Banff premieres Alaskan composer's percussion music for the outdoors

Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams's new work, Inuksuit, which will debut Sunday at the Banff Centre for the Arts, is his first piece designed to be performed outdoors.

John Luther Adams composes for conch shell and white-throated sparrow

John Luther Adams and some of the musicians who will be playing in the Roots & Rhizomes concerts. ((Laura Vanags/Banff Centre for the Arts))

Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams's new work, Inuksuit, which will debut Sunday at the Banff Centre for the Arts, is his first piece designed to be performed outdoors.

"The piece begins with breathing and ends with the delicate sounds of bird sounds played on orchestra bells," Adams told CBC News. "In between, the ocean rises, and things get washed away."

The Inuksuit themselves are represented with drums and gongs, but the 18 percussionists to play in Sunday's performance will also play drums filled with rice and conch shells cut open to sound like trumpets.

It's part of a new approach to composition Adams is exploring — after being convinced it was time for him to compose specifically for the outdoors.

A few years ago, Adams heard his piece Strange and Sacred Noise played in the California desert and later in the woods of New Hampshire, a meadow in Ohio and the Alaskan tundra.

"That piece that indoors sounds so large and overpowering and even frightening, it's very different listening to it outdoors," he said. "As I listened, I was surprised by how much blew away in the wind."

Adams said many of his current works are "designed to ravish and sometimes ravage the listener with more sound than they can take in. It's a process of being in an enclosed space and being inside the sound."

Moving outdoors meant "that a whole different set of sounds is required, a different sense of sound and space, a different level of awareness," he added.

Work composed for Banff Centre's new percussion chorus

Inuksuit is the first work for percussion commissioned for the Banff Centre.

Percussion expert Steven Schick helped create a percussion chorus at Banff for the first time this year and part of the plan was to commission new works for the chorus. Adams, an old friend, is one of two composers he invited to Banff this summer.

Steven Schick (left) and John Luther Adams in Banff. ((Laura Vanags/Banff Centre for the Arts))

"The selection criteria were people whose music I liked and people I knew who would respond to the environment of Banff and being a player in the chorus aspect of things," Schick told CBC News.

The chorus, called Roots & Rhizomes, pulls together 25 active percussionists, all of them receptive to new forms of music, he said. They've been workshopping the piece.

"We all have a lot of experience fine-tuning sound in concert halls settings, but when you get outside, the situation changes rapidly. It's definitely a learning situation," he said.  

Adams, who lives in a cabin-studio outside Fairbanks, Alaska, says he's spent most of his creative life on the upper edge of the boreal forest, and his writing is influenced by the fragile ecology around him.

"That's my home; that's the landscape of my soul," he said. "Living up there we're on the front lines of climate change, and the markers are many and varied and undeniable."

"In a sense, this work is haunted by the possibility that, as human animals, we're staring our own extinction in the face."

No fixed score

The figure of the Inuksuit, created by northern peoples to show the passing of humans, is a vital presence in the music.

"To me, those figures on the Arctic coastal plain are haunting symbols of human vulnerability and exposure, and one can imagine as the polar ice melts and the seas rise and maybe we come to the end of our days as a species that those figures standing there are some of the last traces of human beings," Adams said.

Although the vision of this composition may be apocalyptic, he says the music is meant to incorporate the environment around it, including the sound of Goat Creek or the song of a white-throated sparrow.

Inuksuit is composed for anywhere from nine to 90 musicians. They have a folio of sounds, rather than a fixed score, that guides them through the pieces.

"Their job is to discover the music in the place, wherever the place may be," Adams said.

"I can't imagine a more appropriate place than Banff to premiere it, but this piece could be done in Central Park, and it will be a different piece in each different place."

After the solstice performance, Adams and the percussionists will take the work to Alberta's Kananaskis Country where it will be heard only by a select few listeners, the percussionists and the bears.

It will also be performed by a much larger ensemble in South Carolina later this year.