In a single-track, album-length work, the composer John Luther Adams has made a stunning soundtrack for contemporary life – it shimmers with a restraint, it play with – and in and around – silences. Under the baton of Ludovic Morlot the Seattle Symphony gives life to the Alaskan composer’s cold, detached work.
I say cold and detached – but that’s Adams’ process – that’s what he’s aiming for. And as far as nearly-apocalyptic soundtracks go this is wonderful, and largely because it isn’t in any way bombastic. This is methodical, long, slow arcs of sound that move towards their conclusion, their crescendo. In fact the album works as a series of moments between each crescendo, the music always moving but only ever growing incrementally; there are no huge surges, no lunging, no dive down into the ocean – only the soundtrack for the toe in the water. And then the full submergence from there – step by step, slow, purposeful.
It would be understandable to listen to this and almost come away having heard nothing – having not heard a music as such. But to spend time with this – repeat plays recommended – is to discover classical music as ambient music, ambient music as classic – no divide in fact. They are, here, one and the same. The power is (always) in the restraint. In the hints. In the anticipation.
I’m reminded of the opening movement of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (the “symphony of sorrowful songs”). I’m reminded of George Fenton’s score for The Blue Planet – but without any of the impact of the crescendos there. It’s as if, somehow those two distinct pieces, the Fenton, the Gorecki, were draped over one another. And the result, with a Philip Glass-like patience, is this extraordinary album. Best listened to on headphones – with the world at least at some distance from you. This is the tonic. This is what you need – it’s somehow a damning sum-up of where we are on this planet, and simultaneously a soothing, restful, meditative experience.