I want you to change any plans you have for this weekend and make room for a Saturday afternoon jaunt to Seward Park. If you do, I'm pretty sure you'll have your mind bent for you in a permanent fashion by encountering John Luther Adams's hour-long soundscape for drums and obbligato audience Inuksuit.
It's hard to convey the effect of Inuksuit in performance, particularly if you haven't heard it live. And I haven't: My closest encounter so far is listening to it twice on headphones, in a version recorded live in New England in 2013. Phones turn the piece inside out. Instead of surging in from all sides, the thunder of the called-for "nine to 99 percussionists" in full cry is focused in the center of your skull. It's an incredible ride, but it leaves you completely unable to describe how the piece is going to sound outdoors, amid the twitter of birds and blat of distant motorbikes. So how does a person prepare to experience a piece so contrary to our usual ideas about "music"? If you're web-minded, you can find plenty of reviews in which tongue-tied critics try to express the inexpressible. (Fairly typical is Alex Ross's: "One of the most rapturous experiences of my listening life.")
Cerebrally, it may be worth considering the etymology of Adams's title. Inuksuk (plural inuksuit) is an Inuit word translated in many ways but meaning roughly "evidence of human presence."
Found scattered over the North American arctic, inuksuit are tall cairns of smooth stones, giant versions of the little mounds of pebbles traditional Jews put on graves in place of flowers. Wayfarers build them in barren places across the arctic as markers of location where "evidence of human presence" can be key to survival.
Adams had survival in the back of his mind when he devised Inuksuit seven years ago: survival of the human species, survival of the planet. For more than three decades, he's been writing various musics meant to make listeners pay as much attention to the space around the notes as the notes themselves. Their titles suggest as much: Green Corn Dance for percussion ensemble; songbirdsongs for two piccolos and percussion, Strange Birds Passing for flute choir; up into the silence, How the Sun Came to the Forest, and 20-odd works with eco/enviro/shamanic titles followed.
You couldn't ask for a more white-bread background for an American musician than Adams's: born in Mississippi, drummer in a rock band (the polarities of his high-school era were Joni Mitchell, Three Dog Night, Black Sabbath), degree in music from the Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts.
But things took a sharp turn for John Luther Adams post-BFA. He started working for environmental organizations, moved to Alaska in 1978, and pretty much vanished from the musical mainstream for 20 years.
He didn't stop drumming—he played timpani for eight seasons with the Fairbanks Symphony (not a full-time gig). But most of the time he looked at and listened to Alaska, and he periodically holed up in his cabin in the woods to write down how it made him feel.
Holing up in a shack in the woods is not a recommended career plan for a late-20th-century musician. But a reputation as a high-minded recluse plays well, too. Music writers are always looking for colorful recruits to the band of Great American Musical Coots—composer-performers like John Cage, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow, who opted out of the concert hall completely on their way into the history books.
Among practicing musicians, Adams's work had already been percolating into the repertory. Drummers in particular, who don't get a lot of time in the solo spotlight, have been all over it. The houselights didn't come up to full-on Adams until May 2014, when his Become Ocean, commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, won the Pulitzer Prize for music. (Alex Ross again, in the New Yorker: "It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.")
But Inuksuit may turn out to be more popular and influential—not because it's "better" but because it's genuinely revolutionary work, representing a new way of playing and listening outside the traditional Western box.
The main box in question is the concert hall, with its starchy traditions of what's proper and not—the archaic uniform of the players, the rigid seating plan and arcane rules of behavior for the audience. But it challenges the current ground rules for pop performance, too. Inuksuit sets no boundaries to the performance space, has no hierarchy of stars and backup players, and makes no distinction between players and audience.
All Adams provides is an outline of sound events and a rough map of where they happen. It can be played anywhere (outdoors, preferably): in a mountain pass, an urban park, a children's playground, a shopping-center parking lot. It offers no set score or instrumentation, only a suggestion for the size of the band (Melanie Voytovich has lined up about two dozen players for her Seattle staging). The piece is not about notes and beats and timbres—it's about what happens in the listener's head when you take the random sounds of an environment, natural or human, and modulate them through a set of invented noises arranged in space.
Consequently, all you can do to "prepare" to experience Inuksuit is to pack a lunch, fill a thermos with coffee, grab a blanket, and think about something else until the piece's first breathy sounds begin to rise above the ambient background. The players' actions and movements are roughly determined by Adams's "score." Listeners are free—compelled—to compose their own experience. Fidgety? Fine. Wander through the concentric circles of players as their sounds rise from rustles and clicks to horn calls and rumbling of drums. Or stand in one place and let the waves of organized racket swirl around you. Dance if you want to. Zone. No worries. No two performances of Inuksuit can be the same, and no two listeners can hear it the same way. Your experience will differ, whether you like it or not.
This is one reason I suspect that Adams's marvelous sound machine, deliberately devised to make it impossible that any player be able to synchronize with any other, is going to become as ubiquitous in its way as solstice parades and street fairs. By attending, you become part of the event. I wouldn't be surprised if fans start emulating Deadheads—players already are—jaunting from one performance to the next, exchanging fond memories and bootleg tapes from the past.
Oh, I forgot: If you attend, take an umbrella. You'll stay dry, and the sound of the drops above your head will merge with the experience.