Strange and Sacred Noise
John Luther Adams
About this work:
Six pieces for percussion quartet.
Form is idealized space. Sound is audible time. Form defines a context. Sound embodies the presence of the moment.
As in much of my music, the musical forms of Strange and Sacred Noise are large, simple and symmetrical. Overall symmetry helps me break free of the conventions of composition by relationship.
Symmetry is predictable: One equals one. It neutralizes questions about where a piece is "going", or what will happen next. If the next sound is inevitable, then it's free to stand only for itself. Without the expectations of narrative development or "the element of surprise", both the composer and listener are free simply to listen to the music.
Composing within audible forms and processes, as James Tenney once succintly put it: "The composer isn't privy to anything."
Although I feel free to break the symmetry at any time, I try to do so primarily in response to the physical characteristics of the instruments, or to practical realities of performance and notation, rather than to my own ideas of what should happen next. Morton Feldman did this with an exquisite touch. He called his forms "crippled symmetry". (In fact, that's the title of one of his later works.) I think this is also something of what Barnett Newman meant when he spoke of "busting the geometry" in his paintings.
I want my music to have both formal rigor and visceral impact. Through the discipline of a simple, overall formal symmetry, I hope to move beyond self-expression and the limits of my own imagination, to a deeper awareness of the sound itself.
Ocassionally, I feel compelled to break the form, in order to transcend it. But as both listener and composer, I'm most deeply moved when the music has little or nothing to do with personal expression.
In Strange and Sacred Noise, my interest was not in sending messages, but in receiving them. This is not music as communication, but music as communion.
At times during the seven years in which I worked on this cycle, I wondered whether this was music at all. Its dynamics range from the threshold of audibility to the threshold of pain. It embraces unsettling timbres and virtually the entire audible spectrum of sound. Its dense, nearly-static fields of sound seem to invite boredom. But my touchstone throughout was a deepening faith in the power of noise as a vehicle of transformation and revelation.
Ultimately, I've come to regard the six sections of Strange and Sacred Noise not so much as musical compositions or pieces, but as places...places for listening, places in which to experience the elemental mystery of noise.
Much of this music is loud. It buzzes the eardrums, rattles the ribcage, and immerses the listener an overwhelming physical presence of sound. Some of that presence is not actually written on the page. It arises spontaneously in the air, through the dynamic interplay of complex, high-energy sounds -- (thundering drums, roaring tam-tams, hammered bells, wailing sirens)-- the acoustics of the performance space, and the psycho-acoustics of our own hearing.
If Strange and Sacred Noise asks unusual attentiveness of the listener, it places extraordinary demands on the performers -- both musically and physically. It demands unflinching intensity of concentration, sustained, vigorous athleticism and, at times, the quiet intensity and slow equipoise of Yoga or Tai Chi. Although a performance of this music is visually and sonically dramatic, this is not so much theater as it is ritual -- a ceremony in search of a shared experience of transcendance.
The strange power of noise can open doorways to the ecstatic. Musical traditions throughout the world have explored this power for centuries. My own most powerful experience of this has been through the all-night drumming, chant and dance ceremonies of the Iñupiat and Yup'ik Eskimo peoples -- ceremonies which demonstrably alter the consciousness of listeners and participants, through the rapid and insistent reiteration of loud, acoustically-complex sounds.
Beyond the usual expressive associations of "musical" sounds, noise touches and moves us in profound ways. Through its sheer physicality, noise commands our attention and breaks down the barriers we construct between ourselves and awareness. Immersed in the enveloping presence of elemental noise, in the fullness of the present moment, we just may begin to hear, with the whole of the self, something of the inaudible totality of sound.
From an essay by John Luther Adams.
Year composed: 1997
Ensemble type: Chamber or Jazz Ensemble, Without Voice:Percussion Ensembles
Instrumentation: 4 Percussion (General)