic development, hardly any sense of rhythm, and lots of silence and very quiet sound. Morton Feldman's influence is evident in the static textures and dynamics, lack of development, and spontaneous introduction of new ideas and material. The pieces just start, float around for a bit, and end.
Standout pieces include the fourth track, "August Voices," which feature vibraphones and marimbas echoing, responding to and leading the piccolo birdsong. "Mourning Dove" also features prominent marimba, playing rolling patterns as a harmonic background for the ocarina's dove calls. "Joyful Noise" features a bass drum, frantic birdsongs from ocarinas and piccolos, clappers and bells, and is the busiest and most intense of the pieces on the LP. One gets the sense here of something disturbing a forest full of birds, or perhaps mating season.
"Songbirdsongs" was one of the later albums released on the always nifty Opus One Records. It's credited to just John Adams, rather than John Luther Adams, so presumably this was before JLA conceded the John Adams name. Of course, no re-release of this LP seems forthcoming, though the suite was performed very recently in New York City, here's a link to a NY Times article about it.