John Luther Adams’s Four Thousand Holes

Edited by: Trisha Li

Vancouver New Music Festival 2014. Sonic Topographies: Sound, music, and sustainability.

Vancouver New Music Festival 2014. Sonic Topographies: Sound, music, and sustainability.

On Saturday, October 18th, 2014, I went to the Orpheum Annex in Vancouver, B.C., where a performance of John Luther Adams’s Four Thousand Holes was going to take place. Before the performance started, as I was sitting patiently in the theatre, a man who was sitting beside me struck up a conversation. He said he was a graduate student at UBC, studying something called ecomusicology—a discipline I did not even know existed, and decided not to ask about. The graduate student was fairly tall, skinny, and dressed like someone who was about to go for a hike. Really, he seemed a lot like Adams himself, who has been described as “tall and rail-thin (…) [bearing] a certain resemblance to Clint Eastwood,” and, “happiest when he goes on extended camping trips into the wilderness.”[1] I confessed to the graduate student that it was my first time seeing a performance of a John Luther Adams piece. He seemed surprised. “John Luther Adams is regular fare here,” he said.

Adams is an Alaskan composer whose orchestral piece Become Ocean won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. If one thinks about it, the task of choosing a composition deserving of a Pulitzer Prize every year should be a very difficult one… How should we attribute more value to one piece of music than another? John Adams—not to be confused with John Luther Adams—won this prize in 2003, and has publicly expressed distaste for its institution, noting that “most of [America’s] greatest musical minds are conspicuously missing [from its list of winners],” “be they mavericks (…) composer-performers” or “our great jazz composers.”[2] But if it was ever easy to choose a winner, Luther Adams is that winner—not because his music is absolutely amazing, but because its aims and motivations sit well with most people. I have already alluded to the fact that Adams is a nature-loving Alaskan, but what should also be mentioned are his grave concerns about climate change. The political correctness of these concerns—embodied in an actual note in Become Ocean’s score[3]—, combined with the fact that Adams writes so-called Art Music, is exactly what makes him the easiest choice for a Pulitzer Prize. It is in this way that pieces like Become Ocean command adulation from their audiences, and Four Thousand Holes is no different. When I saw Four Thousand Holes performed at the Orpheum Annex, seated beside the keen graduate student who confessed his admiration for the piece when it was finished, I could not help but fasten upon some unlikable qualities. While Four Thousand Holes does little to offend, it also does a lot to underwhelm.

At the beginning of the performance, two musicians walked out onto the stage. One sat down at a piano, to the left. The other took up his mallets and stood in front of a vibraphone and a glockenspiel, to the right. The pianist put on a conspicuous pair of headphones, and studied the long paper score strewn across his piano. The percussionist looked at a television screen, which must have displayed his score in PDF format. I followed the cord that was attached to the pianist’s headphones, and found that it was plugged into an electric metronome. The metronome had a small light on it, which blinked in time with Adams’s specified tempo. When the piece begins, it seems grandiose: each performer plays fairly complex polyrhythms between his two hands, and comes together with the other performer on the same beat after regular cycles of rhythmic uncertainty. As the piece progresses, the full range of each instrument is explored, with, for instance, the pianist moving to the piano’s highest register when the percussionist moves to the glockenspiel. The harmony is slow moving, beginning in a major-key tonality, moving toward subtle dissonance, and then ending in a major-key tonality again. Simultaneous with each polyrhythmic cycle, a pre-recorded electroacoustic track crescendos with the musicians. All of this happens over the course of 34 minutes.

four thousand holes

Listen to an excerpt of Four Thousand Holes.

For those who recognize the category, Four Thousand Holes should probably be described as an example of totalism. Composer Kyle Gann has written prominently on the totalist movement, and has talked about John Luther Adams in relation to it. There are two central traits of totalism proposed by Gann that can be recognized in Four Thousand Holes: the presence of “several different tempos going at once”[4]; and, harmonies that are “rather restricted.”[5] I have glossed these two qualities already, describing the piece’s polyrhythms and slow moving harmony, but these are only technical qualities of the music. A more interesting point Gann raises is the idea that “the ‘total’ in totalist music implies (…) having your cake and eating it too: appealing to lay audiences, yet also providing enough underlying complexity to intrigue sophisticated musicians.”[6] When it comes to totalism, much, it seems, is about the composer having his cake and eating it too: the music is pretty and complex, casual and lofty, and validated by academia and the public. All of this conspires to create a kind of sickeningly utopian music—sickening only because its attempts to cover all of its bases leave it feeling somewhat empty.

Alex Ross, the music critic for the New Yorker, in his essay “Song of the Earth”, profiles Adams and discusses his music. At one point, he quotes Adams saying the following:

“All along, I’ve had this obsessive, delusional idea that I could somehow be outside culture, which is, of course, patently absurd. But I could at least hold the illusion of being outside culture, where culture is put in proper perspective. That’s why I am so concerned with the landscape. Barry Lopez says that landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures, all forms and artifacts and culture and language.”[7]

Adams’s music, like ambient music, or certain pieces by Morton Feldman or John Cage, does audibly try to imitate landscape in sound. But when Adams’s obsession with being outside culture combines with his totalism, his landscapes feel like empty displays of megalomania. (Such megalomania reaches a Pulitzer-winning pitch in the Wagnerian Become Ocean). In Four Thousand Holes, Adams immerses his audience in a landscape that tries to posit itself as a very important landscape—the harmonies are consonant and persistent, and the rhythms are supposed to possess the spontaneity and force of nature. Even the performers are made to work hard to realize the piece—one of them relying on a metronome—, which further conspires to make listeners believe that Four Thousand Holes is significant music. But when the final, saccharine harmonies fade out, and people like the graduate student sitting beside me smile with satisfaction, I only feel like responding with derision.

[1] Alex Ross, “Song of the Earth.” In Listen to This (New York: Picador, 2011), 179.

[2] Anne Midgette, “Dissonant Thoughts on the Music Pulitzers.” New York Times, April 9, 2003.

[3] Alex Ross, “Water Music.” Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/08/water-music-3:“Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

[4] Kyle Gann, “A Forest from the Seeds of Minimalism: An Essay on Postminimal and Totalist Music.” Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.kylegann.com/postminimalism.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ross, Listen to This, 185-86.

Bibliography

Gann, Kyle. “A Forest from the Seeds of Minimalism: An Essay on Postminimal and Totalist

Music.” Accessed November 16, 2014. http://www.kylegann.com/postminimalism.html.

Midgette, Anne. “Dissonant Thoughts on the Music Pulitzers.” New York Times, April 9, 2003.

Ross, Alex. “Song of the Earth.” In Listen to This, 176-187. New York: Picador, 2011.

—. “Water Music.” Accessed November 16, 2014.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/08/water-music-3

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