New Music from the Other Adams

Want to go from yang to ying by the simple switch of a silver disc? Try seguing from the two supremely energetic, densely populated chamber symphonies of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams (b. 1947), which we explored last week, to the far milder and less complicated choral work, Canticles of the Holy Wind (Cantaloupe) from the other Pulitzer Prize in Music-winning Adams, John Luther Adams (b. 1953). Although just six years separate the men, their choices of where to set down roots—John Adams in Berkeley, with frequent sojourns to orchestral residencies and music festivals in major cities, and John Luther Adams in remote places of natural beauty, most recently in Alaska and then the desert of New Mexico—is reflected in their strikingly different music.

JL Adams' preface to the piece is very telling. With it and two spacey aerial photographs of the sky serving as the album's main liner notes, he writes:

"Throughout my life, I've clung to hope for the future of our species. But amid the gathering darkness of our own making—global warming, terrorism and seemingly unending wars, widespread social and economic injustice, rampant greed and environmental destruction, resurgent racism and rising fascism—it's increasingly difficult to maintain unmitigated faith in humanity. And I find myself reimagining hope.

"I don't look for answers in political ideology, humanistic philosophy, or religious dogma. Instead I place my faith in the land and the skies, the wind and the birds—in what we call "nature." And I take comfort in a larger vision of the earth and the universe, and my own small place in this beautifully fleeting moment within the endlessly turbulent and sublime music of creation."

As promising as that sounds, I found little comfort in Canticles of the Holy Wind. Auditioned in 24/96 hi-rez, the work's 14 movements variously tranced me out—I fell asleep—and bored me to tears. If you can imagine, after discovering I had dozed off, feeling that I had missed nothing, and spending several movements reading news stories just as horrible as those that motivated Adams to seek solace in nature and write Canticles of the Holy Wind, you know how much this music failed to transport me.

The piece was commissioned by the choral group, The Crossing, and the Latvian choir Kamer, and premiered in 2013. This recording, which is definitive in that it was recorded by The Crossing, is most notable for the beauty of the choir's voices and the overtones they generate when singing full force in the ultra-resonant church acoustic of St. Peter's in the Great Valley, in Malvern, PA. It is in fact those extra cross vibration-created overtones , which I initially attributed to the intentional, controlled liveness of my treated listening room, that are the most fascinating aspect of the recording.

The opening movement, "Sky With Four Suns," begins with a very soft, sustained "Ah." Swelling to an extremely loud peak, complete with reverberant overtones galore, it then shrinks back down to a mere wisp of sound. The second movement, "The White Wind," finds the low male voices droning while higher-voiced males sing scales over them. This section would have been far more profound had the choir been able to recruit some deep-voiced Russian basses for the project. Once again, the music fades out before, in "Dream of the Hermit Thrush," voices and beautiful bells may lull you to another dimension.

Several movements later, I awoke amidst "The Blue Wind," and regained sharp focus as the women began making high bird sounds in movement seven, "The Hour of the Doves."

Jumping ahead, "Cadenza of the Mocking Bird" is one of the most sonically spectacular movements, with women making bird calls above Amy Garapic's bells and percussion snaps. The tenth movement, far more consoling, segues into others that are variously consonant and dissonant. Finally, in "The Dark Wind," the "ahoo, ahoo, ahoo"s get louder and louder until they abruptly end.

In 2015, in my Seattle Times preview of the Seattle Symphony world premiere of Nu. Mu. Zu., a new work by Giya Kanchelli, Kanchelli is quoted as saying, ""Illusions that I knew something gradually disappeared and it turned out that, having approached the age of 80 and lived a life full of contradictions, I found myself utterly confused. What is happening in the world is gradually, step by step, destroying the last hope in my consciousness, without which, for all of us, life loses its meaning . . . I keep dreaming about a world in which fanaticism, sectarian strife and violence are no longer the dominant features of world order."

When I subsequently heard Nu. Mu. Zu. for the first time, it sounded to me as if Kanchelli simply did not know how to infuse his latest music with meaning. John Luther Adams, too, seems lost somewhere between the sea, the sky, and the vast beyond. Where John Adams, in The Death of Kinghoffer and other works, has been willing to join with Peter Sellars in challenging established thought and risking societal approbation, John Luther Adams seems far more comfortable in retreating into nature. You may find in his music just what you seek.