Two things about John Luther Adams: Like other composers of his generation his path to composition followed some surprising twists — in his case, from rock bands to Frank Zappa to Edgard Varèse to Morton Feldman.
Second, he lives in Alaska, where he relocated permanently in 1978. This may not seem particularly relevant until one realizes that the natural world provides a strong basic motive force for Adams’ music, by his own admission. I think this impulse comes through very strongly in this recording of The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies, particularly when one realizes that 1) Nature is seldom silent, and 2) when it is, the silence is so profound that there is no apt comparison.
Mathematics, in nine movements with names like “Burst,” “Shimmer,” Crash,” and “Stutter,” creates a set of permutations of rhythm, texture, and although it may seem strange to say it about a work for percussion and processed sounds, tone. It is, indeed, built on a foundation of silence, which not only underlies the sound but creeps through and around it. Impressions: summer nights in the North Carolina mountains, with the constant chorus of the frogs that inhabit every damp fold in the earth; the sharp drumming of woodpeckers, extended into a series of staccato patterns; wind in an old fieldstone chimney, and the drum of rain on a galvanized steel roof.
It’s easy to see Adams’ roots in serial minimalism, perhaps the most influential movement in post-War American music, as well as his affinity for the music of Morton Feldman. (And taking a cue from that, one realizes that Adams’ work, like that of Feldman, is as much about space as sound.)
Fair warning — there are sections of this recording to which I have pretty much the same reaction that I do to the early and very rigid serial minimalists: I want to put a stick between my teeth to have something to chomp down on, but at the same time I’m fascinated by the very subtle transformations going on here. Steven Schick provides a bravura performance, catching every nuance and presenting an enormously evocative soundscape.
A definite yes for our basic library of cutting-edge avant-garde.
(Canteloupe Music, 2006)