John Luther Adams - Houses of the Wind Music Album Reviews

John Luther Adams - Houses of the Wind Music Album Reviews
Fashioned from an archival recording of an aeolian harp in the Alaskan wilds, the environmental composer’s shimmering, wind-driven drones telegraph both majesty and dread.

Living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, John Luther Adams liked to walk around and listen to the birds, making recordings of the squawks and chirps he found the loveliest. The acclaimed environmental activist and composer had just finished studying music composition at CalArts, but those walks were as influential as his formal education. “The birds became my teacher after James Tenney,” he told an interviewer in 2014. He would write the birds’ calls into his music, but instead of meticulously attempting perfect notations of their songs, he wanted to find “what gets lost in translation.”

Adams later moved to Alaska, where he continued to search for music across the state’s vast tundras, forests, and mountains; the expanse of the Arctic still inspires much of his work. His Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral piece Become Ocean is an abstract rendition of Alaska’s roiling ocean that captures the immensity of the wide-open seas with surging melodies. Like his early bird-call explorations, the music is an interpretation, an attempt to offer an impression of how nature sounds and makes us feel.

Adams frequently works with orchestra, chamber ensemble, or percussion, but on Houses of the Wind, he turns to field recordings. The album is based on a 10-and-a-half-minute recording of an aeolian harp—a string instrument that’s played by the wind—that Adams made in Alaska in 1989. He’s explored the sound of the instrument before on pieces like The Wind in High Places, in which a string quartet emulates the air-driven device. But here, Adam works with the ethereal instrument itself, creating pieces that teeter between serenity, mourning, and hope.

The aeolian harp’s gentle hum is a vehicle for nostalgia; the way the wind streams through its strings creates a feathery sound that carries with it a feeling of wistfulness. Much of the wafting music on Houses of the Wind grows from the distance into full view, like climbing a mountain and reaching its apex. Opener “Catabatic Wind” defines this structure by starting with a distant, high-pitched twinkle. Gradually, deeper and more resonant tones take over, turning the atmosphere from wondrous to ominous. Other tracks, like “Mountain Wind,” start with sonorous, sinister rumbles that blossom into a radiant spectrum of pitches.

Just as the gossamer, shapeshifting hum of the aeolian harp is driven by the ways that wind interacts with the instrument, Adams follows that organic motion in sculpting his compositions. Closer “Anabatic Wind” makes the most compelling use of the natural ebb and flow of the air through the harp’s strings, sounding like a mellowed-out windchime. Different pitches glow and fade, climbing and falling with ease. It’s vibrant and pulsing, venturing from dark tones into a final shimmer of hope.

While the same field recording is the source for each of these pieces, the end results vary considerably. Subtle contradictions connect them: They’re in constant motion yet feel suspended in mid-air, tranquil yet uneasy, warm yet icy. Sometimes, these differences coexist and suggest a feeling of serenity, while at other points, the music feels wispy and slightly unsettling. But that unease often dissipates, once again finding balance between moments of optimism and despair, richness and translucence.

Adams has often mused about the ways music and activism relate to each other. To him, they’re inseparable—writing music is his way of advocating for the Earth. Given its direct link to the elements, Houses of the Wind feels like an overt statement about the relationship between music and the environment. Yet as in all his work, the result is impressionistic, not didactic. Amorphous as they are, these renderings are a powerful reminder that the planet is alive around us.

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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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John Luther Adams - Houses of the Wind Music Album Reviews John Luther Adams - Houses of the Wind Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Tuesday, June 28, 2022 Rating: 5

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