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CD Review

John Luther Adams

In the White Silence

Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble/Tim Weiss
New World Records 80600-2 DDD 75:15
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John Luther Adams, not to be confused with "plain old" John Adams (the composer of Nixon in China and El Niño) has lived in Alaska since the late 1970s. His interest in the natural world has melded with his compositional influences (Feldman, most saliently) to produce an increasingly interesting body of work. Adams's interest in what he calls "sonic geography" – "the notion of music as place and place as music" – has led him to interpret barren, snowy Alaskan landscapes much as Claude Debussy interpreted seascapes in La Mer.

In the White Silence, completed in 1998 and written in memory of his mother, Adams uses the work's uninterrupted length as a metaphor for the unbroken whiteness of the Arctic landscape. Perhaps this sounds like a recipe for monotony, but just as there are infinite shades of white (Adams writes in the score's preface that "whiteness embraces many hues, textures, and nuances"), there are infinite shades in Adams's score. Even though it maintains a fairly quiet dynamic level throughout, In the White Silence is given immense variety through scoring, texture, and emotional warmth. Traditionally, a musical climax is reached through the emotionally loaded swell of dynamics or harmonic resolution. In the White Silence probably has as many as climaxes as Beethoven's "Eroica," for example, and like the "Eroica," it uses short-term climaxes as stepping stones to reach larger ones… to the point where the larger ones might even be hidden. As a result, In the White Silence has a beautifully "terraced" feel which probably becomes all the more apparent the more that one hears it. That statement also is true of the work's overall structure, which can be described as a large-scale rondo.

The work is scored for strings (both a string orchestra and a quartet, spatially separated), vibraphones, celesta, bells, and harp. The division of strings, in particular, creates the opportunity for concerto grosso-like effects. The scoring maximizes the luminous potential of Adams's material. The music manages to balance the pretty with the bleak, and the cerebral with the emotional. Its extended length and fixation with sonority certainly recall the work of Morton Feldman, but Adams's more sensuous timbres remind me of Harold Budd.

In the White Silence was composed for and premièred by the musicians who perform it here. In fact, this is a live recording from November 11, 1998 – the première performance? Regardless, the audience is (raptly?) silent, and the performance is characterized by the musicians' unbroken concentration and sensitivity.

Fine engineering and New World's typically complete booklet notes make this CD an essential purchase for those with a taste for smart post-Minimalist dreamscapes.

Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle