The nature of music
John Luther Adams brings his “Inuksuit” to the Ojai Music Festival
By Benjamin Pearson 06/07/2012
This year, Ojai will kick off its 66th Annual Music Festival with an event inspired by an unlikely landscape for the beginning of a California summer: the Alaskan wilderness. Composer John Luther Adams’ innovative percussion piece “Inuksuit” — which takes its name from the stone structures used by native peoples of the Arctic as guideposts for navigation — will make its West Coast première as a performance that’s free and open to the community. With 45 percussionists and three piccolo players moving throughout Libbey Park and downtown Ojai, “Inuksuit” promises to be a listening experience like no other — even for those who might have seen it before, since the piece changes for each performance.
“Inuksuit” began as a sort of offshoot of collaborations between Adams and his frequent collaborator Steven Schick, the director of the Ojai performance, in which they took pieces Adams had composed for indoor venues to outdoor landscapes in Alaska, where Adams has lived since the late ’70s. The solitary stone markers began to serve as symbols of humankind’s relationship with nature. “They mark the passing, the moving of human beings through the landscape over time. To me, that’s a haunting image of our presence on the earth,” says Adams.
Understandably, that image wasn’t necessarily positive. “I was thinking a lot these days about climate change and other human-created disasters that seem to be looming on the horizon. To me, inuksuit are a kind of haunting symbol of our presence in the world. I wondered about the melting of the ice and the rising of the seas while I was working on the piece, and about what might remain of our presence after everything is swept away.”
While Inuksuit’s origins might be entwined with much colder climates — the piece was first performed at the Banff Center in Alberta, Canada — the work isn’t made to evoke the Arctic, but rather to interact with the outdoor environment at hand, whether it’s a natural park or a block in Manhattan. Ojai’s performance might have 48 musicians, but the most integral component will be the landscape of Libbey Park itself. “It’s about finding the music of inuksuit in the never-ending music of the place in which it is performed,” says Adams.
To find that music of place, a complex process of customization occurs to tailor “Inuksuit” to each new performance environment. “There are guidelines that describe in general terms how the performers should be arranged, but then it’s about using those guidelines as constraints or conditions at the site to create a unique performance,” says Adams. The musicians’ paths as they fan out during the piece’s 80 minutes aren’t the only thing unique to each performance: the ensemble can range from nine to 99 musicians, and even the notes themselves change somewhat to mimic local birdsong.
While Adams often assists in this process — he’s examined pictures and video of the Libbey Bowl and Park — it’s ultimately the director of each performance who is responsible for translating the piece onto each site’s unique space. Happily for the Ojai Music Festival, that task falls to festival director Tom Morris and someone who Adams says just might understand the “Inuksuit” even better than the composer himself: percussionist and conductor Steven Schick, Adams’ closest friend and collaborator, for whom he wrote the piece as a wedding present in 2009. “My wife and I registered for earth-changing, monumental pieces of percussion music at Crate and Barrel,” jokes Schick.
Schick describes the piece as a sort of “combination between a sound sculpture and a piece of music.” Like sculpture, physical space is central to “Inuksuit.” Adams modeled the score pages on drawings he made of imaginary inuksuit and, according to Schick, “the shape of the notes really looks like those sculptures.” The shape of the performance itself is also unique. Starting from the middle of the park, the musicians will radiate out in three concentric circles. The outer group will play nontraditional instruments that evoke wind and bells, including conch shells and sirens. The middle circle will play traditional drums (seven apiece!) while the innermost circle will play metal instruments like cymbals, gongs and glockenspiels to mimic local birdsong.
“I’ve been in a couple of “Inuksuit” performances where the birds even sang back,” said Schick, illustrating just how deeply “Inuksuit” can intertwine with its surroundings. As the musicians scatter throughout the park, audience members won’t always be able to see, or even hear, all of the performers simultaneously. “You hear the music literally grow out of the sounds of the earth, and it feels like the piece goes off endlessly into the distance. It makes for surprisingly emotional moments.”
Since its premiere in 2009, “Inuksuit” has created sometimes-startling bonds between both performers and audience members. When famed music critic Alex Ross saw the piece performed in New York, he noted that many couples began making out. “While we can’t forecast that you’ll find your soulmate if you don’t already have one,” Schick cautions, “you know, it has happened.”
But what’s near-guaranteed, according to both Schick and Adams, is that the performance will create unique bonds between its participants. While composing, Adams was thinking of solitary individuals. “There’s no concerted music in this piece, there’s nothing that everyone plays together in unison at the same time.” Thus, he says, he “wasn’t prepared for the extraordinary sense of community that arises from this piece. In part, that comes from the unusual degree of cooperation for the musicians to put together a successful performance of the piece. You can’t just walk in and go to the stands and have everybody play. It’s not like a conventional piece of music in that sense.”
It’s not just performers who experience what Adams calls a “community arising out of solitude.” Like the composer, who considers himself an individualist and not a member of any particular musical school, “everybody is actively involved in shaping their own experience.” Some audience members may “root themselves in one location and let the music move around them” and others “may follow an individual player as that player moves.” Many “just follow their ears and wander around freely.”
And yet, he says, “There will be these moments in which strangers will be standing next to one another and suddenly a drummer starts to drum for the first time, and there’s this moment of surprise, recognition — you see people smiling at each other because they accidentally shared this experience.”
“The piece began in solitude, as my music usually does, but it ends in community.”
Ojai Music Festival, June 7-10. For additional information and tickets, call 646-2053 or visit www.ojaifestival.org.