Houses of the Wind CB0063
Houses of the Wind is in five movements:
- Catabatic Wind
- Mountain Wind
- Tundra Wind
- Canyon Wind
- Anabatic Wind
John Luther Adams writes about the work:
“Much of my music of the past thirty-some-odd years has grown out of my experiences listening to aeolian harps. Yet, until now, I’ve never incorporated those sounds directly into the music.
“In the last two decades of the 20th century, I made field recordings of elemental sounds all over Alaska—fire, ice, thunder, glaciers calving into the sea. Recently, I transferred those aging tapes to more stable media. Listening to the very first segment of a small aeolian harp, recorded in the Arctic in the summer of 1989, I was captivated. The voices of the wind singing through the strings of the harp brought back vividly the clarity of light, the sprawling space, and the sense of possibility I had felt.
“Houses of the Wind (2021–22) is composed entirely from that single ten-and-a-half-minute recording, transposed, layered on itself, and sculpted into five new pieces of the same length. The world has changed since then, in ways we couldn’t have imagined. The winds rising around us now seem darker, more turbulent and threatening. Yet still, if this music is haunted by feelings of loss and longing, I hope it also offers some measure of consolation, even peace.”
John Luther Adams, winner of a Pulitzer Prize in music (2014) and a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition (2015), and a 2022 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 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, including Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) and Winter Music: Composing the North (Wesleyan University Press). 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 nine CDs devoted to his work, including Arctic Dreams (CB0060), 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).
“His music becomes more than a metaphor for natural forces: it is an elemental experience in its own right.” —Tom Service, The Guardian
“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. . . . Adams is changed by nature and his music is a catalogue of the places that changed him. . . . Adams [is] an important and necessary musician for our time.”—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 . . . creating the seamless, seemingly organic layers of sound Adams lays out over his structurally precise and infinitely flexible power grids.”—Gramophone
“In certain obvious respects the latest release from John Luther Adams is atypical. It features no orchestra, no instrumentalists responding to a score, but was composed—sculpted is the word Adams uses—by layering and transposing material from an archival recording made on a trip to the Arctic in the summer of 1989. Five captivating pieces catch the singing of the wind through the strings of an Aeolian harp. Each has its own distinct character, yet all five evoke vividly the scale and elemental grandeur of that glacial landscape, and the intense presence and luminosity of its Arctic air. Atypical, yet Houses of the Wind encapsulates nonetheless the quintessence of a composer whose music speaks with unmatched eloquence to the ecological awareness and anxieties of our time.” —Julian Cowley, The Wire
“Why should a striving after wind be considered an act of vanity? The relevant passages in Ecclesiastes have long perplexed me, not because of any disagreement with the multilayered philosophies of transience and their windy counterpart but because they seem to denigrate that transience, or at least to render its encapsulation a fool’s errand. If this new five-part reflection from John Luther Adams demonstrates anything, it is that a striving after wind, or after its essence and effect, can lead to something which is simultaneously elusively beautiful and permanent. Here, we have yet another chapter of reflections relating to Adams’s long Arctic sojourn, but with each manifestation, he offers a fresh take on the gorgeous near-staticity underpinning ineffability in motion. These five pieces had their genesis in 1989 recordings of an Aeolian harp made by the composer in the Arctic and recently transferred from tape. Each piece lasts around 10 minutes, the original length of the source material, and was subjected to various electroacoustic processes to reach results both like and unlike Adams’s previous works.
“Having recorded the minutia, the real difficulty begins. On the one hand, if you’ve ever heard an Aeolian harp, there’s nothing mysterious here at all. It captures the essence of the wind rather than its sound, the strings in dynamic and tonal flux in a luminous language both eerie and somehow consoling. As with so many other Adams compositions, reshaped essences of natural phenomena, like wind, water, and their attendant physical conditions, govern every aspect of the music’s progression, from its Protean timbre to the ever-evolving underlying drama, but here, fundamentally, the process is the product. Captured wind, that most majestically delicate and unpredictable of improvising forces, provides the immediately identifiable bedrock from which the music flows.
“What emerges is a distillation of affirmation and negation in icy tandem, infinitely slow builds and dissolves that allow room either for introspective analysis or a simple and healing drift, take your choice. The tonal centers opening Canyon Wind, just to cite a fairly straightforward instance, arise slowly, like the phoenix, though after a slow burn. Mountain Wind begins in darker depths but ascends toward a light as confounding as it is brilliant. Organ-like, the arc and eventual descent open doors to a space beyond all dualistic descriptive terms. For a more complete and ethereal ascent, become immersed in Anabatic Wind as it rises toward the pitches only basically reached and then abandoned.
“Repeated listening reveals not so much this diversity of sonority and image but a timbral unity. Even more than Adams’s wonderful string quartets, the sounds used to sculpt Houses of the Wind are of a piece. The monumental has grown from the microcosmic detail of former explorations. A moment in time has come to a sort of fruition but one that changes with each audition. There is no ego in this striving after wind. In fact, Adams comes remarkably close to allowing the natural element simply to exist, in a very faithful translation. We hear the realization of a vision in flux for more than three decades. What other permanence can be desired or achieved? —Marc Medwin, Fanfare
“Living in Los Angeles in the 1970s, John Luther Adams liked to walk around and listen to the birds, making recordings of the squawks and chirps he found the loveliest. The acclaimed environmental activist and composer had just finished studying music composition at CalArts, but those walks were as influential as his formal education. ‘The birds became my teacher after James Tenney,’ he told an interviewer in 2014. He would write the birds’ calls into his music, but instead of meticulously attempting perfect notations of their songs, he wanted to find ‘what gets lost in translation.’
Adams later moved to Alaska, where he continued to search for music across the state’s vast tundras, forests, and mountains; the expanse of the Arctic still inspires much of his work. His Pulitzer Prize-winning orchestral piece Become Ocean is an abstract rendition of Alaska’s roiling ocean that captures the immensity of the wide-open seas with surging melodies. Like his early bird-call explorations, the music is an interpretation, an attempt to offer an impression of how nature sounds and makes us feel.
“Adams frequently works with orchestra, chamber ensemble, or percussion, but on Houses of the Wind, he turns to field recordings. The album is based on a 10-and-a-half-minute recording of an aeolian harp—a string instrument that’s played by the wind—that Adams made in Alaska in 1989. He’s explored the sound of the instrument before on pieces like The Wind in High Places, in which a string quartet emulates the air-driven device. But here, Adam works with the ethereal instrument itself, creating pieces that teeter between serenity, mourning, and hope.
“The aeolian harp’s gentle hum is a vehicle for nostalgia; the way the wind streams through its strings creates a feathery sound that carries with it a feeling of wistfulness. Much of the wafting music on Houses of the Wind grows from the distance into full view, like climbing a mountain and reaching its apex. Opener ‘Catabatic Wind’ defines this structure by starting with a distant, high-pitched twinkle. Gradually, deeper and more resonant tones take over, turning the atmosphere from wondrous to ominous. Other tracks, like ‘Mountain Wind,’ start with sonorous, sinister rumbles that blossom into a radiant spectrum of pitches.
“Just as the gossamer, shapeshifting hum of the aeolian harp is driven by the ways that wind interacts with the instrument, Adams follows that organic motion in sculpting his compositions. Closer ‘Anabatic Wind’ makes the most compelling use of the natural ebb and flow of the air through the harp’s strings, sounding like a mellowed-out windchime. Different pitches glow and fade, climbing and falling with ease. It’s vibrant and pulsing, venturing from dark tones into a final shimmer of hope.
“While the same field recording is the source for each of these pieces, the end results vary considerably. Subtle contradictions connect them: They’re in constant motion yet feel suspended in mid-air, tranquil yet uneasy, warm yet icy. Sometimes, these differences coexist and suggest a feeling of serenity, while at other points, the music feels wispy and slightly unsettling. But that unease often dissipates, once again finding balance between moments of optimism and despair, richness and translucence.
“Adams has often mused about the ways music and activism relate to each other. To him, they’re inseparable—writing music is his way of advocating for the Earth. Given its direct link to the elements, Houses of the Wind feels like an overt statement about the relationship between music and the environment. Yet as in all his work, the result is impressionistic, not didactic. Amorphous as they are, these renderings are a powerful reminder that the planet is alive around us.” —Vanessa Ague, Pitchfork
“The connection between music and the natural world may go back as far as music itself. There’s evidence to suggest that sites picked for cave paintings were chosen for their acoustic properties. Traditional music of indigenous cultures is often heavily inspired by nature, and music was even thought to control and influence nature, calling down the rains and quieting raging seas. Western Classical Music has long been influenced by nature as well, from the birdsong emulations of Ludwig van Beethoven and Claude Debussy to the raging thunderstorms of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to the wide-open wilderness of Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite. Even with such long, interwoven histories, music has a complicated relationship with nature. It’s considered by many to be the most abstract artform, as it’s not a representation of the physical world but rather an expression of it—at worst, “art for art’s sake.” The introduction of technology into Classical Music further complicates matters, but it also hints at a way out of this theoretical cul-de-sac. Recording technology makes it possible to make music out of the world we inhabit. It also offers a hint about the role that music might play going forward in a world racked by climate change, raging inequality, and massive social unrest. It is in this context that we are presented with Houses of the Wind, an ambient meditation on an arctic landscape from influential modern classical composer John Luther Adams.
“The four longform compositions are built around a 10-and-a-half minute recording of an aeolian harp Adams made in 1989. The aeolian harp, also known as a wind harp, is made up of long strings stretched taut, which are then “played” by the wind. Think of the sound of a suspension bridge or of the wind playing through telephone wires for a rough idea of the aeolian harp’s ethereal, alien ominous beauty.
“The Alaskan wilderness is a regular source of inspiration for Adams, most notably on 2013’s Become Ocean with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. On Become Ocean, Adams reimagined the Alaskan expanse via euphoric brass and endless strings, sounding like a tuning orchestra played in slow motion, suitable for shafts of light piercing the arctic waters as depicted on the cover.
“On Houses of the Wind, the subjectivity is removed, becoming less of an impression and more of the thing itself. The field recordings pulse, shimmer and shine, like on album opener “Catabatic Wind,” giving the sensation of stumbling upon the aeolian harp’s taut wires glimmering beneath the aurora borealis. It’s beautiful, peaceful, unearthly and serene. Elsewhere, like on “Mountain Wind,” it takes on more of a somber hue, down-tuned to sound more like Buddhist chanting. Or it can be meditative, as on “Tundra Wind,” with its hypnotic backdrop of mechanical squarewaves.
“Houses of the Wind defies both ranking as well as conventional narratives. Not a whole lot happens, plot wise, across is five tracks, each clocking in at more than 10 minutes. Instead, these longform compositions seem to shift and shimmer like some kind of stainless steel installation art beneath the Northern Sun as Adams sculpts and processes the sound. Rather than songs, each of the Houses of the Wind pieces feels like a place unto itself—a place to think and dream. Instead of Grand Narratives, Adams invites us to pause and reflect on a space or a moment in time, appreciating the way that sunlight reflects off of water or ice or the shapes of the wind passing over fields of wheat or piles of snow.
“Considering the havoc that climate change is wreaking on this planet, Houses of the Wind feels more pertinent and precious than ever. Who’s to say how much the Alaskan wilderness has changed since 1989, when these recordings were originally made? Who can guess what it might look like in another 30 years?
“John Luther Adams offers hope for music as a call to activism and engagement with the world. It’s the opposite of music for music’s sake, although it functions brilliantly on that level as well. For those who care to listen, Adams’ music can open your ears, your eyes and even your heart if you let it.” —J Simpson, Spectrum Culture
“I’m not going to beat about the bush: I love this recording!
“I have been an enthusiastic admirer of the American composer John Luther Adams for some years now and, whilst I am not naïve enough to assume his music will be to everyone’s taste, I think this must rank amongst his very best. Years of living in extreme isolation in the North American Arctic have pared down JLA’s music to its simplest and most fundamental qualities and this latest project is no exception. In a very real sense, Houses of the Wind should have a co-composer credit for the wind itself as it is shaped out of field recordings made by the composer of the sound of an aeolian harp in 1989. In the process of transferring the tapes of his old field recordings, Adams became captivated by the sound of a ten and a half minute long tape which provided both the inspiration and the basis for the present composition.
“All five movements use that ten and half minute recording as their source material with Adams stretching out the sound, layering and transposing it to evoke what I presume are the characters of different types of arctic wind.
“Just about every piece by John Luther Adams deploys some kind of natural acoustic effect to generate music and he directly relates this to his passionate concern for the Earth’s environment. These natural sounds used in this way also tend to have a far reaching psychological effect on the listener. In the case of this piece, that effect goes well beyond some pleasant noises produced by an aeolian harp and tunes into a place where man and nature meet or perhaps it might be better to speak of where man can realize his place within nature that he tends to neglect and abuse.
“There is a risk that Houses of the Wind will sound, on the basis of this description, like the kind of music encountered at a spa wellness hotel. Such an idea should be banished forthwith! JLA’s experience of working with overtone series on string instruments in his wonderful string quartets means his musical imagination hears in what must be a really wonderful original recording all sorts of aural miracles whether it be vast, limitless landscapes in the bass register or angelic singing voices like the ghosts of violins in the treble. There is a profound absence of hurry which despite each piece only lasting the ten and half minutes of the field recording produces the effect of something genuinely timeless. The timeframe is set by things like the gradual, patient unfurling of an overtone sequence. JLA has contrived to create music that makes us feel we are eavesdropping on the music making of nature herself. What is particularly impressive is that a distinct voice is heard through the music even though in no way does it resemble a human voice. Or rather it is the voice upon which all human voices rest since it is the foundation of all sound. Of course, this is sleight of hand because this is after all a composition by a human being—but a human being wonderfully in tune with the world around him. Thankfully for us a human who can translate that attunement into music in which even our dull ears can hear something of what he hears.
“John Luther Adams’ genius lies in taking ideas that often look dry or uninspiring and allowing the most vivid kind of life to shine from them. I have often found that after listening to his music, my experience of all other music seems cleansed and revitalized. I have this experience listening to Houses of the Wind.
“The composer has written of how many of his pieces for more traditional instruments were inspired by listening to aeolian harps during his years resident in the Arctic and there is a moving sense in this composition of Luther Adams paying back for that inspiration.” —David McDade, MusicWeb International
“The music of John Luther Adams is often inspired by nature. The composer studied percussion and composition at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, but he always had a strong environmental bent that led him to travel to Alaska at the age of twenty-two. That first contact with the wild immensity of the northernmost part of the United States prompted him, in 1978, to settle there, where he lived until 2014, the year in which he won the Pulitzer Prize for music and the Grammy for Best Composition of contemporary classical music for his album Become Ocean.
“John Luther Adams’ latest recording is Houses of the Wind . . . which the composer explains is inspired by a field recording of an Aeolian harp in Alaska. The wind harp . . . consists of a rectangular, long and narrow soundboard, on which . . . strings extend. . . . [S]trong currents of air, when passing through the strings, make them vibrate and produce an ethereal sound that varies with the intensity of the wind.
“Although Adams had already explored the sound of the wind harp in his work The Wind in High Places (included on his 2015 album of the same title), in which the string quartet JACK Quartet emulated the sound of the air-powered apparatu. But this time, as he himself has explained, Adams has worked directly on the recording made by the instrument itself and each of the five pieces—titled with a name associated with a type of wind (Catabatic Wind, Mountain Wind, Tundra Wind , Canyon Wind and Anabatic Wind)—has its own personality, creating pieces that oscillate between serenity and hope and the most sinister and somber tones, which even include thunder.
“Houses of the Wind is an extension of the extraordinary relationship between music and the environment that has always characterized the music of John Luther Adams, although this time its sound is much more impressionistic and ambient than in his compositions created through traditional orchestration.” —Jesus Rodriguez Lenin, Minimalismore (Spain)
“Readers may recall that the last article on this site about a new release on Cold Blue Music of the work of John Luther Adams was filed a little over a year ago. That album was devoted entirely to a single composition entitled Arctic Dreams, in which he drew upon the resources of four string players, four singers, and three layers of digital delay to evoke what he called the ‘aeolian sound world’ of the reverberations of wind harps on the tundra. It appears that, after having finished his work on Arctic Dreams, Adams decided to take a more direct approach to those ‘aeolian’ sonorities.
“The result is a new composition, entitled Houses of the Wind, which was completed earlier this year. Adams provided his own account of how this music was created as follows: ‘In the last two decades of the 20th century, I made field recordings of elemental sounds all over Alaska—fire, ice, thunder, glaciers calving into the sea. Recently, I transferred those aging tapes to more stable media. Listening to the very first segment of a small aeolian harp, recorded in the Arctic in the summer of 1989, I was captivated. The voices of the wind singing through the strings of the harp brought back vividly the clarity of light, the sprawling space, and the sense of possibility I had felt. Houses of the Wind (2021–22) is composed entirely from that single ten-and-a-half-minute recording, transposed, layered on itself, and sculpted into five new pieces of the same length. The world has changed since then, in ways we couldn’t have imagined. The winds rushing around us now seem darker, more turbulent and threatening. Yet still, if this music is haunted by feelings of loss and longing, I hope it also offers some measure of consolation, even peace.’
“There is nothing new about using tape music techniques to take one form of sound and transform it into another. This as a compositional practice that dates back at least as far as the Forties when it was developed by Pierre Schaeffer, who called the practice musique concrète (i.e. the transformation of natural, or “concrete” sounds into music). My first serious effort at composition involved taking a tape of sounds created by the frequency modulation synthesis technique developed by John Chowning at Stanford University in the Sixties. Like Schaeffer, I used that tape as a source that I then subjected to transformations of my own design.
“What makes Houses of the Wind interesting is that Adams took a single source and subjected it to transformation five different times in five different ways. The result is his latest Cold Blue Music album, also entitled Houses of the Wind, consisting of five tracks, all of roughly the same duration and each named after a particular type of wind phenomenon. . . .
To be honest, I am just beginning to appreciate the qualities that endow each track with its own unique characteristics; but the listening experience is engaging enough that this exercise strikes me as totally worth the time invested in it!” —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio
“Houses of the Wind is both a distillation and summation of the strong environmental influences present over the entire arc of Adams musical career. . . . The overall effect is a wash of tones that change character relatively slowly and possess an organic sensibility that evokes the natural atmospheric phenomena. Each movement describes a separate category of wind. . . . That five variations on the same original recording can be so distinctive while exhibiting the same general form is a tribute to the artful manipulation by Adams of density, volume, and pitch within a limited context. This adds to the elemental feel of the piece and allows the wind to portray itself through the original recording. The direct articulation of wind into sound through the medium of the aeolian harp makes Houses of the Wind a unique convergence of music, emotion and nature.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21
“Constantly testing his powers John Luther Adams leans into the raw energy of a decades old recording of Aeolian Harp. The sound emanating from this dawn-of-spacemusic instrument and its wind animated strings seems a perfect soundtrack to unsettled realms. His Houses of the Wind (52’46”)—an album in five parts, each about ten minutes, each perceived so elementally—makes it easy to imagine our planet before it was inhabited, or at such time it is returned to that state. Transformed into a migrating, subtly colored timbral field, the basic recording of this instrument gains depth, acquires radiance, and further comes to life through untold audio manipulations. Requiring multiple facets of listening, thinking and feeling Houses of the Wind may seem the result of a strange new art. Lacking familiar reference points, it should lead us to consider unseen things around us.
“The fluvial action of wind on strings produces a gradual purring drone, which is reimagined by Adams’ action on the recording—which provides even further transformations between mood, tone color and hue. Further in, darkness descends in rumbling drones and primitive spaces. The shifting shapes and shades of sound hum in a tremor of floating textures—emanating from the simple vibrating overtones of taut susurrating strands activated by random currents of air.
“With Houses of the Wind Adams adds to an impressive oeuvre and proves himself a far more adventurous composer than previously suspected. His relentless curiosity and receptiveness to all things audible and a fascination with the effect of sound tells us about his values—that his work is as equally about music as it is about attitude. Whether an unnavigable experiment in indefinite pitch, or a quiescent tone zone, the haunting nature of these five realizations will be felt long after the recording has completed its play. In a world that cannot be made sense of, Adams offers the listener music for dreaming bigger than one’s own self—of something bigger than what we know in this world.” —Chuck van Zyl, Star’s End
“I still remember my first exposure to the sound of the aeolian harp, it was a song called ‘Winterwhite’ by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in the mid-70s, which was really just a short introduction to another instrumental that involved the whole band playing, but ‘Winterwhite’ was a sound like I had never heard before, with church bells ringing in the background; nobody in the band was credited with playing it, of course, because it is played only by the wind.
“Composer John Luther Adams, who spent much of his life living in Alaska, made numerous field recordings of aeolian harps strummed by the Arctic winds around thirty years ago, and in the process of transferring those tapes to a more stable medium had a chance to revisit those sounds, and in 2021 he went back to those original recordings to create the five movements of Houses of the Wind. Each of these five movements is roughly ten minutes in length, all created from those recordings while using voice layering, filters, computer time stretching, and pitch manipulation to enrich the sound, but the result is unmistakable, nothing else sounds quite like an aeolian harp, and Adams’ work remains true to that sound. At ten minutes per movement we’re not just talking about a short intro, but a fully immersive wind harp world that a listener can easily get lost within. The sound produced by the wind blowing across the harp st rings is truly beyond description, a number of different pitches and associated harmonics all coming at once, a dreamy natural floating ambient sound without a synthesizer anywhere in sight, working gently on the listener’s subconscious. The titles evoke a presumed source, like Mountain Wind, Tundra Wind, Canyon Wind, and so on, though only Adams knows the true origins, and as listeners we can just open our minds and let the wind find a new home. There really is nothing else quite like Houses of the Wind.” —Peter Thelan, Exposé
“Houses of the Wind is a new release for the Cold Blue label by American composer John Luther Adams. . . . During his stay in Alaska, Adams had recorded the primordial elements of nature in their expressive power: the sound of drifting ice islands, the noise of the fire, sudden storms. . . . From a fragment recorded in the Arctic in 1989, he created this cycle of five compositions of the same length in which he processed the original sound of an aeolian harp, his favorite instrument, creating a ‘carpet’ of melodies, one atop the other, offering the sensation of almost being able to ‘touch’ the sound coming out of the speakers. . . . With continuous listening (recommended) a sense … of placid stillness begins to exist in the listener’s mind, and then it disappears, as slowly as it arrived.” — Marco Paolucci, Kathodik (Italy)
“Many composers draw inspiration from their surroundings; a rare few, however, become veritable conduits for the environments they inhabit. John Luther Adams is a prime exemplar of the latter, specifically in the way his music amplifies the impact many years in Alaska have exerted on his creative output. Yet while the Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning composer no longer lives there—he relocated about six years ago to areas within South and Central America before moving to rural New Mexico—his latest Cold Blue release draws directly from his experiences in the Great North.
“To create Houses of the Wind (2021), he revisited a ten-and-a-half-minute field recording of a small aeolian harp he made in the Arctic in summer 1989 and was so taken by the sound of the wind blowing across the instrument’s strings, he decided to work with the tape directly and apply pitch manipulations, time-stretching, and layering to produce five ten-minute variations. Rather than use the originating material as a springboard for a formally composed instrumental work, Adams in this case worked directly with it as a foundation for the treatments.
“After a softly shimmering, organ-like drone introduces Catabatic Wind, the opening track slowly expands as more sounds are layered in, the move delicately executed to preserve the contemplative aura. The tones float through the air, undisturbed by other elements and murmuring like a gentle breeze transcribed into aural form. As the wavering tones ebb and flow, the music begins to feel elemental and out-of-time, as if it’s something that’s always existed but only now has assumed corporeal form and made available for public consumption. Whereas a slightly foreboding character infuses Mountain Wind, Tundra Wind reinstates the peaceful ambiance of the opener. Canyon Wind shimmers beatifically at first before retreating into itself and growing ever-quieter, after which Anabatic Wind concludes the recording at a similarly low-level pitch.
“Note that in being an electro-acoustic work as opposed to one performed by, say, a string quartet, the recording aligns Adams more explicitly to electronic artists operating within ambient-drone and field recordings genres. Said difference, however, has more to do with timbre than style. It’s not so much that the music on Houses of the Wind is radically unlike others in his discography so much as it involves a dramatic shift in sound design. Adams’s sensibility still permeates the work, even if the presentation’s different.
“Cold Blue has undeniably benefited from its association with Adams, but he too has been a huge beneficiary of the label’s unwavering support. While recordings by him have appeared on other labels, Cold Blue has for many years brought attention to his work and magnified his profile, and it’s over the course of his tenure with the label that his stature has grown to what it is today. It’s especially gratifying that his work has received the recognition it has when he’s made no concessions to public taste or compromised on the integrity of his creations.” —Ron Schepper, Textura
“John Luther Adams … challenges traditional composition and classical expectations with his work, which is often long and abstract, rooted in American landscapes, particularly Alaska where he lived for many years …
“For many years he … has made field recordings of nature at work— he specifically mentions fire, ice, thunder and the creak of glaciers—but also aeolian harps, wind-played instruments out in the open, producing constantly shifting tones and drones. His new album, Houses of the Wind, is constructed from a ten minute recording of one of those harps, composed (or assembled) in the studio.
“You could play join-the-dots to Adams’ Cold Blue labelmate Chas Smith who creates and plays his own instruments, and of course to Adams’ own extensive discography.
“This musical house contains five different winds, five different moods, five 10.5 minute tracks, each of which ebbs and flows, swirling around the room into your head and mind. It is a calming, windswept music that gently blows worries and discontent into the distance like unwanted sand or snow, yet enlivens rather than dulls.”—Rupert Loydell, International Times
“The eerie vibrations created by Aeolian (wind) harps provide the central source of inspiration and sonic material for John Luther Adams’ latest release, Houses of the Wind. The album is a meditative journey in five wind-swept movements that transfix and bend all sense of the present moment. Using a series of layered field recordings of his own Aeolian harp, Adams creates slowly unfolding and otherworldly shimmerings as if slowly floating through a cave of gypsum. Low rumbles form as glacial resonances that crystalize into mountainous radiant spectra. The gentle ambience of this sound world is at once distant hopelessness and point blank serenity.
“This duality of despair and transcendence permeates throughout creating a liminal experience for the listener. As one who advocates for the health of the earth, Adams provides a reminder of nature’s fragile and yet tremendous force. But rather than a didactic offering, Adams invites us to pause and think about the space we inhabit. A convergence of music, emotion and nature, this release provides a sense of longing but also peace.” —Adam Scime, TheWholeNote
“Much of John Luther Adams’s (b 1953) body of work consists of aural landscapes informed by humanity’s often humble relationship to nature. The aeolian harp is a significant source of inspiration—a simple vessel that transforms the wind into shimmering, otherworldly sound. He evoked the sounds of the aeolian harp in his string quartet The Wind in High Places, but Houses of the Wind (2022) is his first work to incorporate the instrument directly into his music.
“It’s an amorphous work of five pieces derived entirely from a field recording of an aeolian harp he made in the Alaskan Arctic in 1989. He transposed, layered, and rearranged the recording—leaving its essence intact but bringing subtle details to the fore. The aeolian harp’s characteristic overtones may shimmer in one piece but rumble in another (and I do mean rumble!). Calmness and uneasiness often eerily rub shoulders; it often left me in wordless awe.
“Adams has a singular gift for imbuing fundamentally ambient music with true sublimity and honest, compelling environmental activism. Not since Become Ocean (2014) has he delivered so thoroughly on both fronts—which is all the more impressive considering its simplicity. Anyone who follows his work should immediately pick this up.” —Nathan Faro, American Record Guide