Did you miss Second Inversion’s John Luther Adams Marathon on March 28? Are you interested in exploring the music of America’s most famous ecologist-composer by sampling a few key pieces? If so, check out this selection of JLA’s most indispensable albums to date.
Earth and the Great Weather
If you’re ever remanded to a desert island where you can take along a single John Luther Adams album, this is the one to pick. Subtitled A Sonic Geography of the Arctic, this ten-movement composition from 1993 was Adams’ breakout piece. It’s both an ecological oratorio of the far North and a compendium of the techniques that Adams would hone over the next 25 years: haunting drones and trills, ritualistic taiko-like drumming, and overtone-based textures inspired by his teacher James Tenney (compare the latter’s Shimmer to this album’s track Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around). It even has some things you don’t find in other Adams pieces, such as Alaska nature recordings and texts from Native Alaskan languages
The Far Country
This is another fine sampler album from 1993 that features three medium-length pieces for large ensemble. Dream in White on White is a plaintive work for strings and harp reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Orpheus. The early choral composition Night Peace openly displays its debt to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. The Far Country of Sleep begins with a solo trumpet motif that’s almost identical to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but as this orchestral piece progresses, it makes clear that its philosophical affinity is with Rachel Carson rather than Nietzsche.
This outdoor piece for multiple percussionists has been performed all over North America (including here in Seattle in 2015). Adams considers this recording, three years in the making and captured on location in rural Vermont, to be a definitive representation.
And here it is: Seattle Symphony’s Grammy Award-winning recording of Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. Released in 2014, it’s the first recording of Adams’ music by a major orchestra. Although the sound world of Become Ocean isn’t all that far from Ravel’s daybreak scene in Daphnis et Chloé, Adams’ instinct as an ecologist is to let his textural soundscape unfold on its own terms and at its own pace, with a minimum of intervention. Indeed, this work is so well proportioned that it seems much shorter than its 42-minute duration. Become Ocean is both a fulfillment of the trajectory of Adams’ work since Earth and the Great Weather and a searchlight illuminating the wonders yet to come from this imaginative composer.
The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.
A Spotify version of our Essential JLA playlist is available below: