Spacewalking Together, Under the Vault

FEBRURARY 20, 2011

Photo: James Ewing
Photo: James Ewing

In a world where unpredictability and chaos seem overwhelming, it’s reassuring to have moments of coherence and community. John Luther Adams’s brilliant 2009 Inuksuit, which had its New York premiere at the New York Armory’s recent Tune-In Music Festival, provided an ironic oasis of noise, “cancellation,” and serenity.

Adams (not to be confused with Pulitzer Prize–winning minimalist composer John Adams, of Nixon in China fame) is a percussionist and United States Artist Fellow who has been living in Alaska since 1978. Adams’s work is environmental in the literal sense: His Strange and Sacred Noise, a precursor to Inuksuit, was performed outdoors in the Alaskan mountains. Thus the Armory’s indoor venue was, for Adams, uniquely challenging; he needed, he said in a pre-concert talk, to “be able to hear distances and depth.”

Statistically described, in Inuksuit (etymological exegesis: stone humaniforms in the North American and Greenland tundra used as directional guides; the word, of which inukshuk is singular and inuksuit plural, literally means “to act in the capacity of a human”) Adams brought 78 musicians, mostly percussionists, together under the Armory’s massive vault and delivered 75 minutes of sound to an audience of over a thousand people. In Inuksuit, Adams metaphorically hypnotized adults who had reverted to a state of slow-motion sleepwalking as he beat time and space into new speeds and shapes, and we were pelted (in that the plastic experience was integumental) and impelled, our feet making meandering tracks around the musicians and up and down the balcony stairs, where more musicians playing hand sirens, triangles, and mini-glockenspiels made a composite sound we’d never heard before.

Inuksuit was actually highly structured in both technique and metaphor. Technically, the piece began with the musicians, having picked up a strange collection of whispering and annunciatory instruments—conch shells, paper megaphones, whirlytubes, bullroarers, sandblocks, tingshas (Tibetan hand bells), maracas, and massaged frame drums—in a circle in the middle of the Armory’s expansive Drill Hall, surrounded by the audience, which was able to wander at will (except in the balcony’s “end zones”). First there were windlike sounds, then two trumpeted conch notes, and the musicians dispersed to percussion pods scattered throughout the space, including the foyers: some to sets of massive drums, and others to stations of seven-story-high cymbals, glockenspiels, and gongs. (It was said that microphones mounted outside the building were piping street noise in as well.) In short order the Armory evolved into full percussive swing, ominous cannonades of rolling thunder—or primitive war-drum chaos, or machine-age clangor, as the sound modulated from merely loud to high-air-pressure dense (but never deafening) and back in waves, with periodic incursions by the hand sirens. After about an hour of textured industrial din, the tumultuous symphony suddenly collapsed in the manner of a large power plant being shut down. The atmosphere became irenic as daylight turned to twilight in the Armory’s clerestories, the pacific evensong of sparkling piccolos and cohorts of triangles and glockenspiels took over, and the musicians reconvened in the center. As Inuksuit ended, the audience physically savored the refreshing novelty of silence.

What happened? At a musicological level, Adams utilized a conventional model, with subtle introduction à la Grieg’s Peer Gynt’s “Morgenstemning” (“Morning Mood”), increasing complexity and tension à la Beethoven’s churning symphonic works, and a final, subtle unraveling to bring the audience down to a featherbed denouement à laDebussy’s Faun. Adams also created what I call textural sound, in which multiple cadences create entirely new sounds; what I am told is called psychoacoustic sound, in which the brain registers sounds that aren’t necessarily there; and the effect of cancellation, in which coincidental sounds neutralize each other. In his experimental music, Adams stated, “the outcome cannot be predicted.” This was unnecessarily self-deprecatory: The outcome was deeply moving.

At a metaphorical level, Adams conjured multiple narrative interpretations: the diurnal theme of morning awakening, living, and evening repose; the universal theme of the rhythm of life—birth, growth, decline, and death; and perhaps most effectively, the theme of overwhelming awe—at the power of music to transport us to a state of transcendental reverie. Alternatively, one could simply appreciate Inuksuit in the language of music, not requiring tedious semantic expatiation.

One of Adams’s most remarkable achievements was that of audience interaction. By dispensing with seating, Adams enabled the audience to flow among the musicians, to experience individual performances firsthand, to see the scores, to experience the event from an infinite variety of acoustical perspectives, and to be with each other. There were no “best seats”—indeed every audience member could enjoy the performance as desired, whether from a static position (cardboard flats were provided) or in walkabout. Further, photos and video were permitted, resulting in instant YouTube documentation.

Inuksuit suggests that Adams might explore permutations, including performances in public spaces, or a global event in which musicians play simultaneously, or in waves as sunlight moves across the earth. As Adams said, “part of the essential quality of the piece…is understanding where we really are.” By this he means: on a small sphere, spinning in space, for a short time, together.


APR 2011

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