Sounds Heard: John Luther Adams—The Place We Began
John Luther Adams—In the Rain
Listening to John Luther Adams’s reworkings 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. A year after finding boxes of reel-to-reel tape recordings he’d made in the early 1970s, he decided to mold them into brand new compositions. This is perhaps akin to doing what Bill Morrison has done with old films in Decasia and many other works or what John Oswald and hosts of others do with contemporary pop singles, only doing it to yourself. But his process of recontextualization is obviously much more introspective and elusive. Presumably nobody else knows exactly what was on those reels. And what’s perhaps most fascinating is that this material from which JLA’s new music derives predates his move to rural Alaska, a location which has served as his muse for over 30 years. Yet it sounds as simultaneously monumental, desolate, vast, and mysterious as the music he has composed as a result of living there.
In a Room begins almost imperceptibly, like the opening of a Bruckner symphony, as if trying to conjure up a personal past ex nihilo, gradually building in intensity. At a Still Point begins similarly but soon morphs into a trippy wash of sound rivaling anything that you might hear in a club where DJs spin ambient electronica; totally chill on so many levels. In the Rain sounds like what it says it is: an exploration of the sound of rain. It creates wonderful polyrhythms by falling on various things and it’s a joy to experience those sounds cognizantly as a musical phenomenon. But JLA soon overlays this with some electronically generated pitch-based material which gradually takes over. The electronic sounds drown out the rain at some point, which feels like suddenly walking inside a dry place still soaking wet. When the sound of the pouring rain returns about halfway in it creates a subtle otherworldly duet with these directionless electronic tones sounding like Morton Feldman without an umbrella. The concluding title track, The Place We Began, calls to mind some of the early tape pieces of Iannis Xenakis, such as Bohor and Orient-Occident, which also frequently achieve a remarkable arhythmic stasis with a harmonically unstable amalgamation of pitches and timbres that only changes very gradually. Of course electronic music denizens will be quick to point out that pitches, harmonies, and timbres are all pretty much the same thing. But rarely has the message been driven home so effectively.