Arctic Dreams CB0060
Arctic Dreams is a seven-section work scored for four singers and four string players, enhanced with three layers of digital delay that create 32-part canonic textures.
Composer John Luther Adams writes:
“Arctic Dreams was the first music I composed in my “aeolian” sound world, which grew out of my experiences listening to wind harps on the tundra. It is scored for four string players, four singers, and three layers of digital delay.
“The harmonies of this music arise from the first seven odd-numbered harmonics above the low D of the double bass. Extensive retuning of the strings is employed, with only the C string of the cello at its usual pitch. As in several of my later string quartets, all the string sounds are produced by natural harmonics, or open strings.
“The sung text is a series of “Arctic Litanies,” composed of the names of Arctic places, plants, birds, weather, and seasons, in the languages of the Iñupiat and Gwich’in peoples of Alaska.
“The digital delays create a virtual choir and string orchestra in 32-part canonic textures, with delay times ranging from 1.125 to 32 seconds.
“Arctic Dreams is dedicated to the memory of my dear friend Barry Lopez, and is titled after one of his greatest books.”
John Luther Adams, winner 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 E.A.R. 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 eight CDs devoted to his work, including Lines Made by Walking (CB0058), Everything That Rises (CB0051), The Light that Fills the World (CB0010), Red Arc/Blue Veil (CB0026), the place we began (CB0032), Four Thousand Holes (CB0035), and The Wind in High Places (CB0041), as well as two of his shorter 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
“His music has repeatedly conjured up visions of limitless expanse.”—The Wire
“Adams’ manner is that of Thoreau—to be in a place, incorporate it into his memory and values, and recreate that through music.”—New York Classical Review
“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
“[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.”—Gramophone
Synergy Vocals, a critically acclaimed British vocal ensemble, has recorded music by Steve Reich, Louis Andriessen, David Lang, Luciano Berio, Steven Mackey, John Adams, Arvo Pärt and numerous other composers and performed with the Boston and Chicago Symphonies and the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonics, as well as many other major orchestras and chamber ensembles. Their performances have been deemed “amazing” (New York Times); “beautiful, haunting” and “wonderfully transparent” (Gramophone); “exquisite” (Financial Times), “Superb” (The Guardian), and “dazzling” (The Observer). (synergyvocals.com) The members of Synergy performing Arctic Dreams are sopranos Micaela Haslam and Amanda Morrison, alto Heather Cairncross, and bass Simon Grant.
Violinist Robin Lorentz is champion of contemporary music who spent over 20 years with the noted new music group California E.A.R. Unit. As a soloist and chamber musician, she has premiered many works, including John Adams’s Road Movies for violin and piano at the Kennedy Center and Yusef Lateef’s String Quartet Number 1: Bismillah at REDCAT, and she has been featured on tours by composers Terry Riley and John Luther Adams. Lorentz has recorded for New Albion, Cold Blue Music (appearing on six previous Cold Blue CDs), New World, O.O. Discs, Sony, MCA, Columbia, and Echograph and performed as soloist and small ensemble member on recordings by Bob Dylan, Scott Weiland, and T-Bone Burnett. She has served as concertmaster with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series, the Ojai Festival, Santa Fe Pro Musica, and numerous other festivals and ensembles.
Violist Ron Lawrence: From John Adams to John Zorn, Lawrence has performed and recorded with many of new music’s most exciting personalities. Besides being a founding member of the Sirius Quartet, he has performed extensively with Cuartetango, Quartet Indigo, the Soldier String Quartet, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Other collaborators include Anthony Braxton, John Blake, Bob Beldon, Anthony Davis, Regina Carter, Elliott Sharp, James Blood Ulmer, Cassandra Wilson, John Cale, Fred Hersch, and Eumir Deodato. Further uptown, he has recorded with Kathleen Battle, Robert Craft, John Cage, and André Previn. One of Ron’s most exciting projects was a journey to Alaska to record John Luther Adams’s multimedia spectacular, Earth and the Great Weather—A Sonic Geography of the Arctic. Despite a rigorous performance schedule, he was able to break away each evening to cross-country ski under the northern lights.
Cellist Michael Finckel is a member of the Cabrini Quartet, Finckel Cello Quartet, and Brooklyn Philharmonic. He is a former member of Steve Reich and Musicians, Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, Ensemble 21, Eberli Ensemble, and Ysaye Quartet, and the former principal cello of the Vermont State Symphony, Orchestra of Our Time, and Bethlehem Bach Festival Orchestra. He has appeared as soloist with the Vermont State Symphony, Utica Symphony, Syracuse Symphony, and Sage City Symphony, and in performances under Pierre Boulez (New York Philharmonic Rug Concert series). He has recorded for the ECM, New World, CRI, Dorian, Deutsche Grammophon, Nonesuch, Candide, and Opus 1 labels, and has been music director of the Sage City Symphony since 1991.
Double bassist Robert Black tours the world creating music for the solo double bass and collaborating with the composers, musicians, dancers, artists, actors, and technophiles. He is a founding and current member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars. His current collaborative projects include a sound/video installation reflecting on the Anthropocene with sound artists Brian House and Sue Huang, filmed at the Freshkills landfill (NYC), and Blued Trees Project, an outdoor, environmental installation/performance for 24 double basses exploring the tension between ecocidal fossil fuel policies and the drive for the common good expressed by environmental justice movements with environmental artist Aviva Rahmani, composer Eve Beglarian, and choreographer Yoshiko Chuma. Black’s solo recordings include Philip Glass’s The Not-Doings of an Insomniac and Bass Partita and Poetry (Orange Mountain Music), Black’s own Possessed (Cantaloupe Records), Modern American Bass (New World Records), Christian Wolff: Look She Said (Complete Works for Bass), Giacinto Scelsi: The Works for Double Bass (Mode Records), and State of the Bass (O.O. Discs).
“It all emerges as a drone, one that imbues, shapes and gently fragments before reunification. What it is nearly a travesty to call a chord, that Protean sonority which, through ascent, invents and reinvents itself, each note a color and vice-versa, comprises only the first six minutes of John Luther Adams’s Arctic Dreams; it could have been given no more fitting title than ‘The Place Where you Go to Listen.’
“There are many ways to explore, to listen to, this series of seven pieces for four vocalists, four solo strings, and three layers of digital delay. For those inclined toward the academics of music and its historical and compositional prerequisites, those statistics should illuminate a suitable gateway. The electronics and their integration provide layers of intrigue to the various tuning considerations, and they’re all plainly audible as that opening piece unfolds. The texts, performed by Synergy Vocals, consist of what Adams calls Arctic litanies, and their environmental and linguistic origins offer alternate avenues of enquiry. There are also the autobiographical elements to examine, as the music emerged from Adams’s sound experiences on the Arctic tundra. Yes, there is much to posit and study concerning genesis and execution, especially the stunningly precise performances from violinist Robin Lorentz, violist Ron Lawrence, cellist Michael Finckel, and bassist Robert Black, as well as the sonic contributions of Nathaniel Reichman. Yes, all elements inhabit a space befitting the vocal group’s name, and, as with everything Cold Blue delivers, the totality is nothing less than top-drawer. None of this addresses that most difficult of indices, the point of intersection where the subjective and objective meet, the writer’s burden.
“Every time I sit down to listen to a new piece from this master of emotive directness and resultant form, there’s the sneaking suspicion that the magic won’t happen. As wonderful as the conception might be, as apropos of the times and of its socio-political and collective psychological concerns, something might not click, or not all the way. We can partake in the similarly diverse landscape of a Mahler symphonic movement, or dig into Ellington’s Reminiscing in Tempo, understanding the space they occupy via the bittersweet luxury of hindsight, because they and their satellite issues are now known and accepted quantities. The first movement of this cycle does a lot of what Adams pieces do, and it’s all exquisite and powerful, but it fails to prepare for what follows, the very first gesture of the second piece, ‘Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around.’ A middle-register tone, one sharp utterance, slowly takes on the icy sheen of harmonics in flux, but at what cost and benefit come the following micro and macrocosmic transformations? At what point does the string sound become a vocal utterance? At exactly what instant do those precisely deployed performative elements merge, expand, crystallize, and morph? At what point does a harmony change, does one harmonic and overtonal strand and tapestry inhabit the range and spectrum discarded by the last? In what way does one sonic entity supplant another in the solitary but never lonely space of contemplation, of listening, of ever and never-changing experience as the frozen moments liquify, like the simple but inexorable flow of tears signaling to me that it’s all happening again?
“Each of the succeeding movements explores a facet of what occurs in the opening pair. To generalize them that way is to negate none of Adams’s invention, only to summarize what must be experienced to be appreciated. That multileveled experience would have been enough, but there’s the double whammy of ‘One That Stays All Winter’ and ‘Where the Waves Splash, Hitting Again and Again’ to consider. Adams has ended a piece with the simple but infinitely complex sounds of bow hissing across string, and these final two movements achieve something similar but even more complete. The sixth piece pares his work to an essential. That ascent and descent so important to his larger forms is distilled to rapid motions in parallel, strings and voice in a multivalent spatial canon, first descending and then ascending in dizzying arrays of vowel and consonant. It isn’t speech, it isn’t song, but they conjoin to offer sound and articulation in symbiosis. After the vast slanting and inverting planes viewed from such a height, what’s left but to breathe? The final piece exhales, like the end of a day or a gesture of resignation, a perfect conclusion to yet another magical manifestation from a seemingly inexhaustible well.”—Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine
“For over 40 years, John Luther Adams lived in the northernmost reaches of Alaska. While he was there, he says he discovered a unique musical world grounded in ‘space, stillness and elemental forces,’ the sounds of nature that have informed a lifetime’s music since.
“While others have devoted themselves to campaigning on issues relating to the natural world, Adams (not to be confused with his American compatriot, composer John Adams) decided to give up his full-time job as an environmental activist and make his case through music.
“His latest work, Arctic Dreams, harks back to that period in the chill north. It is written for four string players and four singers, though the multiple layers of digital delays composed into the score take the result into the atmospheric reaches of the music of the spheres.
“Each of the movements explores a different sonority, a different landscape. ‘The Circle of Winds’ is buffeted by blustery cross-currents of strings. ‘River with No Willows’ is haunted by siren voices in the wind. An icy chorus of howls and screeching violins, like skates grating across a pond, introduce ‘One That Stays All Winter.’
“This is a wholly distinctive kind of minimalism that John Luther Adams has made his own. Synergy Vocals, known for their recordings of Steve Reich and Arvo Part, are joined by violinist Robin Lorentz, violist Ron Lawrence, cellist Michael Finckel, and bassist Robert Black. As the climate change movement grows in strength, it has its soundtrack ready-made.”—Richard Fairman, Financial Times (UK)
“After so many solo string sonorities and so much craggy modernism it was something of a relief to immerse myself in the lush wash of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams’ Arctic Dreams. The gradually changing textures and rich sonorities, an early example of Adams’ ‘Aeolian’ sound world, grew out of his ‘experiences listening to wind harps on the tundra.’ Arctic Dreams is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s dear friend, naturalist and author Barry Lopez, and shares its title with one of his greatest books. The seven movements of the suite, with evocative titles such as The Place Where You Go to Listen and Where the Waves Splash, Hitting Again and Again, are scored for four string players (Robin Lorenz, violin; Ron Lawrence, viola; Michael Finckel, cello and Robert Black, bass), four singers (Synergy Vocals) and three layers of digital delay. The eerie, yet calming, music is a perfect antidote to the stress and tribulations of these troubled times.”—David Olds,The WholeNote
“Some composers write about people, and some composers write about emotions. John Luther Adams is a composer who writes about places—not in the manner of a travelogue, as in Respighi’s Roman Trilogy or in Richard Strauss’s Aus Italien, but in a way that gets to the essentials of the earth below and of the sky above. One might say that he is among our first environmental composers.
“I write this review as Iceland’s Geldingadalir volcano continues to spew lava. Some individuals on YouTube have posted videos of the volcano and accompanied them with insipid music. I think that the sound of the volcano itself is music enough, but if a there is a living composer who can write music for a volcanic eruption, it is John Luther Adams. (Some readers might be aware that the Icelandic composer Jón Leifs, who died in 1968, composed an eponymous work about the volcano Hekla, and that the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür composed Magma, a symphony for solo percussion and orchestra, in 2002.)
“Arctic Dreams is not as dramatic as a volcanic eruption, however. In fact, as its title suggests, it is dreamlike and often not quite tangible. (The title comes from an award-winning book by Barry Lopez.) Musically, one of Adams’s inspirations for this work was his experience listening to wind harps on the Alaskan tundra. The work, in seven sections, is scored for four singers, and for four string players who play on open strings alone. The sound of the eight performers is ‘enhanced with three layers of digital delay that create 32-part canonic textures.’ Adams writes that these digital delays’“create a virtual choir and string orchestra,’ and that delay times range from a little over one second all the way up to 32 seconds. If not applied judiciously, these digital delays could have created sonic mud, but Adams’s writing produces an otherworldly shine reminiscent of the phrase ‘land of the midnight sun.’
“The singers’ texts are the names of Arctic places, plants, birds, weather, and seasons in the language of Alaska’s native peoples. The sixth movement, ‘One That Stays All Winter,’ apparently is devoted to birds, whose various songs and calls are mimicked both by the strings and the singers. This is particularly haunting, but the entire work is uncanny—beautiful but barren, at least in the sense that humans are absented from it. Of course the planet would be better off that way, so Arctic Dreams can be heard as painting of a frigid Eden, but of an Eden before God created Man.
“To call music ‘atmospheric’ sounds like damning it with faint praise, but Adams’s music transcends simple prettiness and encourages those who hear it to think about what the Earth was like before man arrived, and what it might be like after he departs. The performances, I assume, are exactly what the composer wanted (he is one of the CD’s co-producers), and Synergy Vocals is an excellent ensemble in the tradition of Electric Phoenix and the Swingle Singers.”—Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine
“The latest John Luther Adams recording to enter the market, Arctic Dreams, ranks as one of [his] mesmerizers. . . . The composer says it is the first piece that he wrote in his ‘Aeolian sound world, which grew out of my experiences listening to wind harps on the tundra.’ The string quartets that use this environment, Lines Made By Walking and untouched, reviewed in SFCV earlier, came along somewhat later. . . .
“Rather than have one long barely changing canvas as in some previous works, Adams splits the piece up into seven sections, each with its own character, fairly static in conception, yet drawing a listener in each time. The first two sections, ‘The Place Where You Go to Listen’ and ‘Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around,’ waft through the room like a distant mist, while the twittering strings and drifting foggy voices of the fifth section, ‘River With No Willows,’ remind me of the cloudy textures of György Ligeti. The most striking music occurs in No. 6, ‘One That Stays All Winter,’ a meteor shower of sliding, descending voices and strings.
“I’ve never been to the Arctic tundra regions . . . but I can feel the chill from this highly immersive music. Cold Blue Music is a fitting carrier—and description—of it.”—Richard S. Ginell, San Francisco Classical Voice
“John Luther Adams currently calls rural New Mexico home, but his many years in Alaska have left a lasting mark, Arctic Dreams (2020) merely the latest testament to the indelible impact of landscape on his artistic sensibility. Living in remote locales has profoundly influenced his music, which is reflected in material that takes its cue from the timeless rhythms of the outdoors rather than the chaos and cacophony of the city. In mapping his own route, he’s produced a body of work that bears an unmistakable signature and been publicly recognized for it, too, with Pulitzer and Grammy awards attesting to his accomplishments.
“A few details by the composer himself set the scene. Dedicated to the memory of Barry Lopez and titled after one of his books, the seven-part work presents music illustrative of his self-described ‘Aeolian’ sound world,’ which developed from ‘listening to wind harps on the tundra.’ The sounds generated by the four string players were produced using natural harmonics and open strings, with extensive retuning deployed and only the cello’s C string at its regular pitch. The two sopranos, alto, and bass of Synergy Vocals sing names of Arctic-related phenomena—birds, plants, places, etc.—in languages native to the peoples of Alaska. The third critical component concerns the application of three layers of digital delays to generate thirty-two-part canonic textures, a move that ostensibly transformed the strings into a mini-orchestra and the voices a choir.
“The work’s distinctive sound world establishes itself seconds into ‘The Place Where You Go to Listen’ when strings and voices converge to form an elemental, gently thrumming drone. Even at this early juncture, the work’s heightened ethereal character comes into focus via the high-pitched vocal textures, an element that in other places lends the material an almost celestial quality. The parts collectively create a dense, multi-layered entity that’s more than a little mesmerizing. Stillness and peacefulness permeate the music, even when the digital delays turn the undulating elements into an imposing physical mass.
“As much as all seven parts are united by the project concept, contrasts arise. Whereas ‘The Circle of Suns and Moons’ features the see-saw of keening, high-pitched strings, intense string gyrations generate a cyclonic effect in ‘The Circle of Winds’ before the voices enter to impose calm. With the elements merging into a hazy, susurrant mass, ‘River With No Willows’ shimmers transcendently, and in one of the album’s most striking pieces, ‘One That Stays All Winter,’ string and voice textures collectively arc in a manner suggestive of a bird swarm dipping and diving.
“Arctic Dreams doesn’t so much constitute a radical new direction for Adams so much as a consolidation. In that regard, it might be seen as a companion to the 2011 work The Wind in High Places (featured on the 2015 album of the same name), which also drew from the Aeolian harp and uses natural harmonics and open strings. While no one could possibly mistake Arctic Dreams for a work by Steve Reich, there are moments when the vocal ‘choir’ calls to mind the haunting singing heard in Tehillim and The Desert Music. That said, Adams’ music never settles into a predictable, systems-based style. On this and in the releases before it, he is always himself.”—Ron Schepper, Textura
“I reviewed some of John Luther Adams’ previous releases before. . . . This new work uses for string players and four singers, plus three layers of digital delay, which increases the mass of sound considerable at times. The texts are based on names of Arctic places, plants, weather, birds, and seasons in the languages of various peoples of Alaska. If I had not known that, I would guess something religious, but these voices sound as eerie as the Arctic winds. The strings played similarly, brushing the strings, creating overtones. . . . Like a polar wind over barren land, this floats and floats, something gaining strength, occasionally losing it, like natural forces. In ‘One That Stays All Winter’, all eight players resemble the sound of snowflakes falling. At times, I was thinking there were some more electronics heavily at work, especially in the dark and droney opening piece, ‘The Place Where You Go To Listen’, and I enjoyed this hallucinatory play of the mind; electronic sounding and not electronic generated. Great one.”—Vital Weekly (Netherlands)
“To longtime listeners like myself, John Luther Adams is known not only for his singular ability to seamlessly orchestrate classical ensembles on the terms of naturally occurring phenomenon and environments, but for his particular relationship with the expansive space of northern environments. An Alaskan resident from 1978–2014, much has been noted and written about how his sound worlds relate to the icy tundras, verdant forests and expansive marine life of the North-est America. In Arctic Dreams, his latest for Cold Blue, JLA specifically utilizes the vocabulary of aeolian wind harps, an ancient modal string instrument designed to be played by the wind, to unpack a series of works for four string players, four singers, and three layers of digital delay. Following the resonant and mechanical nature of the harps he is imitating, the string players perform solely on open strings and naturally occurring harmonics. while the singers recite a series of ‘Arctic Litanies,’ composed of the names of Arctic places, plants, birds, weather, and seasons, in the languages of the Iñupiat and Gwich’in peoples of Alaska. On par with the intelligence of the rest of this catalogue, he integrates the programmatic vocalizations into the beds of sound quite seamlessly. The dynamic stasis of the digitally augmented sound and the careful gestures of the musicians subtly integrate the shapes, sonorities and human concepts of the landscape into an articulation of the beauty of its essence. Microtonality and clinical mathematics are clearly heavy allies in the constructions here, but they are never allowed to overwhelm the listener’s attention. Once again, JLA has demonstrated his mastery of thoroughly modern techniques, as well as his singular vision for redeeming their musicality towards an articulation of the world as it exists almost everywhere else besides the concert hall.”—Frank Meadows, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter
“Scored for four vocalists and four strings, the seven movements on this album also incorporate layers of digital delay that add a richness to the texture. The result is a warm ethereal ambiance throughout the album. Adams writes in the liner notes that ‘The sung text is a series of Arctic Litanies, composed of the names of Arctic places, plants, birds, weather, and seasons, in the languages of the Iñupiat and Gwich’in peoples of Alaska.’ The album is dedicated to the late Barry Lopez, a long-time friend of Adams, and the music, characteristically, is heavily influenced by nature and the Arctic tundra. John Luther Adams is a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning composer whose experiences in rural Alaska have been a decisive influence on his music throughout a long and distinguished career.
“The string music of Arctic Dreams reaches back to the Festival of Alaska Native Arts, where it was first heard in 1993 as part of Adam’s composition Earth and the Great Weather. Choral music was added to this in 2000. Arctic Dreams represents a re-balancing of these forces so that it has become a completely new piece. The harmonies for all the works on the album are derived from the first seven odd-numbered harmonics above the low D in the double bass. The tones are played on open strings and there is extensive re-tuning of the instruments so that only the natural harmonics are heard throughout.
“The first track of Arctic Dreams is The Place Where You Go to Listen, and this is also the title of a John Luther Adams sound installation located in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska. The installation is driven by the weather, time of day, phases of the moon, earthquake activity, and other geophysical data gathered in real time. This is then used to select the sound components of the installation in the moment. The portrayal of natural phenomena also seems to be the basis for this track—it is as if we are watching a sunrise on the tundra. The movement begins with a deep chord in the lower strings followed by voices singing a single syllable. The sustained low chords provide a warm and welcoming feel, yet there is gravitas present also. Some dissonance in the upper voices add a sense of mystery, and the tones seem to be reaching upward with a sunny, optimistic feel. The voices are attended by high, silvery sounds that add a glittery polish, like looking into the Arctic sun on a clear morning.
“John Luther Adams does not write music that simply describes nature, rather, nature inhabits his music. We hear nature speaking to us directly. . . . Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around, track 2, exemplifies this with foundational bass tones combined with lighter voices to make a lovely sound, climbing higher in pitch as our gaze looks upward at the mountain peaks. . . .
“Very different emotions are conveyed by The Circle of Suns and Moons, track 3. This is spare and mysterious music with a chilling, almost alien presence. The high strings seem to twinkle in the night as voices climb very high to create a sense of distance and remoteness. This is less organic than the other pieces, but more evocative of a cold clear night in the company of the moon and the stars. The Circle of Winds, track 4, is just that, a flurry of short stringendo strokes in the low strings and a dense rising and falling in the layered texture that is reminiscent of a whirlwind. The disconnected runs of strings form an amazing aural construct. The color lightens as warm voices creep in, sustained and ethereal—completely different from the power of the opening. The feeling is now optimistic and bright, like a blue sky after a storm. The whirlwind sounds return, then recede at the finish.
“River With No Willows, track 5, features lovely harmonies in the voices and what sounds like a jangle of bells in the accompaniment that create a sense of calm and meditation. All the sounds here are delicate and beautiful. The One That Stays In Winter, track 6, is a wonderfully abstract sounding of bird calls created by the voices and strings. Flocks of different birds are heard gathering deep in the wilderness and the sounds increase—the birds clearly own this place. The final track, Where the Waves Splash, Hitting Again and Again, is the shortest piece at just under two minutes. This consists of a series soft vocal whispers that evoke the waves of an ocean. It is as if we are standing on the edge of a wide beach, just barely able to hear the distant surf. . . .
“All of the performances on this album are perfectly in touch with the spirit of the music. The processing, mixing and mastering, so integral to the realization of this album, was ably executed by Nathaniel Reichman.
“All of the tracks on Arctic Dreams bring us into close association with Arctic nature. The music is always reflective and seems to be telling us that nature will eventually prevail, despite our rebellion against it. We are living in a state of grace with nature and must adapt to it rather than seek to conquer it. Arctic Dreams affirms the constancy and primacy of the environmental perspective that has always been present in the music of John Luther Adams.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21
“John Luther Adams’s Arctic Dreams is scored for violin, viola, cello, bass, SSAB solo voices, and three layers of digital delay. He was inspired by time spent listening to Aeolian wind harps on the tundra. The sung text is made up of the names of various aspects of the Arctic biome in the languages of the indigenous Inupiat and Gwich’in peoples of Alaska. The music is based on the first seven odd-numbered harmonics above the bass’s low D. As with his later string quartets, the piece calls for only natural harmonics from the strings, so its pitch collection is met with extensive retuning. Otherwise, the piece is quite unlike the quartets; the layers of digital delay create expansive canonic textures, making the ensemble sound larger than it is. The resulting atmospheric sound from the delay and the harmonics often reminds me of Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1991-95). Some movements sound unlike anything I’ve heard from the composer before; for instance, VI, ‘One That Stays All Winter,’ is made up of echoing, canonic glissandos from all performers, evoking the phenomenon of acoustic dispersion of sound frequencies that causes eerie ‘singing’ ice. Arctic Dreams is, in many ways, a departure from his more recent music, taking his exploration of harmonics and natural phenomena into new territory. Followers of his music will find much to discover here.”—Nathan Faro, American Record Guide
“John Luther Adams has always composed music about and rooted in deserts, ecology and open space. His album titles reflect that, and Arctic Dreams is no exception. Dedicated to the late author Barry Lopez, who was a friend of Adams, this seven-part composition draws on the sound of wind-harps on the tundra. The libretto consists of lists of Alaskan names for Arctic plants, birds, places and weather; and the four singers are heavily treated, as are the string quartet, with three layers digital delay to produce a virtual choir and orchestra. Its sometimes pretty sounds accumulate, repeat and recombine to produce a compelling cosmic minimalism that somehow describes and evokes the Arctic. Titles such as ‘The Circle of Suns and Moons,’ ‘The Circle of Winds’ and ‘Where the Waves Splash, Hitting Again and Again’ reinforce the cyclical and repetitive evolution of this wonderfully moody music. . . . Adams’ music is the sound of light, emptiness, dust and detail.”—Rupert Loydell, International Times
“The works of John Luther Adams are often closely connected to landscapes and the places he lives or has lived. Examples are the Become Trilogy (Become River, Become Ocean, Become Desert), and Lines Made By Walking. Arctic Dreams is no exception: Adams lived in Alaska for many years before he moved to rural New Mexico some six years ago. . . .
“Arctic Dreams is scored for four string players and four singers ‘enhanced with three layers of digital delay that create 32-part canonic textures.’ The string sounds, Adams writes, ‘are all produced by natural harmonics, or open strings.’ Only the C string of the cello is tuned at its usual pitch; all other strings are extensively retuned. ‘The sung text is a series of ‘Arctic Litanies,’ composed of the names of Arctic places, plants, birds, weather, and seasons, in the languages of the Iñupiat and Gwich’in peoples of Alaska.’ This does not mean these texts are intelligible: the syllables are stretched into unrecognizable words. The dreamlike effect of this is felt specifically in the earlier parts of the seven sections. But things do not remain as peaceful as they seem. Closer to the end, somewhat worrisome unrest, or even turmoil, is introduced, climaxing in One That Stays All Winter. Not everything in the Arctic is dreamlike, obviously.
Arctic Dreams is dedicated to Adam’s friend Barry Lopez, author of the award-winning book with the same title. . . . The book is described as ‘a timeless meditation on the ability of the landscape to shape our dreams and to haunt our imaginations.’ Which is also applicable to Adams’ musical interpretation.” —Ambientblog
“In the year of COP26, John Luther Adams is surely the composer of the moment. Formerly an environmental activist, he lived for more than 40 years in Alaska and the latest of his panoramic musical landscapes is a depiction of that region’s ‘space, stillness and elemental forces.'” —Rapidtelecast [Arctic Dreams was a Rapidtelecast Top 10 Classical Albums of 2021]