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John Luther Adams at the fine line between pretense and profundity

Cover of the recording being discussed
Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

I first started listening to recordings of the music of John Luther Adams when everyone else was getting on the bandwagon of “the other John Adams.” I think my first vinyl purchase was of songbirdsongs. I suppose one of the things that struck me the most that, while through John Cage, I had come to appreciate a musical rhetoric of silence, John Luther Adams seemed to have cultivated an entirely different rhetoric of stillness. In my mind I imagined that living in Alaska had taught him how to be alone with nature and that he was using music to convey what he had learned to the rest of us.

One of the problems with the media business these days, however, is that remoteness no longer seems to endure. Sooner or later, you get “discovered” by some “big city,” usually on one coast or the other. Furthermore, if that city is not New York, then New York will eventually learn to embrace you. Then you are no longer “officially” remote; and everyone waxes enthusiastically over your achievements as if the process of discovery is more important than what has been discovered.

I suppose I started to feel skeptical about John Luther Adams after “Inuksuit” took the Armory building in Manhattan by storm. That, in turn, led me to think back on some of his past efforts wondering whether or not they were suffering because “the right people” were making too much of them. This may be why I found myself feeling more skeptical than absorbed when I encountered the Cantaloupe recording of The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies.

To be fair I was probably drawn to this collection of eight pieces for solo percussion and processed sounds by its title more than anything else. Also, because Steven Schick, the percussionist on this recording, is now Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, I figured I might learn more about him by learning more about his repertoire. However, this turned out to be one of those occasions when I came away from the recording disappointed, although still curious as to what an actual performance might be like.

Basically, this is a set of eight études for a percussionist provided with a diverse assortment of instruments, each of which produces sounds by different means. The titles of the études, however, have more to do with phenomenology than with the mathematical abstraction of principles of physics. Since those titles appear only in lower-case on the album, I shall enumerate them with the same typography: burst, rumble, shimmer, roar, thunder, wail, crash, stutter. In each case it does not take much effort from the listener to justify the title on the basis of what one hears.

The problem, however, is that such justification seems to be all there is to the listening experience. Unfortunately, each movement takes more than seven minutes of duration; and, for me, that raises a critical question of listening:

What do you do after you “get it?”

Each étude basically holds a magnifying glass up to a single sonority. However, the magnifying glass then just pans over its expanse without giving much attention to whether there is some journey from beginning to end that unfolds over that course of than pan. Indeed, to continue that camera metaphor, it is all panning without ever zooming, either in or out.

Furthermore, none of this really has much to do with resonance. Rather, it is a study of timbre that, in many respects, constitutes a reflection of Pierre Schaeffer’s efforts to develop a “music theory” of “sonorous objects” in conjunction with his pioneering work in musique concrète. (My own opinion, by the way, is that Schaeffer achieved far more through his practices than he did with his 650-page treatise of theory.)

All of this leads me to suspect that I am likely to spend more of my time with recordings listening to the old New Albion CD of John Luther Adams’ music entitled The Far Country than I am with The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies; but, given the opportunity to listen to the latter in performance, I shall probably leap for it.