John Luther Adams (not to be confused with the Bay Area’s John Adams, of “Nixon in China” fame) has lived for much of his career in Alaska, though he has recently moved to warmer climes. But the Arctic, and especially the impact of human activity on the environment there, continues to haunt his works. JLA, as he is almost universally known, has created a series of soundscapes, for various combinations of strings, voices, taped and/or electronic sounds, that have explored the vast expanses of the Arctic and the long and largely harmonious existence of Native cultures there. Inuksuit is perhaps his ultimate Arctic soundscape.
Named for the stone cairns or markers that dotted the land for centuries in the far north, this piece is ostensibly for a small army of percussionists, but it is full of natural sounds, noisemakers (rain sticks, whirlies) and horns — not sophisticated orchestral or band instruments, but simple horns that sound like centuries-old hunting calls. It is an immersive experience, intended to blur the distinction between “concert music” and the sounds of the earth around us. It should, therefore, never work as a recording.
But this performance, by a 34-piece troupe led by Doug Perkins and recorded in the Vermont woods, stakes a case for Inuksuit as a work that can be heard anywhere. It opens in silence, only gradually accreting bits of sound — birds, wind, etc. It takes nearly 15 minutes before the first actual drum comes in (it’s in Part 2 in the online version), but within another three minutes it has built to a hailstorm of drums and gongs. Tellingly, JLA (a recovering drummer himself), does not use the percussion ensemble to create a rhythm or a groove, but to suggest nature. And by Part 3, nature is clearly under threat. The sound is chaotic, alarming, with lots of rolling and crashing of cymbals and what sounds like a distant (and lower-pitched) set of sirens. (This part can be downloaded as a separate track — an idea that makes almost no sense within the context of the piece.) Unmistakably metal percussion appears in Part 4′s furious roar of sound. But here, things begin to calm down somewhat, and the occasional metallic strike might remind you of a ship’s bell ringing in a storm. In the narrative arc of the piece, the suggestion is clear: Human agency has created a “storm” of unnatural proportions, and humanity stands to reap what it has sown.
Part 5 makes subtle use of smaller metal percussion instruments — glimpsed, barely, through the early din of drums and cymbals; but those sonic waves finally subside, and the birds return. The work ends with a peaceful 10-minute stretch that’s a dead ringer for Adams’s early masterpiece, Songbirdsongs, with flute or ocarina trilling along with the bird recordings while the chimes accompany. JLA doesn’t need to hit you over the head with a mallet to get the message across. Nature survives the cataclysm, and the human sounds that remain are those most “in tune” with it.