John Luther Adams:
The Wind in High Places
In the Sea of Ionia
John Luther Adams would seem to be hitting some kind of incredible mid-to-late career stride, as evidenced by the 2014 Pulitzer Prize he received for his recent orchestral work Become Ocean. Yet while the recorded version of it was issued on Cantaloupe Music, Cold Blue has been the more long-standing outlet for the composer's music. In fact, five CDs of his work have been released by the label, including The Light that Fills the World, Red Arc/Blue Veil, the place we began, Four Thousand Holes, and now The Wind in High Places. As Adams lived for many years in Alaska (having moved a year ago, he now splits his time between NYC and Mexico's Baja California), it's only natural that the landscape would have informed the works he produced during that time.
That's never more apparent than in the recording's sixteen-minute title piece (2011), which draws for inspiration from the Aeolian harp, an instrument whose sounds derive directly from the wind. In a three-movement work exquisitely realized by JACK Quartet, the musicians assume the character of a sixteen-stringed harp; in this case, Adams' own liner notes merit quoting at length: “All the sounds in the piece are produced as natural harmonics or on open strings ... [and] the fingers of the musicians never touch the fingerboards of the instruments. If I could've found a way to make this music without them touching the instruments at all, I would have.” Adams, in his writing, and Jack Quartet, in their rendering of the material, uncannily evoke wind patterns as they arise in their natural settings. At certain moments, the music, often fragile and ethereal in tone, exudes calm; at other times, intensity, and the music ultimately achieves a time-transcending quality. Each movement is different from the others: in “Above Sunset Pass,” the strings gently whistle as if positioned at the highest conceivable altitude; the winds seemingly pick up during “Maclaren Summit,” given the flurries of cross-currents suggested by the strings; and a rustic quality permeates the keening soundworld of “Looking Toward Hope.” The Wind in High Places, like much of Adams' writing, inhabits its own unique, atemporal sphere.
Nature also works its way into the conception of Canticles of the Sky, a four-movement setting that's vividly brought to life by the forty-eight-member Northwestern University Cello Ensemble. In this case, Adams' conjures in musical form a particular apparition that sees the low angle of the Arctic sun and heavy ice crystals in the air producing “halos, arcs, and sundogs,” and sometimes the illusion of multiple suns. Not surprisingly, Canticles of the Sky is the album's most sonorously ravishing work, given the resources involved. A sense of elemental grandeur is generated by the material, as well as a sense of panoramic sweep, and there's a purity and simplicity to the writing that's reminiscent of Arvo Part, especially when the cellos more produce textural masses than conventional melodies. JACK Quartet returns for the recording's final piece, the single-movement Dream of the Canyon Wren (2013). Nature is present once again, though this time the touchstone isn't natural phenomena but the Canyon Wren, whose voice is simulated by Adams and the string players in a series of overlapping glissandos. Despite the presence of fundamental differences between the three works, they hold together marvelously due to the singularity of Adams' compositional voice. The Wind in High Places makes for another sterling addition to his discography, one that Alex Ross has astutely described as “beyond style.”
Like Adams, Daniel Lentz has been composing and releasing music for many decades, yet the music he's creating today is as vital as anything produced in the past. While his omnivorous output ranges from the wildly exuberant to the preternaturally calm, it's always infused with the joy of music-making and the creative spirit. Lentz isn't a purist; influences from pop, jazz, and R&B often surface, even if you'll find his music slotted under ‘New Classical' or some equally inadequate title. Like Adams, Cold Blue has become somewhat of a home for Lentz, with his music featured on seven CDs, four of them exclusively devoted to his work. While he's composed works for both conventional and unusual instrumental combinations (ensembles consisting of multiple keyboards, singers, and electronics versus ensembles of wineglasses), his latest collection, In the Sea of Ionia, features the playing of a single musician, Los Angeles-based pianist Aron Kallay, aka one-half of the Inoo-Kallay Duo, whose Five Conversations About Two Things was recently released by Populist Records. He's the perfect match for Lentz, someone with the technical tools capable of giving voice to the dazzle of the composer's writing.
Though occasional traces of the process-driven character of his previous work do emerge, In the Sea of Ionia exudes a more organic feel. Indexed as a single, fifteen-minute work, the opening 51 Nocturnes (2011) presents dramatically contrasting vignettes played without interruption. Moods vary throughout, with Lentz juxtaposing episodes of wistful reverie and dramatic intensity, and Kallay's elegant playing brings these chiming, mercurial miniatures to life in a way that does justice to Lentz's kaleidoscopic vision. If the shorter Pacific Coast Highway (2014) sounds denser by comparison, it most assuredly is, considering that it's scored for three pianos, all of course played by Kallay. It's also less melodically driven than 51 Nocturnes, with the focus this time on rolling, polyrhythmic clusters of continuously shifting harmonies.
At twenty-three minutes the album's longest work, Dorchester Tropes (2008–09) sees Kallay exploring in a four-movement solo piano setting an even greater range of dynamics and styles than In the Sea of Ionia. By way of illustration, compare the elegiac classicism of “Moswetuset” movement to the rollicking R&B feel of “Pocapawnet.” The final piece, the nineteen-minute In the Sea of Ionia (2007–08), revisits the multi-piano approach of Pacific Coast Highway though bolsters the density by featuring seven pianos this time. Of the four works on the release, it's the one that's most emblematic of Lentz's established style. Filled with rapid-fire runs and cross-patterns, the piece builds in activity and intensity as it progresses, though occasional episodes of calm arise at judicious intervals, too. Such intervals don't last long, however, as Kallay resumes the rapid ascent soon after each quiet passage surfaces. As I listen to these recordings, I'm reminded once again of the invaluable contributions Cold Blue has made to the musical landscape over so many years. That the West coast label has been a primary outlet for the works of Adams and Lentz, as well as so many others, is something for which any listener appreciative of high-calibre contemporary music must be grateful.