John Luther Adams: The Place We Began
Cold Blue

John Luther Adams' The Place We Began comes closer to anything else Cold Blue has released in recent years to the electronic micro-sound stylings of a label such as 12k, Line, or Touch. The album includes four electroacoustic settings that are both austere and sensual and exude a stillness that resonates throughout the recording. In a certain sense, the four pieces aren't totally new. In the summer of 2008, Adams happened upon boxes of reel-to-reel tapes he'd recorded in the early ‘70s, and from the newly-discovered material he selected fragments that subsequently served as starting points for completely new compositions. What results, then, represents a fascinating rapprochement between the tape assembly methods of the 1970s and the digital production strategies of the 2000s.

The related pieces “In a Room” and “The Place We Began” bookend the album, with both utilizing the same source material but presenting it in slightly different manner. In 1972, Adams used two speakers and a microphone to explore interactions between electroacoustic feedback and the resonant frequencies of a room (one that in this case included hardwood floors and lots of windows). In the opening piece ( Adams describes it as a “twelve-part motet”), layers of high-pitched, softly whistling tonal streams pulsate hypnotically, while the superficially similar closer traces a noticeably downward trajectory. The second setting, “At the Still Point” (primarily made from two electric piano tapes, one a through-composed piece and the other an improvisation in the spirit of Morton Feldman's “Piece for Four Pianos”) blends synthetic and Fender Rhodes sounds into a tranquil whole where the tones and washes surge like gentle waves lapping ashore. Of the four pieces, natural field recording sounds are heard most prominently in the third piece “In the Rain.” In this case, Adams set pots and pans out in his yard to collect spring rain, and then added to their resultant metallic voices the blurry tinkle of acoustic piano; heavily processed, the piece also includes an almost industrial quality in the stream of gently writhing noises that haunt the background and a gamelan character in the soft, meditative clangor of the pans and their tonal meander.

Though the Alaska-based composer has written works for orchestra and chamber ensembles, the four intimate pieces on The Place We Began keep the focus at a smaller scale in their expansive treatments of minimal materials. Adams' connections to the natural world run deep: his sound-and-light environment The Place Where You Go to Listen is permanently installed at the Museum of the North, and he's currently working on Sila: The Breath of the World, a network of installations that apparently will transform weather data from all over the Earth into music and light. It's also hard not to see his choice of home locale as significant too, given the luminous and spacious character of the album's contents.

June 2009