Letter from Alaska-Song of the Earth
By Alex Ross
The New Yorker (full article - May 12, 2008 issue)
By the nineteen-nineties, Adams had begun to carve out a singular body of work, which can be sampled on recordings on the New World, New Albion, Cold Blue, Mode, and Cantaloupe labels. First came a conceptual Alaskan opera entitled "Earth and the Great Weather,â€? much of which is given over to the chanting of place-names and descriptive phrases from the native Inupiaq and Gwichâ€™in languages, both in the original and in translation. One mesmerizing section describes various stages of the seasons: â€œThe time of new sunshine,â€? â€œThe time when polar bears bring out their young,â€? â€œ The time of the small wind,â€? â€œThe time of eagles.â€? The music runs from pure, ethereal sonorities for stringsâ€”tuned in a scheme similar to that of the Aurora Bells in â€œThe Placeâ€?â€”to viscerally pummelling movements for quartets of drums.
In the next decade, Adams further explored the sonic extremes that he had mapped out in his opera. â€œIn the White Silence,â€? a seventy-five-minute piece for harp, celesta, vibraphones, and strings, is derived from the seven notes of the C-major scale; in a striking feat of metaphor, the composer equates the consuming whiteness of midwinter Alaska with the white keys of the piano. â€œStrange and Sacred Noise,â€? another seventy-five-minute cycle, evokes the violence of changing seasons: four percussionists deploy drums, gongs, bells, sirens, and mallet percussion to summon up an alternately bewitching and frightening tableau of musical noises, most of which were inspired by a trip that Adams took up the Yukon River in spring, when the ice was collapsing. Whether unabashedly sweet or unremittingly harshâ€”"Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing,â€? a memorial to the composerâ€™s father, manages to be both at onceâ€”Adamsâ€™s major works have the appearance of being beyond style; they transcend the squabbles of contemporary classical music, the unending arguments over the relative value of Romantic and modernist languages.