Stephen Drury (director)
New England Conservatory Contemporary Ensemble
John Heiss (director)
Quite a number of years ago now, I spent a summer working for the Chicago Park District, which meant that I got to wear a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with the Chicago Park District seal, including its motto—hortus in urbe, a garden in a city. Which is itself a clever inversion of the Chicago city motto, urbs in horto, a city in a garden. Which I loved: a civilized tussle over whether civilization itself is the insider or the outsider, whether the machinery of nature only acquires meaning if it has an empire of more obvious machinery to compare it with.
I mention this because it might go some small way toward explaining why I was almost constitutionally incapable of experiencing John Luther Adams’s songbirdsongs, in its recent recording by the Boston-based Callithumpian Consort, purely as a piece of music. Written between 1974 and 1980, songbirdsongs is very much a nature piece: birdcalls and the rustling ambience of their customary surroundings paraphrased into a nine-movement suite for two piccolos and three percussionists. But the simulation of nature is so particular, so intent on being perceived as faithful, that songbirdsongs becomes one of those nature pieces that gets me wondering whether the end result is supposed to be the aural equivalent of conservation land, or something more—which, depending on your point of view, might actually mean something less.
This is the third recording of songbirdsongs, following its original 1982 release on Opus One Records (with Adams himself among the percussionists) and a 1996 reading by The Armstrong Duo. The Callithumpian Consort’s version, directed by Stephen Drury, is bright and energetic, and, not surprisingly, sounds better than its predecessors: detailed and clear, even managing to conjure up a sense of acoustic space. But the piece was designed for big-room, scattered-about-the-perimeter spatial performance—and, even on headphones, that full-immersion, lost-in-a-forest experience is left to the imagination.
The music’s grammar might best be described as kaleidoscopically imitative: drums and winds aping each other, the layers building up to a static, busy landscape, melodic tweaks to each movement’s motives spreading from instrument to instrument. The transliteration of the birdcalls tends toward the diatonic, but then they pile up in competing, polytonal profusion, falling somewhere between Messaien’s chromaticism and the more poppy triads of other strains of minimalism. (It’s more far out than a lot of Adams’s later, more gently contoured music—such as Strange Birds Passing, which, in a performance by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, makes a dulcet pendant to this recording.)
In the notes for that 1982 recording, Adams wondered if he had “abdicated the position of Composer (with a capital ‘C’),” but, flattened from a spatial experience to a recorded one, songbirdsongs shows a notable amount of usable space between capital and lower-case composing. All the compositional decisions, the design of the rhetoric, if not exactly of the structure, seem to come to the fore when filtered through the microphone—and it was those sections in which the composer’s hand was most noticeable that I found the most arresting: the bright, Martinů-like busyness of “Apple Blossom Round,” or the bass-drum thwacks and furious twittering of “Joyful Noise,” the aviary having a go at a Sousa march. The marimba-roll drones behind “Mourning Dove” were such lovely sounds in themselves that I found myself wishing that the simulated doves, plangent as they were in their ocarina guise, would take a break.
It’s the complicated nature of such loveliness that is the source of most of the work’s drama, at least for me. The musical motion is constant—motives and sounds never quite come back or combine in the same way twice—but it is movement without a strong musical direction, except forward in time. But there’s a tension between the natural world songbirdsongs is meant to evoke and the artificial means of the evocation that gives the music an interesting texture. Lovely things happen in every movement of the piece, but in a way that is meant to feel accidental and found, rather than designed and anticipated. At the same time, while the natural sounds are presented in a more organic way than, say, Ravel’s pre-dawn Daphnis birds or even Messiaen’s collections, the translation into instruments is palpably inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on earth, flutes and vibraphones and even ocarinas are, after all, pretty advanced technology. I kept thinking back to another warhorse, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, with its obbligato of nightingale-on-phonograph-record, and the more I thought about it, the less I could say whether one captured birdsong was more “real” or more “fake” than the other. Had the garden invaded the city, or the city the garden? The more songbirdsongs left that an open question, the more I got lost in it.