Lines Made by Walking   CB0058

The music

Two string quartets by composer John Luther Adams: Lines Made by Walking and untouched.

Lines Made by Walking is an intimate yet powerful three-movement work, and perhaps Adams’s most personal work of the past few years. It is virtuosic music that is ever in motion, ever ambling across the landscape, ever altering its perspective before the listener.

Adams writes about Lines:

“I’ve always been a walker. For much of my life I walked the mountains and tundra of Alaska. More recently it’s been the Mexican desert, the altiplano, quebradas, and mountain ridges of Chile, and the hills and canyons of Montana. Making my way across these landscapes at three miles an hour, I began to imagine music coming directly out of the contours of the land.

“I began work on my fifth string quartet, Lines Made by Walking(2019), by composing three expansive harmonic fields made up of tempo canons with five, six, and seven independent layers. (This is a technique I’ve used for years, in which a single melodic line is superimposed on itself at different speeds.) Once I’d composed these fields, I traced pathways across them. As I did this, each instrument of the quartet acquired a unique profile, transforming the strict imitative counterpoint of the tempo canons into intricately varied textures.

“In the mornings, in my studio, I would search for the most fluid and beautiful routes across my musical landscapes. In the afternoons, on my walks, I’d follow the contours of the land, along old tracks and animal trails or watersheds and ridgelines. In the process I discovered something approaching a true multi-voice polyphony—not so much through my fingers on the piano keyboard as through my feet, walking across open ground.”

untouched, in three movements, is delicate, entrancing string music that contains no normal stopped tones—all of its sounds are produced either as natural harmonics or on open strings.

The composer writes about untouched:

“I stood on the tundra, holding a small Aeolian harp on top of my head, dancing with the wind, turning like a weathervane. Music seemed to flow out of the sky—across the strings, down through my body, and into the earth. From that beginning, I’ve discovered a broad harmonic and melodic palette derived from superimposing the harmonic series on itself at different intervals.

“I composed my first piece for string quartet, The Wind in High Places(2011), when I was fifty-eight. As I wrote it, I imagined the quartet as a single sixteen-string Aeolian harp, with the music’s rising and falling lines and gusting arpeggios coming entirely from natural harmonics and open strings. My second string quartet, untouched(2016), was a further exploration of this sound world, with the fingers of the musicians still not touching their fingerboards.”

The composer

John Luther Adamswinner of a Pulitzer Prize in music (2014) and a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition (2015), was for many years based in Alaska, where his work derived much of its unique character from the landscape and weather of the Great North. About a half-dozen years ago, he moved from Alaska, living in various desert and mountain areas in South and Central America—places that also inspired and found expression in his music. He currently resides in rural New Mexico. 

Described by The New Yorker’s Alex Ross as “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century,” Adams composes for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and electronic media and has worked with many prominent performers and venues, including the Seattle Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the International Contemporary Ensemble, eighth blackbird, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Alarm Will Sound, the California EAR Unit, Bang on a Can, Percussion Group Cincinnati, Other Minds, the Sundance Institute, Almeida Opera, SFJazz, and the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic.

Adams has written three books: Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020), Winter Music: Composing the North (Wesleyan University Press), and The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music (Wesleyan University Press). A book of essays about his music, The Farthest Place: The Music of John Luther Adams, was issued by University Press of New England. He has taught at Harvard, Oberlin, Bennington College, and the University of Alaska; been composer in residence with numerous ensembles and festivals; and served as president of the American Music Center. He has received numerous awards and grants, including the Heinz Award for his contributions to raising environmental awareness. His music has been released by a number of record labels, including Cold Blue, which has seven CDs devoted to his work, including Everything That Rises (CB0051), The Wind in High Places (CB0041), Four Thousand Holes (CB0035), Red Arc/Blue Veil (CB0026), the place we began (CB0032), The Light that Fills the World (CB0010), and two of his shorter works appear on the anthologies Adams/Cox/Fink/Fox (CB0009) and Cold Blue Two (CB0036). 

“Adams’s major works have the appearance of being beyond style; they transcend the squabbles of contemporary classical music.”—Alex Ross, The New Yorker

“The music of John Luther Adams is simply beautiful. It…sounds like it has nothing to accomplish. It simply exists, hanging in mid-air, waiting to be listened to.”—AllMusic Guide

“Out of many eligible composers of his generation, John Luther Adams is the greatest proponent of the American experimental tradition, a lineage that includes Ives, Cowell, Varèse, Partch, Nancarrow, Cage and Tenney.”—Sequenza 21/Contemporary Classical Music Weekly

“[T]he sense of space is an Adams thumbprint—as is the spiritual aura that comes as a consequence.”—Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

“It is impressive to imagine anyone actually following such conceptual virtuosity, much less creating the seamless, seemingly organic layers of sound Adams lays out over his structurally precise and infinitely flexible power grids.”—Gramophonemagazine

The performers

JACK Quartet (violinists Christopher Otto and Austin Wulliman, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Jay Campbell) has been deemed “superheroes of the new music world” (Boston Globe), “the go-to quartet for contemporary music, tying impeccable musicianship to intellectual ferocity and a take-no-prisoners sense of commitment” (The Washington Post), and “a musical vehicle of choice to the next great composers who walk among us” (Toronto Star). The group is focused on the commissioning and performance of new works, leading it to work closely with composers John Luther Adams, Derek Bermel, Chaya Czernowin, James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Beat Furrer, Georg Friedrich Haas, Vijay Iyer, György Kurtág, Helmut Lachenmann, George Lewis, Steve Mackey, Matthias Pintscher, Steve Reich, Roger Reynolds, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino, Julia Wolfe, John Zorn, and many others. 

JACK has recorded two earlier albums of Adams’s music for Cold Blue: Everything That Rises(CB0051) and The Wind in High Places(CB0041).

The JACK Quartet electrifies audiences with its “explosive virtuosity” (Boston Globe) and “viscerally exciting performances” (The New York Times). David Patrick Stearns (Philadelphia Inquirer) proclaimed a JACK performance as “among the most stimulating new-music concerts of my experience.”

Recipient of Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, New Music USA’s Trailblazer Award, and the CMA/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming, JACK has performed to critical acclaim at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Wigmore Hall (UK), Suntory Hall (Japan), Salle Pleyel (France), Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ (Netherlands), La Biennale di Venezia (Italy), the Lucerne Festival (Switzerland), Bali Arts Festival (Indonesia), Reykjavik Arts Festival (Iceland), Festival Internacional Cervatino (Mexico), Kölner Philharmonie (Germany), Donaueschinger Musiktage (Germany), and the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Germany).

“The string quartet may be a 250-year-old contraption, but young, brilliant groups like the JACK Quartet are keeping it thrillingly vital.”—The Washington Post 

Comments About the Album

 

JACK’s recording of . . . Lines Made by Walking and untouched—hypnotic lessons in the building-out of large musical structures from economical means.”—Alex Ross, The New Yorker

“Cold Blue Music . . . release[s] a new album of two string quartets by John Luther Adams. The title of the album is Lines Made by Walking, which is also the title of the first of the quartets to be presented. Completed in 2019, Adams counts it as his fifth quartet. The second quartet on the album is untouched, which he composed in 2016 and identifies as his second quartet.

Lines Made by Walking is structured as three movements that basically outline a journey: Up the Mountain / Along the Ridges / Down the Mountain.

“In Adams’ own words for the album jacket, the composition is based on a technique ‘in which a single melodic line is superimposed on itself at different speeds.’ These superpositions amount to ‘tempo canons;’ and, in Lines Made by Walking, those canons consists of five, six, and seven independent layers. The attentive listener should have no trouble apprehending how these canons evoke slow ascent during the first movement. However, the ‘lateral traversal’ in the second movement is a bit trickier, since it basically involves the superposition of ascending and descending lines (there being no ‘sideways’ in sequences of different pitches). The final movement then amounts to a reflection of the opening in which all of the layers are descending.

“The other quartet on the album, untouched, was the second of two quartets that Adams composed based on natural harmonics. The first of these was The Wind in High Places, written in 2011. As Adams put it, he ‘imagined the quartet as a single sixteen-string Aeolian harp.’ The title of untouched, completed in 2016, reflects the fact that, in order to allow natural harmonics to sound, the musicians must avoid touching the fingerboards of their respective instruments. untouchedis also in three movements, whose titles basically parallel those of the first composition on the album: Rising / Crossing / Falling.

“Both of these quartets require intense focus on individual sonorities and the relationships that unfold as they are superposed. The performers on this album are the JACK Quartet. . . . They had recorded The Wind in High Placeson an earlier Cold Blue Music album, which also included the suite Canticles of the Skyand Dream of the Canyon Wren. . .  [and] the one-hour Everything That Rises. . . . What is important is that the JACK players have cultivated a ‘collective ear’ for Adams’ approach to ‘natural’ sonorities, particularly where intonation is concerned. Through these recordings the attentive listener should also be able to cultivate the necessary ‘ear for perception,’ which makes the encounter with the music such an engaging one.”—Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio 

“John Luther Adams over time has impressed me as one of the singular voices, one of the true originals in so-called Minimalism and Radical Tonality today. The wonderfully accomplished JACK Quartet expands our grasp of the composer with a program of two string quartets on Lines Made By Walking(Cold Blue C80058). Featured are two recent works, the title work from 2019 and untouched from 2016.

“The subtle beauty of these Adams works are in the way they self-create themselves, not through mesmerizing or trance inducing but rather creating clockwork overlaps that serve to create mobiles in sound—a sort of geographics of aural space for the title cut and a lingering intervalic immersion in fundamentals that point to a timeless origin in untouched. As with the best Adams works there is a pronounced organic natural ambiance to be savored and the JACK Quartet show us they know how to project the whole in a magically living resonance or sonic luminescence and transcendence.

“It is another very worthy Cold Blue release, a triumph of great performances and cutting-edge composition. If you want to get a handle on what is very new in New Music out there it is a CD you’ll want to have and hear in depth. Kudos!” —Gapplegate Classical-Modern Review

“While general manager at NMC I had the opportunity to work with the JACK Quartet . . . in January 2016. . . . On that concert they performed [John Luther Adams’s] first string quartet, The Wind in High Places, about which Adams says, “I imagined the quartet as a single sixteen-string Aeolian harp, with the music’s rising and falling lines and gusting arpeggios coming entirely from natural harmonics and open strings. . . . 

“JACK’s latest CD, Lines Made by Walking, features two subsequent quartets by John Luther Adams. His string quartet untouchedis a further exploration of the delicate and ethereal sound world of harmonic overtones, with the fingers of the musicians still not touching their fingerboards.

“Compared with the two quartets described above, Lines Made by Walking(2019) is a veritable torrent of sound. But in reality, when taken on its own, it is a dreamy, contemplative work which proceeds at a gentle walking pace. . . . The work is in three movements and their titles – Up the Mountain; Along the Ridges; Down the Mountain – are aptly depicted by the music’s endlessly rising, and later falling, canons.

“Although there have been personnel changes in the quartet since its first collaboration with Adams—only two original members remain—their understanding of and devotion to his music remains intact and undaunted. I can only imagine the patience it takes to master this gradually unfolding music in which seemingly nothing happens, but in which a marvelous stasis is achieved.” — David Olds, TheWholeNote

“John Luther Adams’ shifting musical abstractions tell us more about landscape than many books of science and travel. His compositions are extraordinarily contemplative and calming; complex and careful invocations of place which reflect how small we are in the grand scheme of things.” —Rupert Loydell, International Times

“New York’s formidable JACK Quartet presents two gorgeous string quartets by John Luther Adams, which continue to reflect his lifelong engagement with nature as a creative muse and a magnetic force. The album opens with the 2019 title composition, his most recent string quartet: A harmonically rich three-movement work built from elegant phrases using tempo canons, with each musician playing the same line at different speeds for a ravishing phasing effect. 

“As the title suggests, Adams inscribed “pathways” within the lush, meditative thickets of sound, inspired by the daily hikes he’s taken in remote, topographically stunning locations in Alaska, Mexico, and Chile. The music is guided by a calm, stately sense of motion but without any clear propulsion, like tree branches swaying in the wind. Untouched, from 2016, is an extension of the composer’s first string quartet—The Wind in High Places, from 2011—in which he imagined the ensemble as a 16-string Aeolian harp. The open-string piece directs the musicians through refined glissandos producing the sounds of the natural harmonics series, vividly evoking the ghostly ascents and descents of an Aeolian harp, but with a grainy detail that’s astonishing, as single string harmonic effects accent the main line like sparkling lights.” —Peter Margasak

 

“A fascinating tension permeates the music of John Luther Adams. On the one hand, it’s intensely rooted in personal experience; on the other, it assumes an abstract character in its instrumental form that untethers it from its creator. The two three-movement pieces performed by the illustrious JACK Quartet on Adams’ latest Cold Blue release illuminate that tension. The first, Lines Made by Walking (2019), grew out of the composer’s walking experiences in Alaska, Chile, Montana, and the Mexican desert; in traversing on foot the locales’ mountains, canyons, and tundra, Adams began to imagine music ‘coming directly out of the contours of the land.’ Even the movement titles—’Up the Mountain,’ ‘Along the Ridges,’ and ‘Down the Mountain’—carry a programmatic dimension that reflects the musical design. A fitting complement to his fifth string quartet is his second, untouched (2016), which explores some of the same territory as his first, The Wind in High Places (2011). In the latter case, he treated the quartet as a single sixteen-string Aeolian harp, with the sounds generated sourced from natural harmonics and open strings.untouchedinhabits a kindred space with the musicians once again not touching the instruments’ fingerboards.

“While Adams provides a technical description of Lines Made by Walking that has to do with harmonic fields and tempo canons of five, six, and seven independent layers, technical details quickly fall by the wayside once the music starts. The expressive supplications of the strings in ‘Up the Mountain’ captivate instantly, with the listener free to either visualize Adams ascending some dauntingly steep hillside or simply bask in the sensuality of the quartet’s keening strings. Those aforementioned canons reinforce the musical effect vividly too, even if their contrapuntal movements suggest multiple climbers engaged in the undertaking as opposed to Adams only. Whereas dramatic rising and falling movements are understandably downplayed during the comparatively even-keeled central movement ‘Along the Ridges,’ ‘Down the Mountain’ descends gently, its plaintive movements the natural counterpart to those in the work’s opening part. While no one would mistake Adams’ music for Arvo Pärt’s, there is a serenity about Lines Made by Walking that invites the comparison. The most arresting takeaway, however, has to do with the fact that it genuinely does feel as if walking paths have been transmuted into musical form.

“Adams’ words about untouched— ‘I stood on the tundra, holding a small Aeolian harp on top of my head, dancing with the wind, turning like a weathervane. Music seemed to flow out of the sky—across the strings, down through my body, and into the earth’—convey the elemental dimension and ethereal character of its musical content. Here too the impression established isn’t so much of an artist imposing himself on musical material but rather allowing it to pass through him and be rendered into physical form. With formalized melody absent, the music becomes a peaceful meditation extending across three parts, with the drift of its semi-rustic string textures exuding a breath-like quality. The piece is never more haunting than when fragile, high-pitched harmonics shimmer glassily throughout the closing ‘Falling’ movement.

“As it did on the two previous Adams releases on which it appears, Everything That Rises (2018) and The Wind in High Places (2015), JACK Quartet shows itself on the new release to be an incredibly sympathetic interpreter and ideal midwife. There is a purity and era-transcending quality to this music that, despite its understated quality, bolsters its impact and suggests that Adams’ works will endure long after others’ have faded. The impression formed is less of an artist purposefully eschewing trends than one simply oblivious to them and thus true to his muse as a matter of course. Cheap theatrics are foreign to Adams’ sensibility, and one guesses that residing in places such as Alaska and rural New Mexico, realms geographically and psychically distant from an artistic center such as NYC, has benefited his development immeasurably. Stated simply, the music Adams creates is indelibly his.” —Ron Schepper, Textura

“As always, the music is informed by Adams’ love for nature, and in particular for nature’s huge and deceptively empty-looking expanses: oceans, deserts, tundras, etc. The inspiration for the title piece, which is built on tempo canons, came while he was walking the deserts of Mexico and the canyons of Montana. The music seems to fall continuously upwards as single melodic lines are superimposed on themselves at different speeds; the effect is difficult to describe, in that it’s simultaneously soothing and tension-inducing. With untouched, the title derives from the fact that all notes are played using harmonics, which means that the players’ fingers never touch the fingerboards of their instruments but instead rest lightly on the strings while they bow, a technique that isolates harmonic partials and creates an otherworldly, ethereal sound. All of this music is exquisitely beautiful, and the JACK Quartet’s longstanding relationship with Adams is fully demonstrated by its performance. Highly recommended to all libraries.” —CD Hotlist

“The music of John Luther Adams is often (if not always) inspired by his landscapes and surroundings. . . . So here it is: ‘sustainable’ music, to enjoy and celebrate the immersive beauty of nature in the soothing sounds of a string quartet.” —Ambientblog

“The enduring music, the music that is good, or great, whether pleasant or not, both is and is not; it’s interstitial. As vast as natural forces or as subtle as the gentle gradations of a hillside under an afternoon sun, it inhabits and transcends its formative material. The fact that John Luther Adams’s work, especially his string quartets of which this disc provides a welcome sample, can accomplish such feats of multivalent existence, can encompass sweeping terrain while magicking its world toward utter and indescribable beauty, neither negates nor promises its often achingly nostalgic directness.

“If I submit to the historically supercharged temptation to describe Adams’s language as organic, it’s only out of convenience. Like that hillside or a storm’s perfect aftermath, the tone world he conjures envelopes and negates such binary notions as phrase, foreground, key, harmony, and counterpoint, rendering them the necessary illusions they are. His newest quartet, the iridescent Lines Made by Walking, bespeaks these infinitely simple relationships, in its title, in the movements’ titles (“Up the Mountain,” “Across the Ridge,” and “Down the Mountain”) and in their musical and sonic unities. To say that ascending and descending scalar patterns determine the music’s trajectory would miss the gorgeous but semistatic flux in which movement does and does not occur. Each movement picks up where the last left off, either on the same pitch or with the next pitch in a series. As always, the linearity of verbiage fails miserably to do justice to such a vision as embodied in the final movement. Yes, it descends, but in increments and sublime reversals akin to the rhythmic but irregular rise and fall of leg, foot, and torso amidst the alternately loping and jagged contours of descent of vast architectural proportions. The entire notion of center, via fifth, third and something between resolution and irresolution, is always and never present.

“The other quartet on offer, 2016’s Untouched, which grows exquisitely out of Linesas “Rising” begins with its concluding note, more closely resembles Everything That Rises, Adams’s fourth string quartet, in that luminously high pitches are ultimately integral to its structure, evoking timbrally cloudy sonorities that ascend and float before breezily dissipating. Tone and overtone reference and cross-reference each other as an atmosphere is molded without ever completely solidifying. Again, we rise, we cross, and we fall, but there is something otherworldly about the sound, the timbres and the way they intertwine, something fragile and mysterious about these sounds always on the point of disappearing after the fundamental from which they spring is sounded. Nearly the totality of the third movement lives in a realm close, I suppose, to that Faust ultimately inhabits, when redemption becomes a reality. Descent occurs as perceived through a veil, clear but somehow distant.

“Is Lines a new phase in Adams’s musical evolution, a concept that feels oddly foreign to discuss as music of such watery timelessness, even in the service of a mountain’s terra firma, flows by? Even to suggest that all is in constant flux misses the music’s most tantalizing unifying factor. The music breathes peace, inhabits a state where conflict, though present, is somehow resolved before it begins. Where timbre guides Untouched, Lines is more traditional in its sonic makeup, but the journey is similar, even possibly the coin’s other side. How can it all be so simple? How can an A-flat major scale determine the entire course of Lines’ final movement? Anthony Braxton used a scale to humorous effect, as did Beethoven, but here is something else. The substance of the scale becomes the melody, the harmony, and yet, we end on a C! Nothing completed, but everything’s completed. Adams’s music for string quartet is sunk in light, as the Kindertotenliederpoet, Friedrich Rückert, dictates to the grief-stricken. Adams doesn’t so much illuminate object or process as he bathes them in a transcendent glow. The recording is superb, and it should go without saying, especially given its history on Cold Blue Music, that the JACK Quartet is the perfect ensemble to realize the music of John Luther Adams. With such a broad and historically informed sonic pallet at its disposal, not to mention a sound as unified and diverse as the music itself, neither group nor composer can lose!” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine (Jan/Feb 2021)

“These are, respectively, Adams’s fifth and second string quartets, dating from 2019 and 2016. Adams has received acclaim recently for his large, ecological (if you will) orchestral scores, Become Ocean and Become Desert, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for the former in 2014. (Actually, most of Adams’s music is ecological, in the sense that it is aware of and is, to a degree, inspired by natural environments.) Frankly, I am not sad to see Adams return to works for smaller ensembles. I think this composer does his best work when his toolbox is limited.

“Adams is, like me, a walker, and the more recent of these two works was inspired by his walk through landscapes as different as the Alaskan tundra and the Mexican desert. Here, as in earlier works, Adams superimposes a single melodic line upon itself at different speeds. In the first movement (“Up the Mountain”), the melodic line moves upward—perhaps a naïve idea, but if it worked for Richard Strauss, why not for John Luther Adams? The music is both tender and laborious, if you can imagine such a thing. The second movement (“Along the Ridges”) literally picks up where the first left off, and here the melodic line seems to hover in (here I go again) a state that is both exhausted and ecstatic. The third movement is “Down the Mountain,” and I don’t need to tell you how that one trends. It sounds like an exquisitely protracted dying fall. (I was reminded of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten.) What I have not told you is that, sitting at his desk, Adams would “search for the most fluid and beautiful routes across [his] musical landscapes.” As he did this, “each instrument of the quartet acquired a unique profile, transforming the strict imitative counterpoint of the tempo canons into intricately varied textures.” Seen from above, Lines Made by Walking is a 30-minute arch that becomes more detailed the more closely you examine it. I invite Adams to make music this atmospheric and lovely out of my Virginia subdivision. If anyone can do it, he can.

“untouched also is in three movements. Again, the shape of an arch is implied, as the three movements are titled “Rising,” “Crossing,” and “Falling.” Adams’s inspiration, in this case, was the experience of standing on the tundra holding an Aeolian harp over his head, and turning this way and that with the direction of the wind. This directly influenced his first string quartet (The Wind in High Places), and the idea was further developed in untouched, which similarly relies on natural harmonics and open strings—thus the work’s title. (I suppose there is the additional implication that the land on which Adams was standing was undeveloped and therefore also untouched.) The melodic lines, clear despite overlapping in Lines Made by Walking, are more diffuse in untouched, giving the music a more ethereal and diaphanous sound. On the sole basis of the movement titles, these two works might seem too similar to share a single CD effectively. In fact, they sound quite different, largely because of the different ways in which sound is produced in the two works.

“JACK Quartet has recorded Adams’s other string quartets for Cold Blue Music, so now the listener is able to listen to all five them in one sitting, if he or she likes. This new recording was coproduced by Adams himself, and if he was happy with the results, then so am I. Like a Rothko painting (or an Alaskan or Mexican landscape), this might be too uneventful, or even featureless, for some listeners. However, if you are able to put your preconceptions to one side, I think you will like the way the music feels. It might even open your third eye.” —Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare  magazine (Mar/Apr 2021)