The Del Sol String Quartet and I first worked together when I was 13 years old. They workshopped my piece in a student reading session. I still point to that workshop as one of the first times I really began to learn about the importance of detail in the notation of my own music. I remember them very kindly explaining to me what I’m sure must have been awful mistakes I’d made without even realizing it. I remember one of my movements was nearly impossible to play, but they worked on it and showed me what made it challenging, and even pointed out how I could achieve the exact same effect without making it so hard on the players. A VERY important lesson for all composers.
We’ve worked together in other capacities over the years, both professionally and casually. They’ve commissioned a string quartet from me for their 20th anniversary, I’ve brought them in to talk with my students and coach them, I worked for them at one of their fantastic QuartetFest events, cooking and preparing food for their students to enjoy, etc. It continues to be a joyous experience for all.
What stands out most in my memories of Del Sol is a single concert from a couple years ago. It used, if I recall correctly, 4 entirely different tuning systems– something VERY difficult to do with string instruments (and perhaps also only truly possible from string instruments). But the difficulty was never the point. Each piece hit you on an emotional level; it simply tore out your heart strings. One of the great pieces was by Persian composer, Reza Vali, using Persian scales and tuning. It was quasi-improvisational, but it had a steady emotional tone, with every sound saturated with pain and longing. It developed slowly, building itself up until eventually you were fully enveloped in sound and just when you felt you couldn’t endure another moment of these riveting and intense emotions, the violist, Charlton, played a note that was insanely high. Maybe the others were as well, but Charlton’s face is what I can recall most vividly, lost in the emotion of that moment. It wasn’t just a note, it was a wailing, an expression of immense pain throughout, a feeling I will never forget. One of those moments in a performance when you recognize the sheer power of music.
‘‘As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself.” –John Luther Adams
There is a sense in which John Luther Adams is the spiritual musical parent of this whole event. In many ways, it would have been easy and appropriate to simply put on music by John Luther Adams at each of the Andy Goldsworthy sculptures because, as Andy Goldsworthy encapsulates the relationship between nature and man so well in visual art, so does John Luther Adams in Music. He writes of birds, of trees, of the sun, and of vast open plains. This piece is called The Wind in High Places.
This is not political music. What it is, what most of John Luther Adams music is, is understanding the beauty, the grandeur, and even the fear inspired by nature, by the earth. It is music that deeply values life, in many forms, even the life inside of the wind.
When you listen to John Luther Adams music it slowly envelops you, it slowly overwhelms you. He uses very gradual tectonic shifts that breath into you and fill you with a sense of the beauty of the world. In this piece, the players use only harmonics (‘ghost’ notes that are hidden within ‘normal’ notes) and open strings, never touching their finger boards. This should create a feeling of effervescence, or lightness, and in a sense it does. To me, however, this lightness is not true levity, but rather a form of intimacy—a chance to share something so close to the heart that it is only spoken of in whispers, perhaps only spoken aloud when you are alone, just you and the sky.
I N S P I R A T I O N
The Mockingbird –Mary Oliver
in his pearl-gray coat
and his white-windowed wings
from the hedge to the top of the pine
and begins to sing, but it’s neither
lilting nor lovely,
for he is the thief of other sounds—
whistles and truck brakes and dry hinges
plus all the songs
of other birds in his neighborhood;
mimicking and elaborating,
he sings with humor and bravado,
so I have to wait a long time
for the softer voice of his own life
to come through. He begins
by giving up all his usual flutter
and settling down on the pine’s forelock
then looking around
as though to make sure he’s alone;
then he slaps each wing against his breast,
where his heart is,
and, copying nothing, begins
easing into it
as though it was not half so easy
as though his subject now
was his true self,
which of course was as dark and secret
as anyone else’s,
and it was too hard—
perhaps you understand—
to speak or to sing it
to anything or anyone
but the sky.
THE PLACE WHERE YOU GO TO LISTEN
1 PM: SPIRE
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Click on the map for directions to the event.