(photos by Angela Morgan)
First, there is a breath.
Okay. I know what you’re thinking. He’s going to get all Genesis—“Let there be light” or 2001—Also Sprach Zarathustra on us. But it’s very hard to talk about a piece of music as elemental as John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit, without reaching for the big ideas. It is, after all, about as “big” as a contemporary composition gets. Saturday afternoon, Present Music brought 99 percussionists together and spread them over the rolling landscape of the Lynden Sculpture Garden. The piece lasted about 75 minutes, but it contained a world of sounds, ideas and experiences.
John Luther Adams (not to be confused with John Adams, the well-known contemporary orchestral and opera composer) lives in Alaska, and writes music that marvels in the natural. This piece takes its name from the stone markers that Inuits leave as signposts in vast stretches of open tundra. And it can theoretically be performed in vast landscapes as well as more contained environments (the written music suggests that some performances may require camping equipment and GPS devices).
It begins, though, with the musicians in a tight cluster, and with a slow blossom rather than a big bang. The first sound is made with a simple megaphone made of paper—a deliberate exhalation that might be a stiff breeze, or air escaping a whale’s blowhole. In the space of the park, it is whisper-quiet, surrounded by silence. It grows. Other musicians follow suit, with the same cones and later with conch shells. It builds in density, and other instruments are added—the soft clatter of percussion, the dull ping of rock on rock, the shimmer of wood scraped against an iron frying pan. As it grows and morphs, the musicians slowly and deliberately move to stations that have been set up around the garden. Soon, there are tones and notes—several players spin flexible tubes that turn the whistling air into major-triad arpeggios, and soon, PM’s Kevin Stalheim blows the first full-on blast on his conch shell, a call to musical arms.
From there, the audience wanders with the musicians, and ultimately on their own. On Saturday, some perched in chairs to take the in the whole musical and visual vista. Others wandered contemplatively, taking in the whole sound scape and occasionally stopping to watch an individual musician for a time. (Some were well-worth watching, enacting characters or creating moods in their own playing space, like the woman who robotically played a small temple gong as if she was a life-size character on a Tyrolean cuckoo clock.)
Over time, the music continued to blossom, adding sirens and cymbal crashes, the wet splat of loosely tuned tom-toms, and the clarion thump of huge base drums. Was it the harried drive of adult life? The charged clatter of a growing civilization? The chaos of a world on the brink of self-destruction? Imagine your own narrative, or simply let the sound envelope you. Notice how some sounds direct your vision to their source, even across an expanse of water, and how others seem to simply hover in the air. Listen for patterns, established then broken. Breathe deep as it begins to relax—more space between the sound, the ethereal shimmer of triangles and glockenspiels eventually emerging. Then listen hard, as the music has called you to do, and try to distinguish when the music ends and silence begins.
On Saturday, I wasn’t sure when that happened. Listening intently for another fluted bird-call, or glittery outburst of bells, I began to notice the cicadas, the crunch of grass under my feet, the unquiet silence. Then, applause, though no one was absolutely sure it was over. I left a new kind of listener, which is one of the most wonderful things a piece of music can do.