John Luther Adams: Inuksuit
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to state that John Luther Adams work has been profoundly affected by the sprawling Alaskan world he has called home for more than two decades. Perhaps no better example of the inextricable connection between Adams and the environment is Inuksuit, which registers less as a conventional composition and more an event, something ideally experienced as a real-time performance. In the composer's own words, “Each performance of Inuksuit is different, determined by the size of the ensemble and the specific instruments used, by the topology and vegetation of the site—even by the songs of the local birds. The musicians are dispersed throughout a large area, and the listeners are free to discover their own individual listening points, which actively shapes their experience.”
Composed in 2009, Adams scored the piece, whose title refers to Stonehenge-like markers the Inuit (and others) use to orient themselves in Arctic locales, so that it could be performed by an ensemble numbering anywhere between nine and ninety-nine percussionists (ideally widely dispersed throughout an outdoor area), with this hour-long version (its first time on CD) having been performed by thirty-two percussionists in the forest surrounding Guilford Sound in Guilford, Vermont on June 12, 2012. It's an outdoors composition in the truest sense as Adams conceived the work to be one wherein natural and created sounds would intermingle.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that the opening part should begin with bird and nature sounds before the percussionists' contributions emerge. The sound mass builds slowly, with the birds first joined by soft flute and hand percussion playing until, fourteen minutes in, the first aggressive drum strike. That key gesture opens the floodgates, so to speak, as the others gradually join in, and a crowd of gongs, drums, cymbals, and sirens begins to grow exponentially.
Though five parts are indexed, Inuksuit unfolds in a continuous manner for a full hour, and as it does so, it begins to seem less like a formally composed work and more a document of wild, even violent natural eruptions, as if primeval forces are being witnessed pushing themselves up and out of the ground. After the work reaches its most cataclysmic point halfway through, it begins its decompression, diminishing in volume, tempo, and intensity as it advances towards its close. Nature sounds are once again audible, and during the memorable closing section, a birdsong-like flute engages in a pas de deux with actual birds.
The June 2012 performance was clearly an event of a rare and special kind, and the material demands that the home listening experience be treated in kind. It's the type of recording that is ineffective as background music but is instead the immersive kind that demands that one give all of one's attention to it. In fact, no less a personage than The New Yorker's Alex Ross referred to it as “one of the most rapturous experiences of my listening life.”
That Cantaloupe regards the release as special is intimated by its having supplemented the CD with a second disc, a DVD that includes a surround sound version of the work plus the eighty-three-minute documentary Strange and Sacred Noise. Directed by Len Kamerling, the 2011 film captures a rare performance of Adams' seventy-minute percussion cycle on the remote tundra of the Alaskan range. It alternates between episodes, all of them filmed outdoors, of Adams conversing and four percussionists (Steven Schick, Lisa Tolentino, Robert Esler, and Morris Palter) performing his works with gongs, snare drums, sirens, tom-toms, marimbas, glockenspiels, and vibraphones whilst surrounded by vast expanses of open plains and snow-covered mountains. Though it's not intended as a video travel brochure, the documentary nonetheless makes the locale seem like the most desirable place on earth to visit if not relocate to.