Friday, March 19, 2010

In a Treeless Place, Only Snow

Alex Ross has featured John Luther Adams more than once in his excellent blog, most recently giving notice that the composer's 'wide-open Alaskan soundscapes are about to descend on the urban jungles of New York and Chicago. On Sunday night, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble plays “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow” and “The Farthest Place.”'  The video below is a short documentary made for The New Yorker about Inuksuit (2009) 'a work for percussion ensemble that is designed to be played outdoors. The title refers to a type of stone marker that the Inuit and other native peoples use to orient themselves in Arctic spaces. The arrangement of rhythmic layers in the score mimics the shape of these lonely sentinels, which sometimes resemble the monolithic shapes of Stonehenge'.

For an earlier profile piece Ross went to meet Adams, taking in a visit to the Museum of the North, where there is an installation (see clip below) called The Place Where You Go to Listen, a 'kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time'. This is inspired by a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean called Naalagiagvik where, 'according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that magical idea, the mechanism of “The Place” translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into an intricate, vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.'

Reading the profile I was particularly interested in how Adams hears the landscape.  Ross writes: 'I noticed that Adams was listening closely to this seemingly featureless expanse, and kept pulling information from it: the fluttering of a flock of snow buntings, the low whistle of wind through a stand of gaunt spruce, the sinister whine of a pair of snowmobiles. He also noted the curiously musical noises that our feet were making. Tapping the crust of snow atop the ice, under which the wind had carved little tunnels, he compared the sounds to those of xylophones or marimbas.'  At another point, 'Adams recalled the Yukon River trip that led him to write “Strange and Sacred Noise” and other tone poems of natural chaos. “When the ice breakup comes, it makes incredible sounds,” he said. “It’s symphonic. There’s candle ice, which is crystals hanging down like chandeliers. They chime together in the wind. Or whirlpools open up along the shore or out in the middle of the river, and water goes swirling through them. Or sizzle ice, which makes a sound like the effervescent popping you hear when you pour water over ice cubes.'

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