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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,� much of which is given over to the chanting of place-names and descriptive phrases from the native Inupiaq and Gwich’in languages, both in the original and in translation. One mesmerizing section describes various stages of the seasons: “The time of new sunshine,� “The time when polar bears bring out their young,� “ The time of the small wind,� “The time of eagles.� The music runs from pure, ethereal sonorities for strings—tuned in a scheme similar to that of the Aurora Bells in “The Place�—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. “In the White Silence,� 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. “Strange and Sacred Noise,� 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 harsh—"Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing,� a memorial to the composer’s father, manages to be both at once—Adams’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.