Alexandra Gardner’s Chatter post last week very aptly captured the mood of John Luther Adams’s remarkable Inuksuit, and much more about JLA will be revealed in Molly Sheridan’s insightful talk with him which we will publish as our Cover tomorrow. (Update March 1, 2011: It’s now up!) Nevertheless I feel compelled to chime in as well. For over a decade, JLA has been something of a mentor to me—through his compositions and writings about music, as well as through our many conversations and museum visits (beginning when he served as board president of the American Music Center in the early 2000s). Over the years we’ve had several debates about composing and listening. I still vividly remember his need to go on “listening fasts” when completely immersed in a composition, something I was never willing to do. But with Inuksuit I felt that he made a persuasive argument that might cause me to rethink my entire approach to acquiring knowledge about music, or anything else for that matter.
Prior to Inuksuit, Adams created a sound installation called The Place Where You Go To Listen which theoretically is without end. I’ve yet to travel to Fairbanks to experience it firsthand, but I’ve gleaned the basic idea from various written accounts of it and video excerpts on YouTube. Part of me is reluctant to visit because I’m afraid I’ll never be able to leave it once I’m there. But even if I stayed for the rest of my life, I’d never be able to hear it all.
With Inuksuit, however, even though the piece is approximately 80 minutes and therefore has a precise beginning and conclusion, there is no way any one listener can hear everything that is going on—which is the point. As I roamed around during the Park Avenue Armory performance, I heard faint sounds from various percussionists—calm breathing through tubes, pieces of wood being scraped together, etc.—that were only audible when I got very close. In so doing, I missed tons of other small sounds that others were making. But that was inevitable: it was impossible to hear everything going on in the piece. Of course, this is not the first piece of music to do this. John Cage and many others created similarly all-encompassing and impossible to completely experience sonic events in the ’60s and ’70s. I was reminded of that fact on Friday night when Ne(x)works gave a delightfully zany account of John Cage’s off-the-wall Song Books at Greenwich House Music School. It’s one of the few major Cage works that’s yet to be recorded in its entirety—I’ve been pining away for such a recording for years even though it might be an impossible task and would somehow defeat the impact of the work. That said, JLA’s piece spoke an even louder message to me that finally hit home.
I’ve spent most of my adult life voraciously trying to hear everything that’s out there and to experience as much as I can of sensory realms other than music in the time I can squeeze around listening. I’ve frequently attended five concerts in a week, and I’ve accumulated books, scores, audio and video recordings, spices, liquors, teas, and perfumes to the point that most of the walls of my apartment are covered from ceiling to floor. I travel as much as I can within my own limited financial means and have made it to six continents; every time I come home with a huge pile of materials that will inevitably consume even more of my time. I’ve also tried to do my best to avoid filters that limit the ability to experience it all—e.g. taste. My own compositions have often taken a back seat to this all-consuming passion to encounter everything I possibly can, although it has had an impact on what I do wind up actually composing—many of my works have been based on the notion of exhausting permutational possibilities, that is to say, they’ve been about attempting to hear it all.
But we can’t hear it all, we can’t see it all, and we can’t experience it all. Any attempt to do so is ultimately as futile as The Self Taught Man’s attempt in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea to read all the books in the Paris Library; reading that novel inspired a Columbia undergrad classmate of mine decades back to drop out of school, after buying in to the idea that acquiring information is ultimately pointless. I’m not sure I’m prepared to make that much of a leap, but some kind of a leap does seem warranted.
One of the euphemistic quips that folks in the new music community often use to describe a piece of music that they’re not wild about is: “That didn’t change my life.” I’ve been known to reply, “I’m pretty happy with how my life is going; I don’t want it to be changed.” Inuksuit, however, is in fact a life-changer in the literal sense. I’ve attempted to eschew self-selection and try to approach everything with completely open eyes, ears, and heart. But JLA has shown eloquently through his music, which is infinitely more persuasive than his or anyone else’s words can ever be, that time and space will both always limit what we can grasp and there’s no way to overcome that. So what is the best way to maximize the time and space that we do have?