Ethereal sounds from the JACK Quartet playing works by John Luther Adams in San Francisco

United StatesUnited States John Luther Adams: JACK Quartet (Austin Wulliman, Christopher Otto [violins], John Pickford Richards [viola], Jay Campbell [cello]). Presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 26.10.2023. (HS)

JACK Quartet

JL Adams ‘Rising’ from untouched; Lines Made by Walking; The Wind in High Places

This has been my year of introduction to the music of John Luther Adams. Not to be confused with John Adams, the better-known classical and opera composer, John Luther Adams takes his own unique path to creating highly personal music. It fuses his fascination for mathematics with a history of hiking in mountains and deserts around the world to reflect a profoundly human experience of our world. He does it with an ear for the sheer beauty of musical sounds in varying environments.

This past summer in Aspen – itself a place of geographical beauty – I experienced several of John Luther Adams’s works, including a big piece for an orchestra scattered around the music tent, another for musicians moving about the grounds outside and one with an unusual instrumentation for a chamber orchestra. I also attended a conversation in which he discussed his approach to music, after which we ended up (independently) at adjoining tables at a Mexican restaurant eating pozole. The reduced size of a string quartet caressed my ears with music equally fascinating but much easier to digest.

The JACK Quartet, a New York City-based ensemble that focuses on contemporary music, has made two albums of quartets written for them. The program for their 70-minute recital, presented by San Francisco Performances at Herbst Theatre, comprised three absolutely gorgeous pieces that did not sound as if they came from any other composer today.

If anything, there are moments in Lines Made by Walking (from 2019) that call to mind the celestial polyphony of the Renaissance-era composer Josquin des Prez. Musical lines intertwined gracefully, the quartet sustaining sounds that let the interactions of linear movement create layers of sound which evoked a calming response, at least for me.

The way Adams got to all that belies the soulfulness of the music. Having walked countless miles in Alaska, Montana, Mexico and Chile, he began with what he calls a ‘tempo canon’, superimposing a single melodic line on itself at different note durations, derived from his impression of the contours of the land. Rather than being satisfied with the cacophony such a process could create, he sought out the most ‘fluid and beautiful’ sections to create a musical landscape.

The first movement, ‘Up the Mountain’, began with a short, rising motif in the cello that the rest of the instruments gradually picked up, rising to a gentle plateau and finishing quietly. ‘Along the Ridges’, the second and slowest of three movements, strayed only a bit from a pentatonic scale but produced rich harmonic and polyphonic beauty, using the extensive range of a string quartet to great effect. ‘Down the Mountain’ started with a falling figure with high harmonies seesawing down to the lowest ranges of the cello and viola. Like most of Adams’s work, each piece described a long arc, starting quietly, gaining depth and receding into a quiet finish.

That was the case in the opening piece, ‘Rising’, the first movement in the 2015 triptych ‘untouched’. This piece employed his genius idea of bowing only open strings and harmonics, never actually pressing strings to the violins’, viola’s or cello’s fingerboards. He was aiming for a more ‘natural’ sound, and it indeed made for a haunting sonic experience.

The three parts of The Wind in High Places (2011) followed a similar path but with very different musical inspirations. In this case, Adams was inspired by the sound of the Aeolian harp, a stringed instrument that is constructed to use the wind to get the strings vibrating. The first movement, ‘Above Sunset Pass’, began with rapid but soft-textured arpeggios, achieved by the open-string-harmonics-only technique. As these overlapped the sound it created reminded me of an alien wind chime made entirely of air.

The second movement, ‘Maclaren Summit’, introduced a rhythmic ostinato which expanded into lots of open harmonies that nicely described a vast view from on high. The finale, ‘Looking Toward Hope’, began by layering moderately paced and repetitive rising figures that then contrasted with high-lying filigrees, creating a meditation on the sheer elegance possible from dwelling on the harmonic series. The finishing gesture traced the overtone series on the high violins before vanishing into the ether.

Depending on a listener’s mindset, this music could put one to sleep, induce a hypnotic meditation or make for fascinating musical analysis as the sounds float past. As an encounter with sheer heavenly sound, it might be hard to beat.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment