John Luther Adams: Red Arc/Blue Veil

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Nothing and everything. Nowhere and everywhere.

Somewhere in the distance two pianos are playing. Slowly, very slowly, the sound comes towards you, and just as inevitably the sound recedes. This takes twelve and a half minutes. No development, no real movement, but no stasis either. What’s going on? Nothing and everything. Where’s the music going? Nowhere and everywhere. This sound world is our universe. It exists solely for itself. It’s electrifying.

So begins Dark Waters, the first track on this new John Luther Adams CD.

Before we go any further let’s get one thing clear, this is not the well known John Adams, the laid-back, new music guru, California-based composer of The Chairman Dances and The Transmigration of Souls, this is Meridian, Mississippi-born and, for the last thirty years, Alaska-based John Luther Adams. Starting as a rock drummer he discovered Frank Zappa, from Zappa’s notes he discovered Edgard Varèse, from Varèse’s sleeve-notes he discovered John Cage, but it was his discovery of Morton Feldman that gave him his epiphany. He studied at Cal Arts and after graduation started working in environmental protection, which took him to Alaska in 1975 where he moved permanently in 1978. If he’s known in this country at all it’s because he had a piece broadcast as part of the Masterprize competition some years ago.

Among Red Mountains, for a solo piano, is a study in clusters and opposing registers. Hard and brutal, unrelenting, yet strangely spellbinding and impossible to ignore. Just like Dark Waters, there’s no development of material as we understand the concept of development in the classical sense but this music does progress, if only in a very basic way, through repetition of the material. It’s hard to believe that there’s only two hands playing, considering the number of notes the poor pianist has to play.

Qilyuan is a duet for bass drums, and here the concept of minimal movement/maximum progress fails. Without actual pitches on which to hang our perceptions we’re left a bit at sea. And the bass drum isn’t renowned for its variety of timbre. True, it can play loud or soft, rolls can be executed, it can be hit with different sticks, but, and the percussion mafia isn’t going to like me for this, it isn’t an expressive instrument, it’s something you hit. One of the most impressive things about the other works on this disk is just how expressive they are; Dark Waters is quite beautiful in its hypnotic way. Just as Dark Waters and Among Red Mountains seem too short for their material, Qilyuan seems interminable.

Red Arc/Blue Veil, which gives the CD its title, is, in form, similar to Dark Waters. Starting quietly as a neo romantic nocturne for piano and vibraphone, it builds in intensity and volume, as the percussionist changes to crotales, and a big climax is built. Then a return to the music of the beginning, piano and vibes, gentle, restrained, beautiful. If the work has one fault it’s that there’s an overuse of the crotales – the overtones from the high frequencies over a period of time can be quite painful to listen to.

All in all, a very exciting issue from a composer who’s been working quietly and methodically for some time and he should be investigated because his music is haunting and quite unforgettable.

I assume that the performances are as good as we could ever hope for and the recorded sound is clear and very bright, oh yes, very bright indeed. There are no notes on the music, merely the names of the works and the performers, though the six sides of the “booklet” are very colourful. There are nine other CDs of Adams’s works and they are all worth investigating.

Lou Harrison called Adams "one of the few important young American composers," and he might just be right.

-- Bob Briggs, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: CB0026

  • UPC: 800413002628

  • Label: Cold Blue Music

  • Composer: John Luther Adams

  • Performer: Scott Deal, Stephen Drury, Stuart Gerber, Yukiko Takagi