by Roger Downey
John Luther Adams says he wrote his Inuksuit for “9 to 99 percussionists.” That sounds as if it’s supposed to be epic in scale, and it is, in ambition. When you hear the commercial recording, with just 30-odd players, that feeling is confirmed. But Adams is thinking in terms of multiples of musicians, and 99 players would probably need more than nine times the footprint of just nine.
So the main shock of encountering Inuksuit live, on a sunny-cloudy, coolish-warmish Saturday afternoon in Seattle was the discovery that the piece is chamber music; that at its thundering climax about a half hour in iit’s just as calm and transparent as at its amplified breathing opening and its shimmering-triangles conclusion.
Every review of earlier performances round the world mentions how Adams’ slowly shifting soundscape captures the random sounds of its surroundings. That bare statement doesn’t convey the way it bends those sounds and enfolds them, makes them seem as appropriate to their moments as the sounds of the written score.
Other composers are surely studying this piece, learning from it how to tear down the material concert hall built into their preconceptions and replace it with a virtual cathedral, where the winds are the walls and the sky Shelly’s dome of multicolored glass, “staining the white radiance of Eternity.”