The environmental wonder of John Luther Adams's Inuksuit


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I still rue that I was out of town last summer when percussionist Doug Perkins organized and presented a performance of Inuksuit, a massive outdoor percussion piece by John Luther Adams, in Millennium Park. It was a terribly rainy, ugly day, which surely put a damper on the festivities, in which about a hundred percussionists were spread out in the park performing the multilayered work—it's written for anywhere between nine and 99 players—but I still heard wonderful things about the event. Perkins—a cofounder of So Percussion who moved to Chicago last year and now plays frequently in Eighth Blackbird—has been a devoted advocate for the piece, mounting performances in New York and, earlier this summer, in Milwaukee, in addition to the one here. A couple of weeks ago a recording of Inuksuit—taped in June last year in the forest surrounding a recording studio in Guilford, Connecticut, and produced by Perkins—was released by Cantaloupe Records. The performance featured 32 musicians and used 48 tracks.

A sound recording is clearly not the ideal way to experience the work. The package includes a DVD with a multichannel mix that would better replicate the immersive qualities of the piece, but I don't have one of those 5.1 systems—so I'm stuck with the stereo mix found on the CD. It's still pretty phenomenal. Adams has long incorporated influences and ideas from the natural world into his music, whether birdsong or light, and by its very nature Inuksuit carries on that practice. As the recording opens all we hear are chirping birds, rustling leaves, and what sounds like water flowing in a stream. The piece breaks the performers into three groups—one playing large, reverberant drums, another focusing on metal percussion, and a third utilizing conch shells and sirens. The music follows a clear arc, building from nothing into thunderous polymetric beats, with each performer focusing on his or her own part rather than meticulously following a master score.

Percussionist Michael Bettine wrote about his experience in the recent Milwaukee performance on his blog, where he describes how certain listeners picked a spot and settled in for the entire concert, while others wandered around the grounds of the Lynden Sculpture Garden, getting an ever-morphing perspective on the overall sound field. In some ways this piece feels like an acoustic manifestation of the elaborate multichannel electronic works of Maryanne Amacher, where the listener's relationship to an array of loudspeakers changes the very nature of the piece. As you can observe in the cool promotional video for the recording below, mixing the various feeds had to be a monumental task, and the end result is dazzling in its detail, with what feels like an ideal balance of the various instruments and the environmental activity, although it can't provide the shifting perspectives one would get in the center of all of the action.

Below you can check out a 12-minute excerpt from the work, where the building density and action is clearly audible (Inuksuit is a single uninterrupted piece, but the CD breaks it down into five indexed sections). I don't know of any future performances of the work happening in the area, but I know I won't miss it next time.

UPDATE: I should've made it clear that the Chicago performance in Inuksuit was initiated and produced by Eighth Blackbird.

Today's playlist:

Jimmy Giuffre, The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet (Atlantic, Japan)
Roscoe Mitchell & David Wessel, Contact (Rogue Art)
Miço Kendes, Memê Alan (Amori)
Mari Kvien Brunvoll, Mari Kvien Brunvoll (Jazzland)
Lucas Santtana, O Deus Que Devasta Mas Tambén Cura (Mais Um Discos)


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