by Maggie Molloy
What do you get when you cross a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and environmentalist with one of the 40 greatest rock drummers of all time? A 50-minute electroacoustic Inuit-inspired meditation on spirituality and sound, as it turns out.
John Luther Adams and Glenn Kotche, courtesy Cantaloupe Music
John Luther Adams first rose to contemporary classical fame with his 2013 orchestral composition Become Ocean, commissioned and recorded by our very own Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The composition is a 45-minute orchestral approximation of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and it flowed right to the top of classical music charts.
The surround-sound recording of Become Ocean debuted at number one on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, stayed there for two straight weeks, and went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Not bad for a little-known recluse who spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods.
Throughout his career, Adams’ music has been inspired by Alaskan landscapes, ecology, environmentalism, and the natural world—and though he recently left Alaska to move to New York, his music is still profoundly immersed in the spirit of nature.
His latest recording, titled Ilimaq, takes its title from the Inuit word for “spiritual journey”—and the composition is nothing short of one. It is a 50-minute metaphysical meditation on the power of nature, and it’s led by the most primordial of all instruments: drums.
“In Inuit tradition the shaman rides the sound of the drum to and from the spirit world.” Adams writes. “In ‘Ilimaq’ the drummer leads us on a journey through soundscapes drawn from the natural world and from the inner resonances of the instruments themselves.”
Scored for solo drum kit and electronic accompaniment, Ilimaq features the passion and precision of one of the most skillful drummers of all time: Glenn Kotche (you may recognize him as the drummer from the twangy alt-rock band Wilco). Back in 2008, Kotche personally contacted Adams, as he had been a fan of his music for years and was interested in collaborating.
“My own musical journey began with rock drumming,” Adams said of his decision to work with Kotche. “And all these years later, in Glenn Kotche, I’ve found the drummer I always imagined I could be.”
The five-part piece features three different “stations” of percussion instruments (all played by Kotche), the drama of which are heightened by ambient electroacoustic accompaniment, field recordings of nature, and live-electronic processing of Kotche’s playing. And while each of the five parts certainly have their own distinct character and timbral palette, each flows seamlessly into the next to create a cohesive narrative—a spiritual journey.
It all begins with a “Descent” into a mesmerizing trance. The 16-minute introduction envelops the listener in an entire earthquake of sound—organic and intimate, yet massive in scope. The rolling bass drum hurls forward and backward restlessly as ambient electronics ebb and flow in response to its rippling sound waves.
And as the introduction comes to a close, the sounds of trickling water float straight into part two of the composition: “Under the Ice.” The heavy drumming dissolves into a meditative blend of field recordings, electronics, and delicate cymbal work, and Kotche begins exploring the beauty and breadth of textures in the Inuit-inspired Arctic soundscape. Circling sound waves and hypnotic echoes softly color the scene, and gentle whistles punctuate an otherwise smooth and liquid soundscape.
Once the listener is completely submerged, part three begins: “The Sunken Gamelan.” As if in a dream, harmonic colors blend together and apart in a wash of sound, creating a gorgeous percussion orchestra ringing out underwater.
It’s the calm before the storm that is part four: “Untune the Sky.” Kotche’s expanded drum set becomes the rain, the wind, the waves, and the stormy clouds all at once in this visceral climax. The scene is dramatic and dissonant, spiritual and sacred—ritualistic even. Steadily building in passion and ferocity, Kotche’s virtuosic playing reaches a violent peak before quieting down into the end of Ilimaq.
The thrashing subsides and in the final “Ascension,” ethereal high-pitched drones glide back and forth like spirits whispering to one another across the shimmering starlight. And as the spiritual journey comes to a close, the music evaporates into the sky above until all we have left is a beautiful and transformative silence.