Contemporary Classical at the Planetarium

Third Angle brings latest John Luther Adams string quartet to OMSI

By AARON SHINGLES

From birdsong to sky to ocean, John Luther Adams‘s music venerates the natural world and reflects nature’s splendor. His 2018 string quartet Everything That Rises feels like a warm afternoon lying in the grass and staring at clouds. On April 10-11, Third Angle New Music gave the work’s Northwest premiere at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Kendall Planetarium, continuing a Third Angle tradition of bringing contemporary classical music to unique venues throughout Portland.

Third Angle performs John Luther Adams at OMSI. Photo: Jacob Wade.
Third Angle performs John Luther Adams at OMSI. Photo: Jacob Wade.

Most people associate listening to music in a planetarium with the Dark Side of the Moon Laser Spectacular (which I personally experienced most recently in 1997), but when Third Angle announced the show as a “360° explosion of color, sound and sky,” it offered the chance to experience Adams’s distinctive contemporary classical idiom in a terrifically appropriate setting, with a visual component designed by the erstwhile Northwest composer, who recently left his decades-long Alaskan abode for residences in Mexico and New York.

There in the dark, close quarters of OMSI’s planetarium, we settled in for a meditative journey through time and space. The string quartet members, surrounded by the audience, sat together in a circular formation at the center of the room, a configuration reflecting the music’s spiraling nature.

The show began in total silence and darkness, followed by an image of the Earth as seen from space accompanied by a brief pre-recorded prologue from the composer, inviting the audience to lose themselves in the experience. Following another brief period of emptiness, the cello bowed its first long, breathy note and ushered in a scene of daybreak color under a slowly passing cloud ceiling. This skyscape became the primary visual element for almost the entire show—until close to the end, when we finally broke through the clouds and ascended into a spiral galaxy and starfield.

Cycling Upward

Everything that Rises cycles through sixteen rising melodic figures that undergo minute changes in dynamics and articulation. Like his mentor Lou Harrison, Adams makes effective use of just intonation, in which intervals are tuned to whole number ratios. This produces melodic scales with smaller intervals than listeners of Western music are used to hearing, sounding almost out of tune compared to the uniformity of the more common 12-tone equal temperament. Much like the slow changes in shape we observe in overhead clouds, the music makes fine adjustments in character and sound. With this tuning effect, Adams shows his capacity for environmental representation in music, the evolution of his wind and cloud soundscapes reminding listeners that our living planet produces music of its own design.

Violinists Erin Furbee and Sam Park, violist Kim May Nguyen and cellist Avery White deserve tremendous credit for their treatment of Adams’s music. Minimalist by design, performing it could not have been an easy feat: long note durations, the ebb and flow of soft dynamics, and variations of rhythm and sonic effect require virtuosic instrumental control. From the opening swell of the first cycle to the delicate tremolos of final statement of each instrument, Everything That Rises leisurely drifts upward over the course of just under sixty minutes.

Third Angle performs John Luther Adams at OMSI. Erin Furbee, Sam Park, Kim May Nguyen, Avery White. Photo: Jacob Wade.
Erin Furbee, Sam Park, Kim May Nguyen, Avery White. Photo: Jacob Wade.

The visual element burst immediately forth with a beautiful display of cloud cover. OMSI’s Digistar-3 projection system at Kendall Planetarium displays high resolution visual effects that create realistic scenes. For Everything That Rises, I felt myself standing on the edge of my subconscious, looking out across a vast horizon, a perfectly realized sky above. The projected clouds floated at a realistic level, effectively suspending my disbelief from the first note. During the last few cycles, the entire audience experienced a rising effect as the clouds give way to a sea of stars and interstellar colors, and the effect of moving upward through a starfield convinced me so thoroughly I expected to see small glowing orbs settling on the floor as we passed the stars on our ascent.

Music and Nature

Adams’s work represents not only his love for the natural world, but is also an expression of his activism. In the program notes for his 2014 Pulitzer Prize and Grammy winning orchestral composition, Become Ocean, Adams wrote: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. And 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.” That same year, Adams received the Heinz Award for raising awareness of environmental issues through his musical work.

Everything That Rises is the fourth in a series of elemental “air” music string quartets, following earlier installments The Wind in High Places (2011) and Canticles of the Sky (2017). The JACK Quartet’s recording, available on most streaming services, by download, or audio CD (Cold Blue Music), sounds as beautiful as one might expect from this highly celebrated group—although the combination of music and visual art presented a truly unique and thought-provoking experience.

Ascending to the stars with Third Angle. Photo: Jacob Wade.
Ascending to the stars with Third Angle. Photo: Jacob Wade.

For Third Angle New Music, this regional premiere wonderfully capped off a season that ends June 22 with Music From the Rooftops, five rooftop “mini-previews” of its upcoming 2019-20 concert season. The season includes such highlights as Ghengis Barbie, the “leading post-post-feminist all-female horn experience;” a chamber opera confronting racism and gentrification in Portland, by composer Darrell Grant and poet Anis Mojgani; and another environmentally conscious installation featuring music by Adams, George Crumb, and Mary Kouyoumdjian, complete with masked performers.

Aaron Shingles is a Musicologist, Ethnomusicologist, Guitarist, Sound Designer, Composer, and a contributing writer to Portland State University’s Subito.

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