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Music of Landscape and Sculpture

Music of Landscape and Sculpture

September 5, 2020

In August of 2019, composer John Luther Adams and the New York based JACK Quartet delivered an inspired performance at Tippet Rise, which included the composer’s first string quartet, The Wind In High Places, and the fifth string quartet, Lines Made By Walking. The latter is a Tippet Rise commission, written for the JACK Quartet, and as the composer says, “This music evolved slowly at three miles an hour over this beautiful terrain.”

Produced by Zachary Patten
Recorded and mixed by Monte Nickles
Photo by Erik Petersen

Songbirdsongs mvmt. 5 Mourning Dove
Composed by John Luther Adams
Performed by Sandbox Percussion, marimba; Jessica Sindell, Martha Aarons, Zachary Patten, John Luther Adams, ocarinas

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Composed by John Luther Adams
Performed by Vicky Chow and Doug Perkins


00:03 MELISSA MOORE: Welcome to the Tippet Rise podcast, brought to you from Tippet Rise Art Center, located on a 12,000 acre ranch in Fishtail, Montana, just north of Yellowstone National Park. I’m Melissa Moore. At Tippet Rise, we celebrate the synergy of art, architecture, music, and nature, out of which we weave our identities. The Tippet Rise podcast explores these connections. This month’s episode, produced by Zachary Patten, takes us to the recent JACK Quartet performance of John Luther Adams’ first string quartet, The Wind in High Places, and the world premiere of his fifth string quartet, Lines Made By Walking, which was commissioned by Tippet Rise. The long time collaborators discuss what draws them to each other as well as the fulfilling process of creating and sharing new music.

01:29 JLA: Well, I’m trying to learn to listen, myself. This is a process of discovery for me in which, if I’m doing my job well, if I’m listening carefully, if I’m hearing things I haven’t heard before, then maybe I’m able to somehow share that with you through the music and you have a different, but related, experience. I was sort of finding my way through this musical landscape. This thing that is bigger than any of us are.

02:07 I never had any interest in writing string quartets until I met the JACK and, at fifty eight, I composed the first quartet, The Wind in High Places. And, I think that was all about tuning. The JACK Quartet does so many things so well but, one thing in particular that they do better than any string players I’ve ever heard is play in tune. Playing in tune means different things in different musical contexts. In the context of my first string quartet, it’s this world of the open strings and the natural harmonic series.

03:04 I think that came out of my work in the arctic for a number of years with aeolian harps, with wind harps. Let me explain how a wind harp works. It’s a bunch of strings. Conventionally, they’re tuned in unison. They’re all tuned to the same pitch, which provides enough critical mass, sonically, that we hear the singing of the harmonic series, the natural overtone series. It’s a little harp, I could hold it up, sit it on my head, hold it between my two hands and be kind of a weather vane out there on the tundra. Move, dance, with the wind and catch it as it came across the tundra from different places. And I began there, making unison tunings of this harp.

04:05 What an extraordinary experience that was to be in the middle of this windswept treeless place, four hundred miles from a road, with my best friends. To stand there on the tundra with this singing box on my head and hear this music come out of the sky, and down through my head and through my body and back into the earth. There’s just something magical. It probably sounds like some sort of new-age, shaman fantasy, but I can tell you it’s magic and not just conceptually magic, physically magic, aurally magic. I think that had a huge influence on my work and continues to - those experiences of listening to the wind on the tundra.

05:08 So after beginning with unison tunings, then I started thinking - I think this harp had maybe twenty two string courses and there were maybe 24 strings on each course. Then I started playing with tuning one side, one course of strings, on a “C,” let’s say, and then the other on a “G”. I just played with various tunings and I realized there was a whole theory of harmony that came out of superimposing the harmonic series on itself, at different intervals. And I’ve been exploring that harmonic territory ever since.

05:46 The JACK gets this, not only intellectually, conceptually, they get it through their ears. They’re feeling the same thing I was experiencing with aeolian harp on my head on the tundra.

06:02 JOHN PICKFORD RICHARDS: I think that JACK and John have a really deep mutual interest in the overtone series, just the natural sounds from the earth. We’ve been obsessed with it just ourselves. My name is John Pickford Richards, I play the viola in the JACK Quartet.

06:25 It’s really fun to play that kind of intonation on string instruments because it lends itself very naturally to strings. And John composes using these concepts in his music so that, not just the sound itself, but the structure of the piece is based around the overtone series. We are naturally drawn to each other and I think that him seeing our interest in it inspires him to write more for the string quartet.

06:59 JLA: That is what lead me to fall in love with the JACK Quartet. I thought, “Wow, these guys can do this, they can do anything!” But it started with the tuning.

07:11 JAY CAMPBELL: Generally with just intonation, I think all string players have some level of interest in it by following their intuitions and following the actual sensation of how tones interact. It’s something that we’re all familiar with whether we are aware of it or not or have the vocabulary to speak about it. My name is Jay Campbell, I play cello in the JACK Quartet. When I was still in school at Juilliard, I had played a few pieces that highlighted different aspects of intonation and how that can be harnessed for a creative artistic experience.

07:49 Since joining the JACK, I’ve gotten my toes a little bit more into the deep end of it. And so it’s fun to have more of a handle around it and be able to speak about it with three other people who really share the same interest in it. So I guess it’s something that’s really grown with me as I’ve been playing in a quartet longer.

08:09 JLA: The Wind in High Places is in three movements each of which invokes a particular moment and place in Alaska where I shared a special experience with my friend, Gordon. Gordon was a conductor, my sauna buddy, my next door neighbor, a composer, and a violinist.

08:32 So the first one is Above Sunset Pass. That’s a place up in the Sadlerochit Mountains, the farthest north mountains in Alaska. Gordon, my wife Cynthia, my friend Dennis and I spent an afternoon up in this high bowl in shared solitude. We were each wandering off in our own spaces and the light was perfect and the wind was just barely there. And there was this feeling of never wanting to leave that moment and that place. I love that idea that music is a kind of nostalgia for the present. This is so beautiful I never want it to end, I never want to leave.

09:22 The first movement with these elongating descending figures somehow to me invoke that light, that moment the feeling of being in that high place.

09:35 The second one comes from the central Alaska range. This place high at Maclaren summit, where Gordon and I would go every spring and camp for a few days. The wind always blows in this place. The only question is which direction and how strong is it - it’s always there! If the first movement we are playing with harmonics up and down the lengths of the strings, then the second, Maclaren Summit, the musicians are playing up and down the strings but they’re also playing across the strings. Up and down with these rapid figurations that begin fairly long and then get shorter and shorter towards the middle almost as though the wind kicks up and you’ve got these gusts, whirlwinds, and eddys of wind happening here and there.

10:34 In the music barn here, I thought the acoustic was just perfect for it because there’s that beautiful wooden ceiling and it’s high enough that the sound was swirling above us.

10:57 And then the third one is called Looking Toward Hope and it really is a love song for my buddy, Gordon. He was my next door neighbor in the woods outside of Fairbanks for many years and I was his timpanist in the Fairbanks Symphony. Then he decided to retire. And he moved into the Chugach Mountains south of Anchorage, high up on a ridge above Turnagain Arm. When he checked out without consulting me, we found him curled up on his deck around his favorite Birch tree. He has built the deck around the tree. He would not cut this tree! And that’s where he lay down to take his last breath. And we found him and his eyes were open and he was looking across the water toward this little microscopic settlement called Hope. So that’s where the title comes from, Looking Toward Hope. Whereas the first movement descends, this one spirals upward. It begins on the low C string of the cello and it’s just this song-like phrase that expands and gets shifted to different instruments on different fundamentals and gradually evaporates, rising upward, looking toward Hope.

13:05 CHRIS OTTO: I think there’s a really interesting contrast between The Wind in High Places and Lines Made By Walking. I think The Wind in High Places has more of that monolithic quality, where it’s inspired by the arctic and the snow in the huge landscape that unfolds at its own pace.

13:23 Hi, I’m Chris Otto. I play violin in the JACK Quartet. I think there’s a human side to it and a poingency that comes from the human performers realizing it, but it has a sense of serenity and inevitability, whereas Lines Made By Walking has this sense of human interaction with nature and it really conveys the idea of climbing a mountain, walking along the mountain, and the kind of ecstasy and powerful feelings that you get, feeling your body move.

13:52 AUSTIN WULLIMAN: I do like having a real physical connection to playing, a real embodied approach to pieces, and this piece invites that in a beautiful way.

14:02 I’m Austin Wulliman and I’m a violinist in the JACK Quartet. In each quartet, there’s a different way that we’re asked to approach sound and embrace that physicality in performance. It’s something that’s innate for me in the way that I approach things and really tied to this piece. So like thinking about the way that we use the bow, whether it’s with a compact and connected sound or something free-flowing and open, or the way that it affects phrasing, and the way that opens up into these bigger concepts and feelings in the piece, is what I’m interested in.

14:42 JC: I feel a very quiet internal determination in this piece. It repeats itself and it cycles a lot with a very similar line the whole time. It really feels like you’re looking a great distance and you have a long-term goal in mind. Sort of like taking a really long walk or hike, each step is not really the point of why you’re there. You’re going through a process and you always have your eyes a little bit further than maybe you usually would.

15:16 JLA: I composed this piece last summer and into the fall and it really came out of my experience of walking all over these glorious twelve thousand acres: the canyons, the hills, the fields. This music evolved slowly at three miles an hour over this beautiful terrain. I would walk in the afternoons and evenings and then get up in the morning and go into the studio and compose.

15:44 JC: I find it interesting in this piece how you get simultaneously hypnotized by your own individual line and other people’s lines around you. But, just because of the polyrhythmic framework, it’s a tempo canon, every single time you play it, it’s recontextualized by everyone else’s part. So it’s this kind of ever-shifting kaleidoscope of the same lines being perpetually played in different tempos and combinations of things.

16:12 JPR: We hear the quartet drifting, canonically, at different tempos and then occasionally coming together as those patterns come together. The amount of time that it takes for these processes to unfold becomes meditative.

16:27 CO: I think there’s varying degrees of presence and engagement and zooming in versus zooming out that work really well in John’s music. It’s very hard to be completely one hundred percent in the moment every moment of the entire duration of this half-hour long piece. I think it’s interesting to notice your own conscious state and see where you start to focus in and zoom in on one instrument or one pair of instruments; Or noticing this shape is happening; there’s an extreme of register here or it’s a concentration of register here. But then also letting it wash over you to a certain extent and your mind might go places. I think that’s totally acceptable, too. Part of the experience of this piece is having a duration where you can get into it and you can also come out of it. You can think other thoughts and this kind of thing happens as you’re hiking, too. You’re surrounded by this beautiful nature and you’re observing it, but there are also moments where the mind starts to get triggered by something. It’s always related to what you’re hearing on some level but there’s enough space for all that to happen without the listener losing the thread of the music.

17:42 AW: You can be tuned in on that kind of micro-level or you can be tuned into the vibrations of the thing overall, and I think that’s really powerful in the music. It’s an interesting parallel with meditation to me, actually. You can be very granular in your mind and be very focused on the breath, or something, and feel every air go past your nose hairs and be all in that moment. But then, suddenly, you realize your mind has left you and you were in another space for who knows how long. I think this music can be like that for you. You can either be in there, in the weeds and discovering all the lines of the path or you can float in the atmosphere, in the clouds above the paths, and both work.

18:25 JLA: It’s shared solitude. Nobody else can listen for you and really you can’t fake it. You may pretend you’re listening and fake me out but you can’t fake yourself out. You’re either listening or you’re not. You feel all these people, all these individuals, each person having their own experience, taking their own walk Up the Mountain, Along the Ridges, and Down the Mountain. But, each one of them listening and then out of that sense of the shared solitude, emerges this other sense of community. For me, that’s a model of how we might be together in the world.

19:10 JPR: Part of what makes Lines Made By Walking unique, in the context of John’s other string quartets, is that it does use a very limited pitch collection. It really sits on it and dwells, which I think makes the pitches themselves become very sentimental. The harmonies get overlapped and the intervals become sentimental, but also tugging on your heart strings a little bit. At least that’s my personal interpretation of the effect of sitting in one tonal area for awhile or one overtone series.

19:40 JLA: Musically, the way the pieces work is the first one, Up The Mountain, is pentatonic. It’s five tones and it’s five tempo layers spinning these constantly ascending lines. And then when we get to the ridges in the second movement, and we’re walking Along the Ridges, the lines are going up and down, they’re crossing, and there’s six tones and six tempo layers.

20:04 JPR: I think one of the most interesting little details about this piece specifically is that we’ve almost doubled the tempos from the original tempo markings. Each movement has a very different character now than it did when we first started workshopping the piece. That’s one of the great luxuries of working with a living composer. You can receive a score and treat it like any other score by a classical composer, maybe like Beethoven, and treat it with respect. Then, get together with the composer and just turn it upside down.

20:39 AW: It’s hard because we are taught to look at these scores, when we see a score that looks basically done, to see it as a finished product. With music like this, it’s really an open book and the composer is with us trying to create his or her style in the moment. Really reaching for what’s next in their artistic expression that’s when these radical changes can happen like doubling the tempo. I had no idea it was going in that direction until we started playing it in rehearsal and we started pushing it faster and faster and faster, and suddenly the whole feel opened up. We stopped feeling the quarter notes and opened up into feeling whole bars as the tempo just changed the feeling of everything entirely.

21:18 JLA: On the page, the movements are exactly the same number of measures, they look like they should be the same length and, guess what, the composer thought they would be. And then we heard them in rehearsal and it became immediately apparent. They were just playing and we were listening and trying to feel how the lines wanted to sing and we discovered that the first movement really sounded better almost twice as fast as I had written it, and they get progressively slower. That makes some kind of sense just in terms of the density of the tonal material and the numbers of tones and tempo layers: 5,6,7. So it takes maybe a little more time, not only to play those things, but to hear them. In this case it was a total discovery of how these lines would best sing.

22:11 JC: The piece was originally generated with eight, nine, or ten lines and then he chipped away at it to make it playable on our individual instruments. So at any given point, even if two people are playing just two discrete lines, there is an invisible, unheard, framework behind it, where it’s a much more complex canon and he’s chiseling it to shape for our instruments for our playing.

22:37 JLA: I’ve been composing subtractively for a long time now. Jay is quite right. I think when I was younger, I was initially inspired by bird songs or by actual poetry. It was a more poetic approach to composition. Then I became kind of a landscape painter in music. Now I think I’m much more sculptural in the way that I think about composition, musical space, physical space, acoustic space, and volumetric space.

23:11 JC: There is a quote about sculpture being the act of, not creating, but liberating an image from its prison of marble. I think he actually wrote out ten lines of tempo canons and then when it did work in double stops, he would weave these lines in. So there’s this counterpoint that isn’t always present, which is cool because you get these glimpses into them. Say I’m holding an open string and I can play a secondary line on the adjacent string, you get this glimpse of a more dense or complex counterpoint that’s going on. Or, if all four of us are playing double stops that are in different tempos, so you’re kind of playing a weird tempo canon with yourself and you get this eight-voice polyphony.

23:55 JLA: You know I never thought I had much interest in polyphony. In a way, it seemed like something that had come to its peak in Europe a hundred or two hundred years ago. So I’ve always loved polyphony in Bach or Johannes Ockeghem, who’s like my favorite composer: fourteenth century Flemish composer. It seemed to me when I was younger that my world was about something else: It was about place, it was about landscape, it was about making these big musical worlds that we could inhabit and get lost in.

24:31 As I’m working now in the string quartet medium, in particular, I’ve begun to explore line. In Lines Made By Walking, I think I’ve discovered, for me, a different kind of polyphony, a different kind of counterpoint that’s a little more richly detailed texture. A little craggier than the lines in a lot of my music.

24:53 CO: It has a lot more of these kind of craggy, irregular, ups and downs. Overall, the pacing is pretty consistent within each movement but, locally, there’s all these little subtle differences of speeding up and slowing down. To me they convey the idea of the rocks where you’re going up and then down a little bit, but mostly up and there’s all these local contours.

25:18 JLA: Finally, when we come down the mountain in the third movement, we’ve got seven tones and seven tempo layers, and the lines are spiraling downward.

25:32 Somehow I have to believe that music can make us more deeply alive, more fully human. For me, being more fully human means not only more fully human in a humanistic way, but more fully animal, more fully present on the earth.

25:52 JC: John is so inspired and driven by the natural world around him. To experience that with him here and be able to live in the same place for four or five days is a very different experience than if we were just kind of slamming through it for a premiere in New York or something. This place feels like it gives me a larger context of why I’m playing this music and why I’m interested in it. I think that’s something very particular to here and doubly amplified to be doing it with John’s creative disposition, the things that influence him, and having all those things present.

26:31 JLA: This thing that we call music, like this incredible world that we live in is so much bigger than we are. The possibility for discovery is endless. I think it’s that sense of wonder, exploration, curiosity, and the possibility of discovery that keeps me going.

26:50 I think music in the face of everything: war, mass murder, climate change; music can still matter as music. My deepest longing is just to be here now, fully present and fully alive. Music is the most powerful way that I know of experiencing that. It does get to maybe the utility of this in cultural, societal terms. If we’re not looking back to some idealized past or we’re not looking ahead to some imaginary future, but if we’re fully present in the here and now and taking responsibility for our presence in the here and now, then maybe we deal with some of this stuff. Maybe we do make things better.