ADAMS Wind in High Places. Canticles of the Sky
John Luther Adams’s status as one of new music’s most original musical voices was recognised last year when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the orchestral work Become Ocean (Cantaloupe, 11/14). Man’s dialectical relationship with nature continues to haunt and fascinate Adams but the emphasis shifts from sea to sky on this disc, which focuses on his music for strings.
The origins of the title-track lie in a set of solo violin pieces composed by Adams in 2007 in memory of his close friend, the Alaskan composer and environmentalist Gordon Wright. These ideas were reworked into The Wind in High Places, Adams’s first real stab at the string quartet medium. The work draws additional inspiration from the ethereal, wind-generated tones of the Aeolian harp, with each string retuned to create a large, 16-string harp.
The idea is not new, of course (think of Benjamin Franklin’s Quartet for three violins and cello, which also only uses open tunings); however, Adams makes extensive use of natural harmonics here, especially during the work’s middle movement, ‘Maclaren Summit’, where he gradually builds up a complex four-part canon. The effect is – quite literally – breathtaking, aided in no small measure by the JACK Quartet’s precise performance. By contrast, the first and last movements present a more reserved panoramic ‘sweep’, suggesting the wide-open spaces of the Alaskan landscape.
The other work played on this recording by the JACK Quartet, The Dream of the Canyon Wren, is perhaps more programmatic in tone. And in the opening section of Canticles of the Sky, performed here by the 45 cellists of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, one is reminded by the music not so much of floating in the air but rather of being wrapped in a warm blanket of pure sound.