John Luther Adams : The Place We Began

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“Last summer in my studio I discovered several boxes of reel-to-reel tapes that I’d recorded in the early 1970s. Using those “found objects,” I sculpted these new soundscapes from fragments of my past.”

Listening to John Luther Adams’s re-workings of his earliest music on his Cold Blue CD, The Place We Began, calls to mind Thomas Pynchon’s Slow Learner. In his introduction to this collection of five early short stories he allowed to be published decades after they were written, the famously reclusive author allows himself a rare moment of personal reflection in public. Pynchon muses about his younger self and decides that he likes who he used to be enough to drink a beer with him but probably wouldn’t loan him money. And despite his reservations from years of hindsight, he presents these early pieces as he wrote them, blemishes and all.

Adams, whom friends and fans alike warmly call JLA, takes a slightly different approach to the four electroacoustic soundscapes collected in this new disc.

This is how he describes the music on this recording:

mi0001192883“in a room” is composed from raw material I recorded on a summer afternoon in 1972. With two cheap speakers and a microphone, I used electro-acoustic feedback to explore the resonant frequencies in a room with hardwood floors and lots of windows. Thirty-six years later (using tools I couldn’t have imagined back then) I shaped that recording’s sounds into a twelve-part motet. 

“at the still point” is a tempo canon that sustains the relationships 13/14/15/16 throughout. The piece is made primarily from two tapes I recorded in 1974 on my Fender Rhodes electric piano. The first was a through-composed piece I eventually withdrew. The second was an improvisation in the spirit (if not the sound) of Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos—a piece that changed my musical life. The opening of at the still point incorporates a moment from another 1974 recording, this one of a small tam-tam I bought for $50 dollars. Today, the Rhodes is long gone. But I still own that tam-tam. 

“in the rain” begins with fragments from a recording I made in 1973. That tape was made in a gentle spring shower, during which I set pots and pans out in the yard, adding their metallic voices, one by one, to the sounds of the rain and blue jays. I’ve now re-used those sounds and their spectral after images to create “veils” that rise and fall, revealing and concealing the taped traces of one of my early ensemble pieces recorded in 1974. 

“the place we began”, a second twelve-part motet composed from the 1972 recording used for in a room, closes this cycle of works. Where the first piece rises, the place we began descends into subsonic depths, revealing previously inaudible quavering harmonics.

Obviously, many listeners will claim that this is not music at all, but I imagine that they have stopped reading this review by now, so we can safely ignore them. If you don’t like calling this “music,” then perhaps “organized sound” works better, and to the extent that sounds can be just as beautiful or interesting as music (which is, of course, just another type of sound), then why not work with them just as one might work with a musical phrase? This, in effect, is what I think that Adams is doing in these four works. Another clue is given in the quotation from T. S. Eliot that appears in the booklet and gives this CD and the fourth piece its name: “. . . to return to the place we began and know it for the first time.” Adams’s rediscovery of more than 30-year-old tapes, and the feelings that this rediscovery awakened in him, apparently was, in itself, an act of artistic (re)creation.

Adams’s use of the word “soundscapes” is wholly appropriate, and suggests how listeners might want to approach this CD. This isn’t music with melodies, rhythms, and harmonies in the traditional sense. (One might argue that they are present in a non-traditional sense, though.) Instead, these are sonic environments in which one can wander, much as one might explore the coastline on a foggy day. In each piece, there is a pervasive mood and color, and one might almost call these works static, except for the fact that they are never at rest. Neither “beautiful” nor “ugly,” they held my attention primarily as explorations of hue and texture. Your mileage may vary. Like everything I’ve heard by John Luther Adams (no relation to John Adams), they both hold and repay my attention. (Fanfare, Raymond Tuttle, 2009)

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