Wednesday, February 23, 2011

John Luther Adams's Inuksuit: The Playtime of Contemporary Classical Music?

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—On Sunday, I experienced what may well be the classical-music equivalent of Jacques Tati's Playtime, which I only recently decided was probably my favorite film ever.

A taste, to start things off:

This all-too-brief video represents three iPhone-captured video clips that I stitched together from a performance of contemporary classical music I attended on Sunday—a Sunday I had off thanks to President's Day the next day—at the Park Avenue Armory in New York's Upper East Side (it was part of a four-day festival of new music entitled the Tune-In Music Festival).

Wait a minute, some of you might be saying after watching this short video. This doesn't look like a classical-music performance. What are all those people doing lying on the floor? Why are a lot of audience members walking around? And maybe, most of all, What kind of music is this??? 

The name of the piece is Inuksuit, and it is the latest work by an American composer named John Luther Adams. (No, this isn't the same John Adams who composed the music for the 1987 opera Nixon in China—which I saw in the Metropolitan Opera's new production on Saturday night, and which I might discuss in a future post, if I can settle on how I actually feel about it—or, more recently, the music for the recent film I Am Love. This other John Adams is, despite similar minimalist leanings, quite a different artist musically, at least based on this one work of his I've heard.) "Inuksuit" is the plural form of "inukshuk," which are human-built stones located in the Arctic Circle that Inuit tribesmen used as navigation tools. In the same way that Inuit people wandered around these stones, so does John Luther Adams envision for Inuksuit that audience members freely wander around the nine-to-99 (Adams's specification) percussionists situated in varying locations in a given space. This isn't the usual concert work where an audience sits down to listen and watch performers perform that work. Instead, we are put in the position of being active spectators, choosing where to go and what to perceive within the space in which the work is performed.

Such an idea could perhaps only work in a certain kind of space...thus Inuksuit's arguably most interesting aspect, which is that this work was conceived to be played outdoors, as the composer himself explained in a pre-concert talk I attended. So in a sense, hearing it performed in a huge indoor space at the Park Avenue Armory was going against the composer's original intentions. (Apparently, there were microphones placed near windows in the Armory's big auditorium, in an attempt to capture some of the sounds outside of the building; I didn't really hear much outside noise, though, until the quiet fading-away of the piece's ending.)

Taken with my iPhone at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday

No matter; the sounds of Adams's score still managed to ring forth in all its sonic splendor. And when I say "sounds," I do mean sounds. Musically, Inuksuit is essentially 70 minutes of noise: There are no melodies to speak of, only this imposing epic soundscape that encompasses the heights of quiet serenity and the depths of clangorous cacophony. But this isn't a random assemblage of noises, by any means. From its near-silent beginnings—with some of the performers, all situated in the middle of the auditorium, creating soothing wind noises through paper megaphones—to the way it increases in volume and intensity—cymbals and tam-tams eventually enter the scene, as do conch shells and sirens—until it slowly eases down to triangles and piccolo evoking something like distant bird calls, the work conveys a pretty explicit dawn-to-dusk arc underpinning it all. The work's total effect was intensified by, well, nature itself. The sun was already starting to set by the time 5:20 p.m. rolled around, which made the work's slow dying away seem perfectly in tune with the world outside; that was the first time, by the way, I was able to hear outside street noises intrude into Adams's sonic architecture. (Surely this perfect timing had to have been a deliberate strategy on Adams's part!) It also helped that many of the audience members had, by that point, decided to sit or lie down, echoing the relaxed quality of those final 10 minutes.

Again, my familiarity with Adams's work is, as of now, limited this one work only—I hadn't even heard of the man until I was invited to the event on Facebook by one of the 72 performers, who lives right in my apartment building (he's actually pictured in the New York Times's review of the event here)—but, according to the program notes as well as some quick online research I've done on the composer, he seems to find much of his inspiration not only in trying to evoke nature in his music, but also in finding ways for creative imagination and nature to interact. The environment seems important to him; apparently, in addition to his music, he focused on environmental protection right after graduating from California Institute of the Arts in the early 1970s (he currently lives in Alaska).

Taken with my iPhone at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday

This deep devotion to the mingling of art and nature comes through in Inuksuit, whether indoors or outdoors. The work not only suggests the creation of a sonic environment; it itself is a sonic environment, one that Adams allows us to literally bask in, to wander around in, even to pick apart. That sounds like what most of us might do in an unfamiliar physical environment, especially in a natural one. For me, the glory of Inuksuit is not so much that it refreshes our awareness of worlds outside of our own—the one defining characteristic of most of the art I cherish—but that it allows us to simulate the ways we engage with the world in general. It's a kind of controlled experiment: How will we all react to being plunked down in this unfamiliar milieu? We, of course, all have our own ways; in Adams's conception, all of those ways are made valid, not just the traditional "sitting and absorbing" manner of most concert music.

Playtime (1967)

Surely some of you will have an idea by now of how Inuksuit corresponds with Tati's cinematic masterpiece. Like Adams, Tati also demands active spectatorship in his de-emphasis on close-ups and central protagonists, basically throwing his viewers into his meticulously constructed world and asking them to figure out where to look and what to take in. Just as with a second performance of Inuksuit you may well pick up on sonic details you weren't able to hear the first time, Tati's images are vast enough that one can seize upon unnoticed details even on a third or fourth viewing. And, on a big-picture level, both artists take on nothing less than the whole wide world itself: how we live in it, interact in it, take stock of it.

Both works leave me reeling in sensory overload, in awe of the heights of the imagination in transforming ordinary human experience into something revelatory and sublime.

Taken with my iPhone at the Park Avenue Armory on Sunday

According to Adams in the pre-concert talk, there are plans afoot to stage an actual outdoor performance of Inuksuit in New York's Morningside Park sometime in June. If you have time for it, you ought to go hear it for yourself; it's truly a musical experience like few others.

In the meantime...well, someone more intrepid than I captured a 23-minute selection from Sunday's Park Avenue Armory performance. So you could start there, to perhaps get a better idea as to what this work is all about:

1 comment:

Paul said...