The Wind in High Places   CB0041

The music

The Wind in High Places is an elegant, haunting collection album containing three of Adams’s serenly powerful recent string works: (1) The Wind in High Places (2011), a three-movement string quartet commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Theodore Front Musical Literature, performed by JACK Quartet; (2) Canticles of the Sky, a four-movement piece for four cello choirs, performed by the 48-member Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, directed and conducted by Hans Jørgen Jensen; and (3) Dream of the Canyon Wren (2013), a single-movement string quartet written for and performed by JACK Quartet.

All three of these works share certain features: harmonies based in the overtone series, slowly changing polyrhythmic textures, and arch forms. Both of the string quartets are devilishly virtuosic, The Wind built solely from natural harmonics and open strings and Dream built from overlapping streams of glissandos.

As this ever-in-motion, ever-in-flux music unfolds, the listener is slowly taken up in a series of sonic waves that usually start from almost nothing and grow to great richness (increasing in density of instrumental voices and number of concurrent pitches), while often simultaneously shifting the piece’s or movement’s general tessitura (e.g., low and soft to high and loud or high and soft to low and loud). This sort of very natural-feeling wave motion may occur once per movement or a few times per movement, often reaching a very expressive sense of ecstasy at each crest.

The Wind in High Places, a tripartite piece for string quartet that uses only natural harmonics and open strings—played extremely quietly—to create a still, pastoral ambience…. Could any new music be more delicately sparse, more wonderfully poetic? I think not.” —John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune

The composer

John Luther Adams, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music, was for many years based in Alaska, where his work derived much of it unique character from the landscape and weather of the Great North. In the past year, he moved from Alaska, and now splits his time between New York City and Mexico’s Baja California, although his works still take wide-open natural spaces as a primary inspiration.

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 Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the International Contemporary Ensemble, eighth blackbird, the California EAR Unit, Bang on a Can, Percussion Group Cincinnati, Other Minds, the Sundance Institute, Almeida Opera, and the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic. He has written two books, Winter Music and The Place You Go to Listen (both Published by Wesleyan University Press), and a book of essays about his music, The Farthest Place, 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 the Anchorage Symphony, Anchorage Opera, Fairbanks Symphony, Arctic Chamber Orchestra, and the Alaska Public Radio Network; 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 released five CDs devoted to his work, including The Light that Fills the World (CB0010), Red Arc/Blue Veil (CB0026), the place we began (CB0032), and Four Thousand Holes (CB0035), as well as including two of his sorter works 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 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.” —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

Read BMI’s MusicWorld interview (January 2015) with John Luther Adams.

The performers

JACK Quartet (violinists Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld, violist John Pickford Richards, and cellist Kevin McFarland) 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, Steve Mackey, Matthias Pintscher, Steve Reich, Roger Reynolds, Wolfgang Rihm, Salvatore Sciarrino, John Zorn, and many others.

The JACK Quartet electrifies audiences with “explosive virtuosity” (Boston Globe) and “viscerally exciting performances” (New York Times). David Patrick Stearns (Philadelphia Inquirer) proclaimed a JACK performance as being “among the most stimulating new-music concerts of my experience.” The Washington Post commented, “The string quartet may be a 250-year-old contraption, but young, brilliant groups like the JACK Quartet are keeping it thrillingly vital.”

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).

“[JACK’s] fresh, energetic, and stylistically omnivorous approach to the contemporary repertoire makes it a worthy heir to the tradition of new-music quartets that goes back to the Composers Quartet in the 1960s and rivals the Kronos and Arditti Quartets of today…. Many of their recordings are must-haves, for anyone interested in new music. Among those are two devoted to the music of John Luther Adams—The Wind in High Placesand Everything That Rises.”—Allan Kozinn, Musical America

Hans Jørgen Jensen, cellist, director, and conductor of the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Jacob Gades Prize, a Danish Ministry of Cultural Affairs Grant for Musicians, Copenhagen Music Critics Prize of Honor, and Artist International Competition in New York. He has also been named Outstanding Studio Teacher of the Year by the Illinois chapter of the American String Teachers Association and was granted a US Presidential Scholar Teacher Recognition Award by the US Department of Education. He has performed as a soloist and recitalist throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, and Japan, and has appeared with the Copenhagen Symphony, Danish Radio Orchestra, Irish Radio Orchestra, and Basel Symphony Orchestra. He is Professor of Cello at Northwestern University and a faculty member at the Meadowmount School of Music. His students have won prizes in numerous national and international competitions. Jensen studied at the Juilliard School with Leonard Rose and Channing Robbins and pursued private studies with Pierre Fournier.

The Northwestern University Cello Ensemble was established as a permanent ensemble at Northwestern in January of 2014. Its members are cello students at the university’s Bienen School of Music, joined by a few former Northwestern cello students who now perform professionally. The cello studio at Northwestern, under Jensen’s direction, has produced a number of outstanding cellists who have won numerous important competitions. Former cello students from the studio are members of leading symphony orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and Toronto Symphony Orchestra and faculty members at leading music schools.


“Taking inspiration from the icy vistas and bracing breezes of his beloved Alaska, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams has written a string quartet [The Wind in High Places] of dazzling stillness and quiet complexity. The excellent JACK Quartet makes its glassy harmonics sing. In Dream of the Canyon Wren, its cooing glissandi imitate birdsong with uncanny economy; a fine reading of the Canticles of the Sky, by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, directed by Hans Jorgen Jensen, rounds out this mesmerizing disc.” —Corinna da Fonseca Wollheim, New York Times

“John Luther Adams creates music that is more than just imaginative. At times it is pure magic…. Maestro Adams has successfully, brilliantly managed to give us a modernism (or a postmodernism if you will) that is radiantly representative without being programmatically literal, tonal without being classically sequential, rapturous without direct reference to human or cosmic agency—a music without myths, without much in the way of extra-verbal textuality, with affect but without discernable human intent. He does something like this again with his new album, The Wind in High Places.

“First up is the title piece, The Wind in High Places. Adams conceives of the string quartet as a sort of 16-stringed wind harp for the three movements that comprise the work. Through open strings and harmonics a varying canvas of aetherial, primal voicings come at us in varying degrees of density and intensity, all representing the wind in natural settings. It has an uncanny tonality that through sound color recreates nature in all its ebbs and flows. The music is striking in its almost primitively elemental, yet vividly natural color.

“The most sonorously astounding of the three works surely is the four-movement Canticles of the Sky. On it are 44 cellos. They create a world of their own, as limitless and even as breathtaking as the sky panoramas they depict. This, as in the other works here, is not thematic in any conventional sense. Canticles presents open sounds as variable but then too as unified in expression as drifting clouds. The music creates analogies of vast expanses in space, and…they ebb and flow, flux and disperse in ecstatic singularity. There is an ever-shimmering harmonic fundamentality of fourths and fifths and added notes, a stunning largo ground without so much foreground as continuousness. It captures the imagination with a real grandeur that like its subject acts as a benevolent force of nature.

Dream of the Canyon Wren returns to the string quartet for a piece that emulates the call of the Canyon Wren, familiar to the composer as a fellow inhabitant of his desert home. It is an evocative work that concludes the program on a positive note. It may not be quite as astounding a piece as the two preceding it, but it gently cradles us and brings us back down to earth in a way most fitting.

“This is a beautiful recording with music that enchants. John Luther Adams gives us some of his most intimate music on this one. It communicates directly and with sublimity.”— Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

“Most of the dazzling oeuvre of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams is inspired by and informed by nature, and the three recent works on this excellent album are no exception. The title piece adapts the principles underlying the Aeolian harp, which is played by the wind; it treats the ensemble, in this case New York’s versatile JACK Quartet, as a single 16-string instrument. Throughout its nearly 20 minutes, the players never touch their fingerboards, instead rendering its austere, melancholy melodies with open strings and ghostly harmonics. Just as gorgeous and ethereal is Canticles of the Sky, performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, which means to evoke the way atmospheric conditions can create the suggestion of a multitude of suns or moons in the arctic and in the Sonoran Desert. The final piece, played by JACK, delivers Adams’s adaption of the song of the canyon wren.”—Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader

“When John Luther Adams premiered his outdoor piece Sila: The Breath of the World at Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza this past summer, all sounds were created equal. As notes from musicians filled the air, so did those from the non-instrumental surroundings. A July breeze, a pigeon flapping its wings, an audience member’s shuffling feet—each natural sound gained an important weight when framed by Adams’s open composition. It was as if he pulled back a curtain, showing the listener the everyday music that covers the Earth.

“On his new album, The Wind in High Places, Adams pulls back the same curtain with different hands. Using only stringed instruments (no pigeons this time), the same philosophy of raw, gathered, uninhibited sound prevails. The album exposes the potential in every note, whether heard on a cello string or the unseen curve of a gust of air.

“But while Adams has mastered the sonic world of the outdoors and open space, do not mistake ‘natural’ for ‘unstructured.’ The album’s thought is evident without being distracting. Especially in the second movement of The Wind (“Maclaren Summit”), translucent cycles of harmonics pass between each musician without notice. The skilled fusion of the JACK Quartet turns The Wind into something other than a three-movement work. It’s like watching something take flight and, as the final notes fade, blend in with the sky.

“The Northwestern Cello Ensemble, directed and conducted by Hans Jørgen Jensen, then takes over with Canticles of the Sky. It’s a beast of a group with 48 members, and Canticles fills it up. “Sky with Four Suns” climaxes to a sharp, bright web of sound, while “Sky with Endless Colors” is grounded in sweeps from the lower register and sneaky dissonances.

“Adams’s album closes with Dream of the Canyon Wren, also performed by JACK. Compared to the sounds that precede it, the small work at first seems strange; it has neither the dreamy satisfaction of The Wind nor the grit of the Canticles. But as it unravels, imitating the descending call of the bird, it begins to make sense in the way the breezes, pigeons, and footsteps did at Sila. A canyon wren, sitting small and speckled atop a rock, has dense power in its call. A violin does, too. They become equals in John Luther Adams’s music—the kind of art that points to the sky and says, ‘Look how much sound is already there.’”— Elena Saavedra Buckley, WQXR Q2 Music (an Album of the Week selection)

The Wind in High Places, a striking new album of austere landscapes and mysterious light.” — Tom Huizenga, Deceptive Cadence, NPR

“John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014 with his orchestral work Become Ocean. The Alaska-based composer, whose music is concerned with—and inspired by—natural landscapes, wrote the three-movement string quartet The Wind in High Places two years earlier than Become Ocean but it shares many of the same characteristics: a distinctive, narrow sound world, glacial thematic movement and a sense of openness and wonder. However, as performed by the outstanding Jack Quartet, the earlier work is a more introspective, spectral composition. Featuring only natural harmonics and open strings, it evocatively reflects its title in its high, ethereal palette of sound. At its core, flanked by the slow outer movements, the middle section, ‘Maclaren Summit,’ glides and soars through a haze of wonderfully blended harmonics. The two other works here—the four-movement Canticles of the Sky for ‘cello choir’ and Dream of the Canyon Wren, again with the Jack Quartet—are built from more traditional string textures, the latter vivid and unsettling, the former more lush and filmic. All the works are recorded immaculately: dry and exact for the Jack Quartet and with warming reverberation for the excellent cello ensemble from Northwestern University.”—Tim Woodall, The Strad

“There are three pieces on this release…. All of these pieces are quite dream-like and atmospheric…with long sustaining sounds, long attacks and sounds dying out very slowly, suggesting much space. The release opens with the first part of the title piece, which is a beautiful piece of gliding, soft notes, followed by a somewhat more frantic part and another, lower, third part, full of tension and drama, but played out slowly. These slow movements—moving, always—are also present in Canticles of The Sky for that cello ensemble, and this is a piece that reminded me of Arvo Pärt’s best works: heavenly beautiful, very intense, but also an excellent set of drone-like clouds. Anybody who loves a bit drone and who is fed up with laptops, loop stations and electricity, this is the place to look for something new and exciting…. I thought this was a great release.” —Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly

“Having heard and re-heard the three movements of John Luther Adams’s The Wind in High Places many times in its new recording from Cold Blue Music…. [I]n Adams’s work you hear a profound comprehension for the pace of the world…. The world outside us, way outside, tundra-and-butte outside, where momentum can be measured in mountain’s movements. Adams speaks the natural world. He is fluent in the fields, conversant with the cries of animals and aeons. It shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, every time I hear him: he knows the pace.

“What you hear in this Wind is the sort of mind-widening lift that the best of the late György Ligeti achieved in such works as the 1961 Atmosphères. Adams knows that when the tones come close together and cluster, like richly wrought words meeting each other at close range, an ‘opening’ sense, an expansive grace takes over. Small ensembles playing three-movement works to the four winds start to sound very big, resonant with the reach of a concept like Adams’s.

“Canticles of the Sky…. Such tenuous, gathering gravity there is under these several skies. Again, as in The Wind, you slow down, you find your breath, your place, and so many points of sonic support rush to you. Underneath these slowly revolving canopies of sound, you can sense that signature authority with which Adams conjures the magic most of the rest of us miss in the world. Here is solidity, and knowledge, generated by legato hovers, one string after another, glistening by you, one tone effortlessly sheering off near another, then nestling in the shared light of a fine friction that holds it all together.” —Porter Anderson, Music for Writers

“John Luther Adams, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who spent most of his career working out of Fairbanks, has a new CD that, in part, pays tribute to his adopted state. The title cut is a suite of three pieces for string quartet with individual titles that reference Alaska places. The 20-minute set is played entirely on open bowed strings and their overtones. In other words, the players never touch the fingerboard. Adams likens this to a 16-stringed Aeolian harp, an instrument that is not directly played by a musician but uses natural wind to make music. The first Wind piece is titled ‘Above Sunset Pass.’ That’s probably the Sunset Pass in the Brooks Range, where Adams previously has taken such harps to record the sound of air as it moves through wild spaces. It consists of long, slow, breathy lines. ‘Maclaren Summit’ has shorter bow strokes and a rhythm, though irregular, more suggestive to me of the bumpy, dirt Denali Highway that crosses the summit south of the Alaska Range rather than the viewpoint itself. ‘Looking Toward Hope,’ the final piece in the set, again reverts to long, sustained notes but they have more of a mournful hymn quality; I’m reminded that Adams’ dear friend, the late conductor Gordon Wright, had a cabin above Rainbow looking toward Hope across Turnagain Arm. Adams was a frequent visitor and among those who brought Wright’s body down the mountain when the conductor died there in 2007….

Canticles of the Sky…is a set of four pieces compressing a day from sunrise to sunset, or sunset to sunrise, played by 48 cellos (their names are all listed in the cover notes). The first two Canticles are named for atmospheric phenomena associated with cold northern setting, ‘Sky with Four Suns’ and ‘Sky with Four Moons.’ The third, ‘Sky with Nameless Colors’ and ‘Sky with Endless Stars’ evoke the clear space above deserts.

The Canticles are all of the same length, within six seconds of four minutes and 30 seconds. They all follow the same three-part pattern, a quiet set of still tones raising in a dense crescendo then returning to silence. Each part takes 90 seconds; think of a quartet of perfect bell curves. In this case the similarity is not boring, probably because Adams selects tones in combinations of shimmering beauty. What catches my breath every time I hear it, and I’ve been listening a lot for the past few days, is the climax of ‘Endless Stars.’ But lines have been building into a loud approximation of a major chord which, with a shift of one note down a half-step, turns the whole thing a different color. It’s an old trick, but it never loses its poignant punch and, in this case, it’s all the more powerful because it’s unexpected. If I were trying to introduce someone to Adams’s music for the first time, I would play this first, then the full set of Canticles, and then try them on the Wind pieces.

“The CD concludes with another desert tribute, Dream of the Canyon Wren. Birds have been a recurring motif in Adams’s music for maybe 40 years now. This common bird is famous for its trickling song, often described as a “cascade” of notes, and often tagged with a squawky, buzzing ‘call.’ Adams says the sound evokes ‘feelings of deep tranquility and longing’ He repeats an imitation of the descending trill in something like a variation format.”— Mike Dunham, Alaska Dispatch

“The music of Alaska-based John Luther Adams is minimal, but not minimalist, produced with a great economy of sound resources but showing definite shapes. This pair of string quartets and one piece for ‘cello choir’ makes a good introduction to the music of this Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, whose works often show a strong connection to the natural world.… Despite its simplicity, the thematic material in Adams’ music is not neutral, and listeners will tend to remember these pieces…long after they’re heard.”—Exystence and AllMusic Guide

“Cold Blue Music has released The Wind in High Places, a new CD of string music by 2014 Pulitzer prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. The album consists of three pieces: The Wind in High Places, a 3-movement work performed by the JACK Quartet, Canticles of the Sky, a 4-movement piece for four cello choirs as performed by the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble and Dream of the Canyon Wren, by the JACK Quartet.

“The first movement of The Wind in High Places is titled ‘Above Sunset Pass’ and this begins with high, needle-like violin tones riding above sustained lower pitches. There is the feel of wind whistling through rocks in remote isolation…. The harmonies are ruggedly beautiful and precisely played by the JACK Quartet, especially the very highest pitches that are the most evocative. ‘Above Sunset Pass’ with its pastoral sensuality and primal harmonies offers the listener an invitation to dwell in this wild place on its own terms.

“‘Maclaren Summit’ follows and this has a busier feel with a series of fast, sharp passages in the higher registers, like snow swirling along a ridge line. There is an ethereal feel from the continuous motion in the violins, pleasantly complimented by a slightly more rugged texture in the lower strings. This feels like more mountainous terrain and is almost pointillist in its depiction of the snowy landscape. The playing here is very delicate and has just the right touch, as if the air itself is moving the strings.

“‘Looking Toward Hope’ is the third and final movement of The Wind in High Places and this begins with a low, steady cello, now mixed with higher sustained tones. This has a craggy feel, like looking at a rugged mountain face. The texture is rich and warm throughout, evoking a feeling of grandeur. All three movements of The Wind in High Places offer the listener a peaceful alternative to the adversarial and often politicized relationship with nature that we moderns have inherited from a problematic past.

“The four movements of Canticles of the Sky follow, as performed by four cello choirs…. ‘Sky with Four Suns’ is the first of these and begins with warm, deep tones in the bottom registers, building up on thirds and fifths. Lovely harmonies rise up like a cathedral tower, beautiful and lush, with a bright upper line arcing overhead. The feeling is a bit like that sense of the mystical one hears when an orchestra is tuning. The notes rise in volume and pitch, with a powerful fullness of texture, and then slowly decrescendo back to the lower tones and a peaceful finish.

“‘Sky with Four Moons’ is next and this movement opens on a single sustained high tone, soon joined by lower pitches, almost as an inversion of the first movement. The volume swells as the piece progresses and a deep rugged sound is heard as the tones reach the lower registers. The pitches re-ascend, becoming quieter at the finish. This movement has a slightly more remote and distant feel, as a quiet night sky might appear.

“‘Sky with Nameless Colors’ follows, again opening on a sustained high note with tones added in close harmony above and below. This develops a thicker feeling, especially as the pitches settle in at the bottom. As the piece progresses the texture thins out to a somewhat brighter feel as it ends quietly on a single note.

“The final movement of Canticles of the Sky is ‘Sky with Endless Stars’ and this begins with a low, deep tone that builds upward in a dark harmony. There is a somber feel to this, like a dirge played very slowly on a pipe organ. The volume builds as tones are added, rising upward to a higher, brighter register that brings out a feeling of expansiveness. As with the other movements this concludes by way of decrescendo and a thinning out of the harmonies to a single tone.

“The final track on the CD is Dream of the Canyon Wren as performed by the JACK Quartet and this has a more surreal quality than the previous pieces. This opens with a series of low repeating figures in the cello that are followed by similar passages in the violins. The sound is suggestive of a series of dreamlike birdcalls. Silences follow, and then a flurry of fast figures in the higher registers that devolve into lower, slower echoes. This pattern continues, slowing to a low, gauzy wash before concluding on one last high-pitched burst. Dream of the Canyon Wren is perhaps the most abstract of the works on this CD and the playing by the JACK Quartet is meticulously precise.

“The music of The Wind in High Places precedes Become Ocean, the 2013 symphonic work that won Adams the Pulitzer last year. But this album of string music is cut from the same cloth, perfectly expressing the gentle sensibilities that inform a highly sympathetic view of nature. In a recent Facebook posting John Luther Adams wrote: ‘That’s been my lifelong obsession… Place as Music. And Music as Place.’ The Wind in High Places is compelling evidence of just how completely he has succeeded.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21

“Adams’s latest release is a collection of three works for string ensembles.… [The] first two pieces are truly captivating and wondrous, reaching an almost ambient feel at times, blending slow-moving tones and spaces into beautiful, tranquil vistas of iridescent light. All that changes on the closer, Dream of the Canyon Wren, which is a bit more avant-garde and experimental…. All taken, this is a radically distinctive collection of pieces that begs for repeat listens.”—Peter Thelan, Exposé

“In his string quartet The Wind in High Places, where the sounds are entirely produced either on open strings or by harmonics so that the instrumentalists totally avoid the use of the fingerboard…there is a surprising amount of variety…with each movement displaying a distinct character of its own. The avoidance of any tones except the open strings and harmonics might lead the listener to expect a sort of ‘New Age’ contemplation. In the event the sounds we hear are far removed from this. There is an excoriating sense of openness, and no feeling at all of warmth such as would have been provided by string vibrato on the fingerboard. This serves well to express the cold and frozen landscapes which the composer seeks to illustrate. Indeed, in places the fortissimo sound of the high harmonics can be quite painful on the ears. That is clearly part of the effect that Adams seeks to create, however, and the results are unexpectedly exciting.”—MusicWeb International

“Like much of Adams’ music, these pieces combine relative harmonic stasis with virtuosic difficulty and deep structural and timbral complexity—which means that identifying him with the minimalist school is problematic. Beautiful and fascinating stuff.”—CD HotList

“Fantastic.”Nova Express

“John Luther Adams would seem to be hitting some kind of incredible mid-to-late career stride, as evidenced by the 2014 Pulitzer Prize he received for his recent orchestral work Become Ocean. Yet while the recorded version of it was issued on Cantaloupe Music, Cold Blue has been the more long-standing outlet for the composer’s music. In fact, five CDs of his work have been released by the label, including The Light that Fills the World, Red Arc/Blue Veil, the place we began, Four Thousand Holes, and now The Wind in High Places. As Adams lived for many years in Alaska (having moved a year ago, he now splits his time between NYC and Mexico’s Baja California), it’s only natural that the landscape would have informed the works he produced during that time.

“That’s never more apparent than in the recording’s sixteen-minute title piece (2011), which draws for inspiration from the Aeolian harp, an instrument whose sounds derive directly from the wind. In a three-movement work exquisitely realized by JACK Quartet, the musicians assume the character of a sixteen-stringed harp; in this case, Adams’s own liner notes merit quoting at length: ‘All the sounds in the piece are produced as natural harmonics or on open strings … [and] the fingers of the musicians never touch the fingerboards of the instruments. If I could’ve found a way to make this music without them touching the instruments at all, I would have.’ Adams, in his writing, and Jack Quartet, in their rendering of the material, uncannily evoke wind patterns as they arise in their natural settings. At certain moments, the music, often fragile and ethereal in tone, exudes calm; at other times, intensity, and the music ultimately achieves a time-transcending quality. Each movement is different from the others: in ‘Above Sunset Pass,’ the strings gently whistle as if positioned at the highest conceivable altitude; the winds seemingly pick up during ‘Maclaren Summit,’ given the flurries of cross-currents suggested by the strings; and a rustic quality permeates the keening soundworld of ‘Looking Toward Hope.’ The Wind in High Places, like much of Adams’s writing, inhabits its own unique, atemporal sphere.

“Nature also works its way into the conception of Canticles of the Sky, a four-movement setting that’s vividly brought to life by the forty-eight-member Northwestern University Cello Ensemble. In this case, Adams conjures in musical form a particular apparition that sees the low angle of the Arctic sun and heavy ice crystals in the air producing ‘halos, arcs, and sundogs,’ and sometimes the illusion of multiple suns. Not surprisingly, Canticles of the Sky is the album’s most sonorously ravishing work, given the resources involved. A sense of elemental grandeur is generated by the material, as well as a sense of panoramic sweep, and there’s a purity and simplicity to the writing that’s reminiscent of Arvo Part, especially when the cellos more produce textural masses than conventional melodies. JACK Quartet returns for the recording’s final piece, the single-movement Dream of the Canyon Wren (2013). Nature is present once again, though this time the touchstone isn’t natural phenomena but the Canyon Wren, whose voice is simulated by Adams and the string players in a series of overlapping glissandos. Despite the presence of fundamental differences between the three works, they hold together marvelously due to the singularity of Adams’ compositional voice. The Wind in High Places makes for another sterling addition to his discography, one that Alex Ross has astutely described as ‘beyond style.'”—Ron Shepper, Textura (Textura “Album of the Month,” February 2015; one of Textura‘s “Top Twenty Albums” of 2015)

Canticles of the Sky, scored for four cello choirs (48 cellos in all, at least as recorded here), is in a somewhat similar vein as Become Ocean. Adams writes that this four-movement work was inspired by natural phenomena observed in the Arctic sky (‘Sky with Four Suns,’ ‘Sky with Four Moons’) and in the Sonoran Desert (‘Sky with Nameless Colors,’ ‘Sky with Endless Stars’). Overlapping planes of gorgeous cello sound swell and recede. At times the music takes on a Ligeti-like intensity; I was often reminded of the Hungarian composer’s Lontano, surely one of the most ecstatic orchestral works composed in the last century. I was also reminded of ancient composers such as Robert Carver and Peter Philips, who could create a state of ecstasy and a sense of eternity through their endlessly layered, overlapping polyphonic writing for choirs. The 48 cellos often cease to sound like cellos at all. Even though they are played in a traditional manner, Adams’s writing sometimes makes them sound like an organ, or like a synthesizer. This is uncanny and wonderful stuff, and the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble plays it like pros.

The Wind in High Places and Dream of the Canyon Wren, both written for and performed by the JACK Quartet, obviously create leaner sound worlds. In the former, the string players use only natural harmonics and open strings. As the composer writes, ‘Over the course of almost twenty minutes, the fingers of the musicians never touch the fingerboards of the instruments.’ Here, Adams demonstrates that less sometimes really is more. In the latter, the string players play overlapping glissandos that vary in their length and speed. I am not familiar with the song of the canyon wren (or of the hermit thrush, which moved Adams when he was living in Alaska), but I expect that Adams, in this work, was not trying to imitate its song but rather to transform it. Both works—all of the music on this CD, really—expertly create a sense of place. Both works create a sense of environmental fragility too, and yet also one of endurance and strength. Man comes and goes, but the hermit thrush and the canyon wren remain, and the wind still blows and makes its music as it blows against the rocks and trees. In these two works, we sense that Adams has much in common with Messiaen and Sculthorpe, although their musics do not sound at all similar. The musicians of the JACK Quartet play this lean and ethereal music with intensity, and make me feel nostalgic for places that I have never seen.”—Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine

“This [album] was chosen by six writers for their best-of-year lists. John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune describes The Wind in High Places nicely: ‘Could any new music be so wonderfully sparse, so delicately poetic? I think not.'”—Barney Serman, Iowa Public Radio

“Adams must dream of Aeolian harps: ‘If I could’ve found a way to make this music without them touching the instruments at all, I would have.’ The idea for The Wind in High Places is that the quartet plays only harmonics or open strings. The players touch strings, but do not press string to fingerboard. The three movements appeal as an exercise in restraint, and Adams elicits delicate combinations, the final ‘Looking Towards Hope’ arriving at the lowest open fifths. An outrageous quantity of cellos (four dozen) usher forth Canticles of the Sky. If Wind appeals because of its design, Canticles’ homogenous spread satisfies with its luscious sound. Its four slowly drawn parts in minimal tonality suggest a slow pan across a mesmerizing landscape, but little else. Dream of the Canyon Wren captures not just expansive space, but one of its smallest residents. A particular intervallic gesture is thoroughly investigated across registers, sometimes imitating, perhaps inadvertently, the sound of a decelerating windup toy. For Adams, this particular bird calls up tranquility and longing; as a suburbanite, I heard alarms and sirens.” —Grant Chu Covell, La Folia

“The performances are delicate and otherworldly, exactly as required.”American Record Guide

“Another remarkable evocation of natural beauty from composer John Luther Adams, The Wind in High Places takes inspiration from the principles of the Aeolian harp (in a piece performed by New York’s fantastic JACK Quartet), the song of the canyon wren, and the way atmospheric conditions can create the suggestion of a multitude of suns or moons in the arctic and the Sonoran Desert. You don’t necessarily need to know this sort of backstory to be enriched by this meticulously articulated music, but it helps.”—Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader (from the year-end article “Peter Margasak’s Favorite Albums of 2015”)