This may be the year that composers collectively put a bird on it. First, we had Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong, then Saariaho’s Terrestre, now we have John Luther Adams’s Songbirdsongs.
But it’s the latter that may also prove to be the most ambitious work of the flock to take flight. Despite being what the composer himself considers to be the first work of his catalog (it was written between 1974 and 1980), this eponymous album for Mode Records is its first time on CD. It’s a breath of life into a thirtysomething work that has long been considered seminal for its spontaneous performance instructions and strict adherence to birdcalls. Liberation coincides with the laws of nature.
It’s also one of those works that, like the composer’s Inuksuit, has to be seen to be believed. It’s a transporting, immersive, encircling experience (seen last fall in New York at Galapagos Art Space courtesy of Le Train Bleu) that requires total sensory surrender. However, under the direction of Stephen Drury, the Callithumpian Consort brings a vibrancy and vividness to the work in its recorded state. It never sounds lovelier than “Mourning Dove,” a section with deep sonorities and an unsettlingly placid, enveloping echo that settles over like mist or a wooly blanket.
Equally strong is closing movement “Evensong,” an echo of the opening “Wood Thrush” but with a contrast in light and percussiveness to signal the end of a 40-minute cycle. Offering a concluding treat is the New England Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble under John Heiss with a more melodic turn by the composer, Strange Birds Passing. Lithe and lyrical as it is, it’s a bit of a cheeky nod to the preceding work, an emotionally and thematically varied bestiary.