Classical Cafe:

Impressions: John Luther Adams' 'Inuksuit' at Ijams

Writing about music, as many clichés attest, has varying degrees of success and depends, in large part, on writer and reader agreeing on the terms of communication. As a result, there is little hope that I could even begin to describe the performance, or its effect, of John Luther Adams' Inuksuit at Ijams Nature Center yesterday. Add to this the magic hour of approaching twilight of the April 22 Earth Day, the totally un-designed awarding of Adams with this year's Pulitzer Prize for music last week, and the attendance and supervision by the composer--and any reportage becomes filled with details and subjective impressions.

But, details are inevitable. Inuksuit, first performed in 2009, is a symphony-of-sorts for percussionists, "9 to 99" of them, designed to be performed outdoors with the players spread out over the available space and over whatever elevations are available. I should add that the work has been performed indoors, notably at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City, but that is clearly another thing altogether. The work is abstractly scored into "cues" and 5 sections, although the beginning and end of the work is not definite, and its length, and the number of participants, can vary.

The title, Inuksuit, refers to the stone cairns used by native peoples of the Arctic regions as types of navigational, inspirational, or informational landmarks in an area that has few natural landmarks. In this sense, the percussionists become "landmarks" in the terrain.

Composer John Luther Adams talking to attendees at Inuksuit at Ijams Nature Center

This performance was initiated and organized by the University of Tennessee Percussion Ensemble and the contemporary music organization, Nief-Norf. Most of the performers were local percussionists and percussion students, although a number of guest participants from Furman University and the University of Alabama were also noted in the prefatory remarks by 
Andy Bliss, the coordinator of the event and the Director of Percussion Studies at UT as well as one of the founders of Nief-Norf.  With Adams in attendance and giving some brief remarks, the performance at Ijams yesterday lasted about an hour, with 30 or so percussionists spread out over a quarter-mile or so of the woodlands surrounding the Mead's Quarry Lake.

(Left, Andy Bliss of nief-norf and UT School of Music)

Although Adams indicated in his remarks that his original premise had grown out of the idea of isolation, he admitted that he now realized that in fact the piece was as much about "community," an emotion that was clearly present in both the performers and their audience. This sense of community grew from not only the humans present on the site, but also from the peripheral sounds that inevitably invade the process--bird song, airplanes overhead, traffic--amidst the other sounds of nature.

Out of this background of nature, the performance began (if that is the right word) with the sound of augmented wind and the rustling of trees, in this case whirly-tubes and blown instruments like conch shells. These players then drifted off slowly to various stations as drum and cymbal hits emerged from the quiet surrounding the lake. Ultimately, this becomes a cacophony of sounds, rhythmical and un-rhythmical, echoing around the water and off the limestone cliffs. At its energetic peak, there are reminders of urban street-life with cranked sirens and the clangor of modern life. As finality begins to take hold, the piece slowly softens, soothing one with the tinkling of bells and other pitched sounds that arrive from all directions and drift off into the twilight.

The "audience"--I'll guess 250 or so--was free to experience it on their own terms and comfort levels, either by plopping down in one spot along the trails or clearings, or by meandering through the landscape, pausing as necessary, allowing one's movement to provide crescendo and decrescendo--a fading in and
out of different textures and sonic experiences while encountering the many percussionists. In doing the latter, the sense of community, the sense of one's connection to others--becomes almost overwhelming.

The effect of the hour long experience registered slowly as one became attuned to the sounds of humans performing on instruments and of the natural sounds that infiltrated the environment. It is that effect that is ineffable, yet it is one that I already miss...deeply.

Composer John Luther Adams taking in Inuksuit among the "audience"

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About This Blog

Alan Sherrod serves up a big plate of nourishing commentary on the Knoxville classical music and fine arts scene.