John Luther Adams ~ Arctic Dreams

If the title sounds familiar, it’s because the album is dedicated to environmentalist author Barry Lopez, whose Arctic Dreams (1986) is one of his best-known works.  Not that John Luther Adams is an unfamiliar figure himself; he’s won both the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy, which makes him one of the most decorated composers we’ve ever covered.  Arctic Dreams is his first major work since The Become Trilogy, arriving mere months after his own memoir, Silences So Deep.

The composer has earned his reputation through talent and authenticity.  As described in his memoir, he left sunny L.A. (also home to Cold Blue Music) for the wide expanses of Alaska, and fell in love with its vastness.  Throughout his career, he’s incorporated stillness, solitude and space.  Now he includes the Synergy vocals ensemble, who sing in Iñupiat (Alaska Inuit) and Gwich’in (Athabascan), intoning the names of flora, fauna and weather, embedded in string and bass settings with a deliberate, nearly mathematical use of delay.

The clinical notes may lead one to expect a staid performance, but the music possesses an emotive sheen that belies its precision.  The low tones hearken to throat singing and the sense of something ancient: not only cultures, but glaciers, ice sheets, the uncharted expanses of the frozen sea.  The voices shimmer,  imitating the play of light off snow-swept plains, becoming white on white, blue on blue.  The title “The Place Where You Go to Listen” is evocative of place but also of the listener, once removed.

The shift occurs at the start of “The Circle of Winds,” the strings taking center stage, the timbre suddenly turbulent, white-out conditions imminent.  As much as Adams writes rapturously of the north’s beauty, he also recognizes its impassive threat.  Most beings are unsuited to withstand its vicissitudes.  By injecting such notes in his suite, the composer pivots from painting to action, implying the hustle to secure the dogs, seal the igloo, protect the provisions.  The false sense of security dissipates.  Any subsequent peace will be hard-won.  The violin of “One Who Stays All Winter” imitates gulls, as the choir’s gulps and swoons imitate swooping.  Fall and become prey.

But of course Adams would not end on such a note.  The short closing piece allows whispers to pretend they are waves, slowly advancing and receding, the course of the tides unaffected by human observation, perhaps cold and dispassionate, but nevertheless alluring: liquid sirens, inviting approach.  (Richard Allen)

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