Outdoor concerts in unconventional venues have been a default decision during the pandemic, although composer John Luther Adams has embraced concerts without walls for years. Mindful of the benefits and unpredictability of nature, works such as Ten thousand birds – presented by Penn Presents Live on September 25 at Morris Arboretum – became his trademark.
Longtime Alaskan resident now based in countryside New Mexico, composer Pulitzer and Grammy has an immersive mind: Ten thousand birds, which dates from 2014, refers to the number of species on the planet, not the plethora of bird songs crammed into the one-hour room.
Even citing 21 types of birds and frogs, conceptually, “is incredibly grandiose – as my ideas often are,” says the 68-year-old composer. Adams must slow down the songs of birds – from owls to tohi – to be intelligible to the human ear, a technique popularized by French composer Olivier Messiaen. Then there are the twin-tracheal thrushes.
“It’s very complex vocals and tones that hover at the borderline of melody and timbre,” Adams said over the phone from his home in New Mexico. “Somewhere along the way, I realized… I’m translating a language that I don’t understand and that I will never understand. Things get lost. Maybe all is lost. But something else is won… and I get music that maybe wouldn’t have reached me otherwise. “
Unlike Messiaen, whose lifelong interest in ornithology mingled with intense religiosity, Adams identifies his primary responsibility as that of a composer. “If it doesn’t sound like music, then anything I could imagine about it makes no sense. The music must therefore come first, ”he said.
The ultimate goal is to create “the feeling of hearing something you didn’t expect from a place you can’t identify”.
This aesthetic results in a flow of dreamlike sounds with frequent disruptive elements that coexist, seemingly without much effort, but actually flow from a flexible and complex game plan. Although Adams’ formal concert works have a strong musical architecture, Ten thousand birds reflects and embraces the random quality of the arboretum setting. Each page of music is its own module that can be arranged in any order the instrumentalists see fit, in what Adams calls a “performance kit” rather than a score.
Musicians and listeners are encouraged to move within prescribed limits. No wonder the project gives Penn Presents Live an augmented identity that, according to art director Christopher Gruits, goes “beyond the walls of the Annenberg Center.”
But before any of Adams’ notes are played, the performance begins with deliberate silence so the audience can hear the environment before Alarm Will Sound changes it. Ensemble co-founder Alan Pierson arranged the page order to make it feel like morning, noon and night.
“It’s intentional that everyone has a different experience,” Pierson said, “but I try to structure it so that… you hear all the elements that make up the piece. “
Last week’s performance on Governors Island in New York had the benefit of former military residences that could reflect the unamplified sound of the instrumentalists to the audience. For Morris’ performance, Pierson studied satellite photos to determine optimal player placement.
A wild card, of course, is how wildlife might interact with the room. “There is a feeling that there are different things going on around you, some of which are in dialogue or not happening,” he said.
The climatology messages are not explicit. In fact, the piece is so flexible that Pierson adapted it into a video, shot entirely indoors, titled Ten thousand screens, who captured the loneliness of the first months of lockdown.
Adams reluctantly approved of the idea. He lived in Alaska in the 1970s to work in the field of environmental protection. The composer therefore has a lot of outdoor issues in mind, and this is even more evident with his next commission for The Crossing Choir and Philadelphia Orchestra. His title, Vespers for the Anthropocene Period, refers to a geological era where the planet is directly modified by human presence.
“What drives me to get up every morning and go to my studio … is my faith in the next generation who will have to sort through the rubble my generation leaves them and create a new way of living on this earth. ” he said. “Hope is no longer a word I use. He moves too easily. The music I write now is an expression of sorrow and faith in the possibility of human redemption.
The alarm will sound carried out Ten thousand birds at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 25 (rain date Sunday, September 26) at Bloomfield Farm at Morris Arboretum, 100 E. Northwestern Ave. Tickets: $ 15-35. The Penn Presents Live production is in conjunction with the On the Environment film series from September 16-26. Information: https://pennlivearts.org.