Contemporary Music / New York Arts

John Luther Adams’ “Ten Thousand Birds” Performed by Alarm Will Sound under Alan Pierson at PS 21

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John Luther Adams. Photo Donald Lee.
John Luther Adams. Photo Donald Lee.

August 7, 4pm

John Luther Adams – Ten Thousand Birds
Alarm Will Sound, Alan Pierson, Director
Conceived and designed by Alan Pierson
Directed by Alan Pierson with Ashley Tata
Production design by Gavin Chuck
Staging by Peter Ferry

Elena Siyanko, Executive Director of PS21, in her introductory comments preceding Alarm Will Sound‘s performance of John Luther AdamsTen Thousand Birds, said that this event has been in the works for a year. Its purpose, conceived months before there was any hint in people’s minds that the performance would occur under the restrictions imposed by the pandemic which continues without an end in sight, at least in the United States. The particular features of the new performance structure and the determination and resourcefulness of Ms. Siyanko and her staff have made PS21 a pioneer in offering live performances under safe conditions. The performance of Ten Thousand Birds was intended to showcase the new PS21 and its new semi-open performance space to the public. The beautiful grounds surrounding it are in integral part of its design and function in a way quite different from Tanglewood and SPAC, where lawns simply provide expanded seating for those who prefer to be out in the open.

I’ll say a few words about John Luther Adams, since his music has been somewhat less-often  performed in this nature-loving pocket of the world than in, say, New York or Los Angeles. My own far from complete records include only a 2015 performance by the BSO at Tanglewood under Ludovic Morlot, who was Music Director of the Seattle Symphony at the time and therefore likely have some familiarity with Adams’ music, since he was, until he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014, as a 40-year resident of northern Alaska, to some degree regarded as a regional composer in the Pacific Northwest. Interestingly, the Ditson Music Festival, held in Boston in 2009, well before the Pulitzer, included one of his works. Since then, John Luther Adams has been prominent on concert programs around the world, only somewhat less so north of New York City. Given the dominance of Tanglewood’s Contemporary Music Festival in our area, it is significant that PS21 is bringing in a different repertoire. In completing the local landscape of contemporary music, I should mention the academic year concerts at Bard College, both in Annandale-on-Hudson and at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, the Albany Symphony, the Five College New Music Festival, and the wonderful Yellow Barn centered around Putney, Vermont.

Born in eastern Mississippi in 1953, John Luther Adams grew up in the South and the New York City area. Although he studied music, composition in particular, at the California Institute of the Arts (BFA 1973), he was drawn into the environmental movement. He traveled to Alaska in 1975 to campaign for the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and settled there in 1978 as Director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Even before then birdsong was an important material in his work, which was formed by his passion for nature, concern for the environment, and fascination with genius loci as inspiration. He did not give up music, however, and soon became the most prominent composer in Alaska. Eventually he decided that he could accomplish more for the environment and for people through his music than through administration. His Pulitzer brought him to national and international attention, and he has since lived in the deserts of Mexico, Chile, and the American Southwest.

Adams designed Ten Thousand Birds for flexible spaces, either closed or open or a combination of both. Musicians and audience are intended to coexist in a dynamic, changing relationship, that is, to be free to move around. What could be more fitting for PS21’s intimate new “performance shed”? (But what a potential nightmare for conditions of social distancing. Thanks to imaginative, careful planning and the discipline of PS21’s committed audience, it was possible to bring this off.)

As Adams said in his note to the score:

Each piece in this folio is a self-contained “place” that occupies its own physical space and its own time. The instruments of each piece/place should be relatively near each other, except where otherwise noted. A piece/place may begin as soon as the minimum number of required instruments is present and may continue as long as the minimum number of instruments is present. 

Pieces may be combined, simultaneously and sequentially, to create varied performances. A performance should encompass the largest possible physical space. There should be moments when all or most of the available instruments are playing as many different pieces in as many different locations as possible. Conversely, there should be moments when only a single piece is being performed in a single location. Musicians are encouraged to move around and among the listeners and listeners should be free to move around and among the musicians. 

The size of the ensemble and the duration of a performance may be tailored to the specific site and occasion. It is not necessary to play all the pieces in this collection. It’s not even necessary to play all the musical material within a particular piece. However, symphonic-scale performances with many musicians are encouraged. And even with smaller ensembles, performances are most appropriately staged as complete concert-length events. 

There should be moments when all or most of the available instruments are playing as many different pieces in as many different locations as possible. Conversely, there should be moments when only a single piece is being performed in a single location. 

In this way, the organization, or “topology/topgoraphy” of the work is unified with the performance space and the way the musicians choose to inhabit it. The music is as flexible as the performance indications:

All the sounds in this music are specifically notated. However, the moment-to-moment sequence of events is not fixed. There is no master score. In the tradition of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison’s “performance kits”, this folio of unbound pages is an atlas of musical possibilities for performers to use in creating their own unique realisations of the music. 

The sequence of phrases on the page does not necessarily imply the sequence of events in performance. Musicians are free to choose when and for how long to play each phrase and rest, within the broad guidelines provided. There is no rhythmic coordination between instruments, except where specifically noted.

The score consists of musical annotations of bird calls, intended to be selected according the prevalent species of the place in which the work is to be performed, mostly in an order determined by the performers. Adams provides several pages of suggestions in this regard, without binding performers to any of them. Alan Pierson and Alarm Will Sound commissioned Ten Thousand Birds as a performance piece. They premiered it and have performed it on several occasions since, including Morningside Park in New York City. This performance was the Upstate New York premiere. Here Mr. Pierson followed one of Adams’ suggested plans of performing the birdsong segments as they might occur over the course of a 24-hour cycle, from pre-dawn to dawn. In this scheme, over 70 performing minutes, the sounds reach a dynamic climax in the middle of the night and return to a modified version of the musical content, color, and texture which opened the piece. Traditional harmony plays no role that I could detect in the structure of the work, but an active one in the color and expression of individual bird calls, repeated many times when they “come on stage”, as they are in nature and in their classic implementations, beginning, in the standard repertory, with Haydn and Beethoven. Some calls, for example, had predominant cast of the minor mode, which affected the mood of that section of the music.

The effect on the listener of Ten Thousand Birds is mesmeric, whether the listener chooses to move around or stay in one place. I felt no urge to rise from my seat, but I thought that, especially as a reviewer, I shouldn’t neglect this invitation to spatial participation. I’m glad I did. And PS21’s audio system made it possible to hear every note in a convincing balance, whether the player(s) or I were inside the building or on the surrounding grass.

This was a rich and fulfilling experience of PS21 and its building as a musical instrument, set, and work of art.

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