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


“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