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Composer John Luther Adams Brings Alaska To The Miller Theatre

Deceptively cheerful, at times

Deceptively cheerful, at times

A Bwog staff writer and committed concertgoer delivers a slice of the sounds of the other John Adams of modern composition.

John Luther Adams, a standout in the world of American composition and the recipient of Columbia’s William Schuman Award for 2015, closed out a three-concert series of performances this past Saturday at the Miller Theatre. “Extraordinary Listening: A John Luther Adams Trilogy” was organized to focus on three specific pieces considered integral to Adams development as a composer and to present the separate pieces as a trilogy for the first time ever. In order of performance, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing; For Lou Harrison; and In the White Silence present a sweeping account of Adams’ growth as a composer.

While the trilogy’s history traces a chronicle of Adams’ development as a composer, the compositions themselves were meant to break from the traditional perspective that music is narrative in function. Adams makes note that these specific pieces are “among the most significant works in [his] catalogue” because of how they, as compositions, create a space for the listener to exist within the music instead of directing the listener along a rigid narrative structure. Given this departure from tradition, I was a bit skeptical going into the performance as to how Adams’ intentions would work in their execution. Despite that initial skepticism, the JACK Quartet and the International Contemporary Ensemble managed replace it with appreciation with their delivery of a thoroughly enjoyable presentation of Adams’ piece.

In the White Silence opened with a dissonant swell from the strings before settling into a solid and stable pattern of textured surges and dips in sound, accompanied by sparse melodies from a harp and a foundation of soft percussion. Adams cites the time he spent living in Alaska as the source for much of his musical inspiration, and in listening to his work, I heard snippets of what Adams was attempting to capture – the vastness of the wilderness, the wintery nights, the stillness of the cold – in between bursts of controlled resonance and dissonance.

There were definitely points over the duration of the 75 minute piece where I lost touch with the purpose of the piece, due to momentary absences of recognizable music; the problem with creating abstract music is that it’s difficult for a listener to say, “Oh, that sounds familiar, and I know I like that kind of sound.” In breaking with tradition in music, Adams took the risk of losing the audience along the way. But when the cacophony of sounds ebbed and the interwoven instrumental parts fell off one by one, leaving just the core sound from the strings and notes from the harp, the sense of Adams’ expansive soundscape returned with a renewed feeling of purpose.

So, should Columbia and Miller Theatre ever chose to host Adams again, I recommend carving out the time from your evening and stopping by for a performance. The show might not be at all what you expect ‘music’ to sound like, but Adams’ invitation to sit, listen, and interact with the sensations that his work evokes is certainly too good to pass up.

Our second president via The Miller Theatre

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