John Luther Adams's Glorious Outdoor Hymn Gets Studio Treatment

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Critical responses to live performances of John Luther Adams's Inuksuit – a percussionists’ symphony that is meant to envelop listeners in a given space – have mostly been written in the voice of “deep awe.” New Yorker critic Alex Ross described an indoor performance at the Park Avenue Armory as a “glory almost beyond description,” while the Chicago Sun Times’s Andrew Patner found himself unable to conceive of a venue better suited to the “outdoor” version of the piece than the one he heard at Millennium Park.

My own live-outdoor experience of Inuksuit, at New York’s Morningside Park, came courtesy of 99 musicians distributed across great distances (and at varying altitudes), and remains a specific memory that I’ll long cherish. And no: I’m not entirely able to put it into words, either.

A piece such as this one – ineffable yet fully present at all moments – is naturally going to pose a problem for a record label and stereo-mixdown engineer. But the team at Cantaloupe Records has gamely taken on the challenge with the first-ever release of Inuksuit, and gives us a strong reading of a piece that otherwise precludes, on purpose, the very idea of a “benchmark” or reference recording. (The physical edition of this recording also includes a surround-sound DVD version of Inuksuit, plus a documentary about Adams, titled "Strange and Sacred Noise.")

Divided into five “index cues” (or “tracks”), this version of Inuksuit lasts just under an hour. On the first “movement,” you’ll first hear nature sounds – shades of Adams’s environmental concerns – plus whirly-tube harmonies, and brief pitches from recorders. The second section adds bass drum-hits. These solo-percussive thuds gradually cohere into a riotously irregular, yet still ritual-feeling collective. The third and fourth portion of this recording is one long climax (helped along with cymbal drone), before the finale pivots back to lower-density rhythm patterns and nature sounds.

Do you have an hour to contemplate the various cycles of natural world – restive and peaceful alike? Sure you do! Just remember not to cram this experience into your morning commute, or in between conference calls. A performance of Inuksuit this good, from a group of 30-plus musicians – ably led by former So Percussion member Doug Perkins – works best when given as much attention as possible.

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