John Luther Adams: Red Arc/Blue Veil
Cold Blue

American composer John Luther Adams roots the provocative pieces comprising Red Arc/Blue Veil in a distinctive universe where pianos and percussion sonically evoke the majesty of natural phenomena. Despite changes in instrumentation (one piece features two pianos, while another two bass drums), each of the four works emphasizes a buildup of multi-layered, polyrhythmic blocks of sound and compositional development that seems to unfold in slow motion.

Dark Waves, presented in a 2007 arrangement for two pianos (played by Stephen Drury and Yukiko Takagi) and processed material (an electronic aura derived from the acoustic instruments' sounds), quite literally rises and falls in waves of perfect fifths. The pianos swell into dynamic clusters of crushing force—Adams' own description, “a tsunami of sound,” is not inaccurate—yet at the same time seem to gracefully bound through the upper stratospheres. Naturally, the title calls to mind La Mer and Dark Waves does share with it an impressionistic quality, but Adams ' piece is more turbulent and plunges deeper. A melodic dimension is, of course, present but the album's four pieces are first and foremost about physicality, and the brute force of percussive sound. Nowhere is that more evident than in the second piece, Among Red Mountains (2001), where Drury's piano chords violently rain down like hammer blows. The relentless and incessant assault is so dizzying, it's easy to lose sight of the piece's guiding idea, the realization of five simultaneous yet independent tempo planes by two hands.

Obviously the least conventionally melodic of the four pieces, Qilyaun (1998), an Iñupiaq word for the shaman's drum and that, literally translated, means “device of power,” is performed by two percussionists (Scott Deal and Stuart Gerber) playing bass drums. Best appreciated via headphones, the piece opens with urgent, rapid-fire rolls that then gradually decelerate until they're reduced to single blows (though a roll can be heard simmering in the background) before, predictably, accelerating again during the piece's final third. Though obviously the instrumentation is minimal, the subtle shift in emphasis as rolls in one channel overlap with those in the other manages to uphold listening interest. Rich instrumental colour provided by vibraphone and crotales enhances the billowing piano streams of Red Arc/Blue Veil (2001), while processed sounds (again derived directly from the acoustic instruments) add a swarm-like overlay, and function as a fourth instrument of sorts. Not only here but in the other three pieces too, Adams' music might be likened to powerful glacial masses whose movements are so slow they're imperceptible.

December 2007