John Luther Adams: Four Thousand Holes
Cold Blue

In being awarded the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University in 2010, celebrated American composer John Luther Adams was recognized “for melding the physical and musical worlds into a unique artistic vision that transcends stylistic boundaries.” A few details about his music convey its breadth and the openmindedness be brings to it. He's composed works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, soloists, and electronic media for forward-thinking labels such as Cold Blue, New World, Cantaloupe, and New Albion; he's worked with ensembles ranging from the California EAR Unit and Bang On A Can to the Chicago Symphony and American Composers Orchestra, and is currently working on Ilimaq, for solo percussion and electronics (for Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche), among other projects. Adams' latest release for Cold Blue, Four Thousand Holes, features two pieces, the 2010 title work and 2005's “…and bells remembered…,” each of which captivates on its own terms.

At thirty-three minutes, the CD's primary work, “Four Thousand Holes,” realized by pianist Stephen Drury, Scott Deal on vibraphone and orchestra bells, and Adams, who's credited with electronic “aura,” alternates in its opening moments between a restrained flow of high-pitched piano chords and tinkles, after which the piece suddenly blossoms into aggressive flourishes before, just as suddenly, pulling back to form a gentler current with the intricate weave of its instruments generating a soothing sparkle. Consistent with the “aura” designation, electronics are integrated subtly into the piece as they're used more to generate surging phasing effects that form an icy backdrop against which the other instruments comfortably intone (Adams produced the electronic sounds by processing the acoustic instruments' sonorities). One of the most pleasing aspects of the piece is the tempi change that occurs almost imperceptibly, with Adams arresting and then re-animating the music's flow throughout the piece. The changes in density are also striking, with Adams stripping the material down to a minimal number of sounds at certain moments but then loading it up elsewhere with more aggressive chordal bursts. Consequently, while there are no demarcations that separate the piece into contrasting movements, there are subtle shifts in mood and density that emerge. One clearly hears, for example, the music ascend towards a climax in its closing minutes before exiting in an outpouring of aggressive piano chords.

Despite the involvement of two musicians, the piece sounds like the work of a mini-ensemble, one that would seemingly necessitate the involvement of two pianists and two percussionists for its realization. Not surprisingly, then, the production process makes for a fascinating story unto itself: in the composer's own words, “Steve recorded all of the individual chords that occur in the score. I took those recordings, time-stretched them, reversed their envelopes, and knit the reversed sounds together with their original decays. The resulting waves of sound I layered into ten independent tracks to create the virtual ‘orchestra.' Next I composed the piano part, articulating the peaks of all the electronic tracks simultaneously—a feat of coordination that demands considerable virtuosity from the pianist. Finally I composed another multi-layered part for metallic percussion sounds that I think of as sparks emanating from the piano.” Melodic lines of a kind come into partial focus as the piece unfolds, though such themes are more alluded to by the melodic arc of the piano chords than rendered directly. The effect is akin to standing back from a connect-the-dots image and seeing the resultant shape coming into partial focus before it's begun. The different elements don't resound in accordance with a specific rhythmic design but more appear in a constant yet randomly dispersed fashion, more like snowflakes striking the ground in a heavy snowfall.

In the other work, “…and bells remembered…,” which is performed by the Callithumpian Consort (with Drury as artistic director and conductor), bell strikes introduce the piece, at first generously separated so that their reverberant residue bleeds into the pregnant spaces separating them and then closer together so that the tones and their after-images meld together as overlays. Percussion of varying timbral character appears, with sounds generated by chimes, vibraphone, orchestra bells, bowed vibraphone, and bowed crotales. The piece exudes a sense of meditative calm, with the tones forming a restful fabric of crystalline character that gradually expires as peacefully as it began. While hardly capable of encapsulating his artistic vision in a single recording, Four Thousand Holes does provide a representative portrait of Adams's highly personalized compositional style, with its two works, like much in Adams's œuvre, defying straightforward genre categorizations such as classical and electronic. Instead, his music carves out a unique space that of its own natural accord transcends such simple pigeonholing.

June 2011