the place we began   CB0032

The music

the place we began

“…to return to the place we began and know it for the first time…”– T. S. Eliot

the place we began contains four mysteriously evocative electro-acoustic works that the composer built from short recorded moments—audio fragments—of his early music (circa the early 1970s). This is not a trip down Memory Lane: In the place we began, Adams has reappropriated and transformed these sonic fragments into completely new works that speak to his current musical interests and directions, especially his recent installation pieces, and refer to his past only in ways that are highly personal and conceptual. (Realized by the composer at his studio outside Fairbanks, Alaska.)

The composer writes:

“Last summer in my studio I discovered several boxes of reel-to-reel tapes that I’d recorded in the early 1970s. Using those ‘found objects,’ I sculpted these new soundscapes from fragments of my past.

The tape that got me started was labeled ‘Scrap. Unknown.’ When I listened to it, I could neither tell which direction was forward nor determine its proper playback speed. In both directions and at high and low speeds the sounds were intriguing. After trying it all four ways, I began to superimpose tracks. Then I began exploring the other found tapes.

in a room is composed from raw material I recorded on a summer afternoon in 1972. With two cheap speakers and a microphone, I used electro-acoustic feedback to explore the resonant frequencies in a room with hardwood floors and lots of windows. Thirty-six years later (using tools I couldn’t have imagined back then) I shaped that recording’s sounds into a twelve-part motet.

at the still point is a tempo canon that sustains the relationships 13/14/15/16 throughout. The piece is made primarily from two tapes I recorded in 1974 on my Fender Rhodes electric piano. The first was a through-composed piece I eventually withdrew. The second was an improvisation in the spirit (if not the sound) of Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos—a piece that changed my musical life. The opening of at the still point incorporates a moment from another 1974 recording, this one of a small tam-tam I bought for $50 dollars. Today, the Rhodes is long gone. But I still own that tam-tam.

in the rain begins with fragments from a recording I made in 1973. That tape was made in a gentle spring shower, during which I set pots and pans out in the yard, adding their metallic voices, one by one, to the sounds of the rain and blue jays. I’ve now re-used those sounds and their spectral after images to create ‘veils’ that rise and fall, revealing and concealing the taped traces of one of my early ensemble pieces recorded in 1974.

the place we began, a second twelve-part motet composed from the 1972 recording used for in a room, closes this cycle of works. Where the first piece rises, the place we began descends into subsonic depths, revealing previously inaudible quavering harmonics.”

The composer

John Luther Adams has created a unique musical world rooted in wilderness landscapes and natural phenomena. His music includes works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, soloists, and electronic media, and is recorded on the Cold Blue, New World, Cantaloupe, Mode, and New Albion labels. His book Winter Music is published by Wesleyan University Press, and his writings about music and nature have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies.

In 2006 Adams was named one of the first United States Artists fellows. Previously he has received fellowships from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He has served as composer in residence with the Fairbanks Symphony, Anchorage Symphony, and Alaska Public Radio, and has taught at the University of Alaska, Bennington College, and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Adams’s sound and light environment The Place Where You Go to Listen is a permanent feature of the Museum of the North. Currently, he is working on Sila: The Breath of the World—a network of installations transforming weather data from all over the Earth into music and light.

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

“His music is haunting and quite unforgettable.… Lou Harrison called Adams ‘one of the few important young American composers,’ and he might just be right.” —MusicWeb Int’l

“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, Varese, Partch, Nancarrow, Cage and Tenney.” —Sequenza 21/Contemporary Classical Music Weekly

“Shimmering, vast, luminous, ecstatic.…” —Kyle Gann

“The sound of this music is that of overlapping planes of sound.… [T]his is music from someone who knows who he is and what he wants.” —Robert Carl, Fanfare

“Adams’s music can be superficially described as the intersection of two diverse influences: Feldman and Cowell…. his scores bear the ubiquitous marks of Cowell’s multitempoed rhythmic structures…. The Feldman influence manifests itself as a delight in delicately balanced sonorities used as recurring images.” —Kyle Gann, American Music in the 20th Century

“The music of John Luther Adams is simply beautiful. It has a crystalline quality and a peaceful character that evoke the Arctic life…. Adams’ music sounds like it has nothing to accomplish. It simply exists, hanging in mid-air, waiting to be listened to.” —All-Music Guide

“John Luther Adams…has written music of enormous beauty and sophistication while staying true to his roots as an outsider.” —Bruce Taub, Sequenza 21/Contemporary Classical Music Weekly


“Each of the four pieces here has its own character and vocabulary of sounds, yet they flow together to create a coherent, cohesive whole. The first, In a room, is made entirely from long, pure tones that enter tentatively, then gradually become more assertive, overlapping in rich polyphonic layers. In At the still point, the combination of serenely static harmonies and the restless energy of the pulsating sonorities creates a subtle tension… By far the most mesmeric segment is In the rain, whose watery sounds are so expressly evocative and provide a perfect backdrop for the gentle sway of chines and flute that seen to pay homage to Adams’s early fascination with Morton Feldman’s music. Finally, the long-breathed polyphonic purity of The place we began brings us full circle. The tones here are darker and more resonant but the overall atmosphere is so close to In a room that a true sense of closure is achieved.… This is a recording one can easily get lost in. Indeed, it’s one of the most ravishing examples of electro-acoustic music I’ve heard in many years.” —Andrew Farach-Colton, Gramophone

“Chancing upon boxes of reel-to-reel tapes recorded several decades earlier was bound to excite (and incite) the creative imagination of a composer as sensitive to environment as John Luther Adams, and the outcome is this four-part sequence.… Adams draws on [“scenic perspectives”] as part of what might be described as ‘sonic geography:’ an outlook encouraged by his home near Fairbanks, Alaska and also by his environmental concerns. If these are (inevitably?) less to the fore in The Place We Began, the evocation of time and place is always apparent. Thus the interplay of extreme upper and lower frequencies in In a Room, the morass of detail given shape and perspective without becoming tangible in At the Still Point, the conflation of atmospheres real and imaginary in In the Rain, then the intensified reprise—implied rather than stated—of the opening phrase in The Place We Began. The result is surely among Adams’s most evocative and personal creations.… Recorded with the clarity and presence typical of Cold Blue Music, The Place We Began would seem an ideal point of departure for those who have yet to encounter the music of a composer whose thinking gains in resonance and, more to the point, relevance with each new release.” —Richard Whitehouse, Int’l Record Review (UK)

In a Room begins almost imperceptibly, like the opening of a Bruckner symphony, as if trying to conjure up a personal past ex nihilo, gradually building in intensity. At a Still Point begins similarly but soon morphs into a trippy wash of sound rivaling anything that you might hear in a club where DJs spin ambient electronica; totally chill on so many levels. In the Rain sounds like what it says it is: an exploration of the sound of rain. It creates wonderful polyrhythms by falling on various things and it’s a joy to experience those sounds cognizantly as a musical phenomenon. But JLA soon overlays this with some electronically generated pitch-based material which gradually takes over. The electronic sounds drown out the rain at some point, which feels like suddenly walking inside a dry place still soaking wet. When the sound of the pouring rain returns about halfway in it creates a subtle otherworldly duet with these directionless electronic tones sounding like Morton Feldman without an umbrella. The concluding title track, The Place We Began, calls to mind some of the early tape pieces of Iannis Xenakis, such as Bohor and Orient-Occident, which also frequently achieve a remarkable arhythmic stasis with a harmonically unstable amalgamation of pitches and timbres that only changes very gradually. Of course electronic music denizens will be quick to point out that pitches, harmonies, and timbres are all pretty much the same thing. But rarely has the message been driven home so effectively.” —Frank J. Oteri, NewMusicBox (American Music Center)

“Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams’ powerful music finds inspiration, depth of field, and sonic substance in the shapes and textures of the natural world and, most of all, in the composer’s own deep and passionate commitment to the act of listening itself.

“Adams made the four pieces on The Place We Began from fragments of his own 1970s work recently rediscovered in a box of reel-to-reel tapes. The album is book-ended by two re-workings of an earlier project exploring the interactions of electro-acoustic feedback and the resonant frequencies of room sound. The first of these, in a room, rises spectrally, its long, ringing and droning tones arcing skyward over chthonic low-frequency rumbles The closing piece, the place we began, utilizes the same source material to trace a downward arc, the falling, slowing tones now revealing lusciously tactile and hypnotic pulses of harmonic and timbral motion and interaction.

“Between these works, at the heart of the CD, are two pieces that make use of traditional instruments, albeit in imaginative ways. at the still point is mysteriously beautiful, with what seem to be pitch, speed and envelope manipulations applied to the hushed, bell-like tones of Fender Rhodes electric piano. Beyond its textural allure, the piece also creates interest via subtle gamelan-like structures and staggered relationships between its layers: bell-like mensurations eventually standing out against the low- and mid-frequency tonal washes; fragmented clusters of electric piano arriving to form vaguely impressionistic harmonic events that hint, perhaps, in a dreamlike way, at 1970s Joe Zawinul.

“in the rain is even more distinctly layered, its strata including field-recorded nature sounds, an organic gamelan (this time created by the sound of rain falling into metal pots), and further spectral manipulations applied to clusters of acoustic piano. Resonant and evocative, this work goes deep, seeming to touch upon personal memory and the eternal shapes and patterns of nature.

“Depth of field and resonant, sensory evocation have not been unusual in Adams’ body of work. The Place We Began offers further evidence of the composer’s command and confidence, his fertile imagination and assured technique. And while Adams doesn’t necessarily sound like precursors Cage, Feldman and Oliveros, he does share with those American masters a definite commitment to the creation of unique and engaging music that springs from an experienced intensity of absolute listening.” —Kevin Macneil Brown, Dusted magazine

“Four very interesting pieces…great pieces of electronic music. Excellent work.” — Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly (The Netherlands)

the place where we began springs forth from a little bit of creative recycling…fashioning a new garment out of old cloth, and the result is at times magical and falls right in with his concepts of sound and space, even if in comparison to his instrumental works such as In the White Silence it is far less elaborate and gripping. This music seldom, if ever, raises its voice, the effect is subtle and—to coin a term—’semi-amorphous’ in that while the entrances of particular sounds are not predictable, they seem to fit together and to make sense. Certain small details seem to be standing in the background for a time before one really notices them; the range of sonic combinations runs from comfortably colorful to stark, and many places in between…. it should appeal to listeners who enjoy audio art, or ‘soundscapes’ as [Adams] refers to these pieces, in a general way.” —Dave Lewis, All-Music Guide

The place we began comes closer to anything else Cold Blue has released in recent years to the electronic micro-sound stylings of a label such as 12k, Line, or Touch. The album includes four electro-acoustic settings that are both austere and sensual and exude a stillness that resonates throughout the recording. In a certain sense, the four pieces aren’t totally new. In the summer of 2008, Adams happened upon boxes of reel-to-reel tapes he’d recorded in the early ‘70s, and from the newly discovered material he selected fragments that subsequently served as starting points for completely new compositions. What results, then, represents a fascinating rapprochement between the tape assembly methods of the 1970s and the digital production strategies of the 2000s.

“The related pieces in a room and the place we began bookend the album, with both utilizing the same source material but presenting it in slightly different manner. In 1972, Adams used two speakers and a microphone to explore interactions between electro-acoustic feedback and the resonant frequencies of a room (one that in this case included hardwood floors and lots of windows). In the opening piece ( Adams describes it as a “twelve-part motet”), layers of high-pitched, softly whistling tonal streams pulsate hypnotically, while the superficially similar closer traces a noticeably downward trajectory. The second setting, At the still point (primarily made from two electric piano tapes, one a through-composed piece and the other an improvisation in the spirit of Morton Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos) blends synthetic and Fender Rhodes sounds into a tranquil whole where the tones and washes surge like gentle waves lapping ashore. Of the four pieces, natural field recording sounds are heard most prominently in the third piece, in the rain. In this case, Adams set pots and pans out in his yard to collect spring rain, and then added to their resultant metallic voices the blurry tinkle of acoustic piano; heavily processed, the piece also includes an almost industrial quality in the stream of gently writhing noises that haunt the background and a gamelan character in the soft, meditative clangor of the pans and their tonal meander.

“Though the Alaska-based composer has written works for orchestra and chamber ensembles, the four intimate pieces on the place we began keep the focus at a smaller scale in their expansive treatments of minimal materials. Adams’ connections to the natural world run deep: his sound-and-light environment The Place Where You Go to Listen is permanently installed at the Museum of the North, and he’s currently working on Sila: The Breath of the World, a network of installations that apparently will transform weather data from all over the Earth into music and light. It’s also hard not to see his choice of home locale as significant too, given the luminous and spacious character of the album’s contents.” —Ron Schepper, Textura

“I was having trouble starting this review with a sentence that did not originate with some form of the verb ‘to be.’ ‘There is in the place we began…’ ‘It is hard to situate…’ And perhaps that is (forgive me) instructive. The four pieces that comprise this work are very much a state of being, or a state of experience within our being that cannot be rendered effortlessly in words. I’ve written about this before, especially in relation to the works of Richard Skelton. The art can and should have its own landscape. The artist seeds the garden, and then the plants somehow tend themselves.… at the still point is a ‘tempo canon that sustains the relationships 13/14/15/16 throughout. The piece is made primarily from two tapes I recorded in 1974 on my Fender Rhodes electric piano.’ So while it may appear on the surface a bit of neat flowing ambience, at the still point is in fact a thoroughly composed piece, built rigorously to achieve Adams’s compositional, and emotional, effect. This work, for one thing (and it is no small thing), is undeniably beautiful. These four electro-acoustic works are each quite distinct in flavor and yet form a coherent unit, a music that is visual and evocative. Adams has done several installation pieces around visual arts ideas, perhaps the most expansive being The Place Where You Go to Listen covered by Alex Ross in The New Yorker. The four works in the place we began are equally cinematic and visual, echoing Alex Ross’s comparison of Adams’s music to the effect of the aurora borealis.… As to the seeming insistence of the verb ‘to be,’ it seems apt. These works offer an alternative to pressure and stress, for one thing, that makes for a better state of being. While tempting to situate these works in a broader framework of modern composition and influence, it is preferable to let them act as their own reason for being. And therefore, be.” — Hallock Hill

“These are sonic environments in which one can wander, much as one might explore the coastline on a foggy day. In each piece, there is a pervasive mood and color, and one might almost call these works static, except for the fact that they are never at rest. Neither “beautiful” nor “ugly,” they held my attention primarily as explorations of hue and texture. Your mileage may vary. Like everything I’ve heard by John Luther Adams, they both hold and repay my attention.” —Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine

“John Luther Adams is a great underappreciated composer who has written music of enormous beauty and sophistication while staying true to his roots as an outsider.” —Bruce Toub, Sequenza21

Adams’ music is as hypnotic as it is different.” —Colin Clarke, MusicWeb Int’l

“Four brief new soundscapes composed wth old tapes from the ’70s found in John Luther Adams’s closet. In a room is an 8-1/2-minute exploration of quiet feedback glowing with the harmonic series. At the still point examines a deeper, rounder cluster for 12-1/2 minutes until it magically ascends into the ozone. In the rain is just that, with luminescent daubs of pentatonicism as gleaming rainbows. The title track, the place we began (Title from T.S. Eliot), is, as the title promises, a varied recapitulation of the opening movement, forming a nice cyclic quasi-classical structure for the program.…” —Allen Gimbel, American Record Guide

“‘To return to the place we began and know it for the first time…,’ a quote from T.S. Eliot, is the root of this enthralling offering by John Luther Adams.… A wonderfully understated album by an equally elusive artist, who lets the essence of sound do all the speaking. Like in the best dreams, which inevitably fail to materialize.” —Massimo Ricci, Brain Dead Eternity (Italy)

“John Luther Adams is a composer working in the tradition that stems from Cage and Morton Feldman. He has lived in Alaska for almost all of his adult life, and its vast silent landscapes are reflected in his music, which is spacious, meditative, subtle and organic.… Adams has continued further down the path of impersonalism and quietism. He uses various resources, from full orchestra to computer-controlled installations, but all reflect the same sensibility and intentions.… Work like this is difficult to assess on any rational level other than the most basic one, of technical skill, which Adams clearly has in abundance. Beyond that, what? One test is how it fares with repeated listening. A rich work is more interesting each time, while a poor one becomes less interesting because there is nothing beneath the surface to engage the attention. The Place We Began passes this test with flying colors: without needing to be able to articulate all of its internal workings, I look forward to each opportunity to hear it again.… It is, unfortunately, impossible to convey the real effect of this music through a brief sample, since that effect is due primarily to the slow evolution of colors over a long time-frame. All one can do is say, ‘It’s full of sounds like these and they change in interesting ways. Recommended.’ Consider it said.” —Malcolm Tattersall, Music & Vision

“Magical.” —Anthony Fiumara, Trouw (The Netherlands)