New John Luther Adams Release: “Four Thousand Holes”

July 17th, 2011

I have had the opportunity to work with John Luther Adams on performances and recordings of his music since 1997, and as such, preparing Four Thousand Holes has been a homecoming for me.  To quote Jim Fox of Cold Blue Records, “Four Thousand Holes is a sometimes lush, sometimes fragile, rhythmically complex and technically demanding work for piano, mallet percussion and ghostly electronic “auras”—electronic sounds created by processing the acoustic instruments’ sonorities”.

Steve Drury and I recorded this piece during the summer of 2010 in Boston, and subsequently premiered it this summer (2011) during the New England Conservatory Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, also known as “Sick Puppy”.  Steve was awarded funding through Meet the Composer in order to commission John for the piece.  I have been captivated by John’s music have ever since I was exposed to it as a graduate student at the University of Miami.  On one level there is the experience of listening to it….always sensuous, elegant, and mysterious.  On another level there is the experience of playing the music. I have grown to appreciate the aspects of the scores that are so particular to his compositional style.  There are musical lines that look so simple, yet can be quite formidable.  There are rhythmically complex passages containing 7′s-over-5′s-over-4′s-over-3′s; and there are plenty of notes spanning the extreme edges of whatever sonic materials he is scoring for in pitch and dynamics.  John’s music demands focus, endurance, and restraint, and Four Thousand Holes is a good example of that kind of rigor.

The other rewarding aspect of this project is the fact that I recorded it with my great friend Stephen Drury.  We first met at while presenting concerts at the Alternativa Festival in Moscow, Russia in 2001.  Since then I have had the good fortune to collaborate with him on a fairly regular basis, most often as a fellow faculty member in Sick Puppy each June, but also in recordings and concerts.  We recorded JLA’s Red Arc Blue Veil (released on a Cold Blue CD of the same title), as well as other works still in the can.

I originally was going to keep an inventory on this blog of the reviews for Four Thousand Holes (or “4KH“, as his recording engineer and producer, Nathaniel Reichman likes to say), but quickly realized that staying on top of that would not only require great effort, but that it would be doubling what Jim Fox is doing a great job of already.  Instead, below, I have culled a few quotes from Jim’s much larger blog about the disc, posted on his Cold Blue Records website.  Here is the page for complete info and reviews: Four Thousand Holes .

Comments from the Cold Blue Records 4KH Page
“Four Thousand Holes (2010) … Adams describes how ‘I limited myself to the most basic elements of Western music—major and minor triads and four-bar phrases—sculpting these found objects into lush harmonies and rhythmically complex fields of sound.’ The music duly unfolds as a sequence of piano chords over which vibraphone and bells elaborate a glistening timbral interplay which is given a sense of evolution through the presence of an electronic ‘aura’ that opens out the dynamic peaks and troughs for a constantly intensifying process of fading in and out of focus. The outcome, for all the simplicity of its components, is an enticing instance of how complexity in sound can be allowed to happen rather than being calculated down to the last detail: hardly a revelatory concept by any means, though one which has seldom been realized with the poise and creative self-effacement shown here. … The performances are as dedicated and as attentive as one could wish, captured in sound of undoubted spatial presence and physical impact…Make no mistake, John Luther Adams is a major figure and this disc—small but perfectly formed—is a notable addition to his discography.” —Richard Whitehouse, International Record Review 

”I know many of John Luther Adams’ works, and love them all. But this album has become my hands-down favorite among them. Adams tends to write very evocative music, often quiet, and also often metrically complex. While I don’t have the scores of these works, there are parts that do sound as if there are various rhythmic ratios played against one another. But none of that matters…Both works on this album are intensely beautiful and with repeated listening additional details seem to become apparent. So each time one listens to these works, there is something new about them…Four Thousand Holes is a work for piano, vibraphone/bells and electronics (in this recording, the electronics are provided by JLA himself). It is a very rhythmic piece and has some great chordal structures that all emanate from very basic elements…There is really not much more to say than that. This is a very worthwhile album, extremely well performed by all the musicians involved, and has postminimalist and totalist elements that I really like.”
—David Toub, Sequenza21

“I’m a fan of John Luther Adams. I would even go as far as saying that he is my favourite so-called contemporary music composer. Four Thousand Holes features two new works. The 33-minute title track consists in a soundworld of grandiloquent piano chords, percussion and electronics – the trite, the mundane, transformed through duration into a Zen state of change in stability. …and bells remembered… (10 minutes) is one of Adams’ most beautiful pieces: a delicate canvas of bells and vibraphones arranged in embedded cycles. Intelligent, sensitive, simple, appeasing. Bravo. His best Cold Blue record since The Light That Fills the World.”
—François Couture, Monsieur Délire’s Listening Diary

“On the one hand, John Luther Adams’s newest album offers more of the composer’s signature style: Large-scale works that harmonically hint at the isolated vastness of Adams’s adoptive state, Alaska. Yet, just as no two snowflakes are alike, Adams has been able to simultaneously mine the tundra soundscapes and produce works of startling singularity, and Four Thousand Holes sits chief among them. … Four Thousand Holes may simply be Adams’s best work to-date. … So far, 2011 has had its lion’s share of exquisite recordings, but this disc stands out as required listening. … Album of the Week.”
—WQXR/Q2 (NYC)

“The reputation of John Luther Adams has been building in recent years, as the lush, meditative music of this Alaska-based composer has begun traveling far from the western wilderness landscapes from which it draws its prime inspiration. … His recent piece, Four Thousand Holes, was in fact commissioned by the Boston-based pianist Stephen Drury, who will give its first performance on June 23 in Jordan Hall as part of this year’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice—better known by its nickname, ‘Sick Puppy.’ In advance of that premiere the work has found its way onto a compelling new disc on the Cold Blue label, with Drury and percussionist Scott Deal. (Drury’s Callithumpian Consort takes on the disc’s second work . . . and bells remembered . . . from 2005.) … Despite a rather majestic climax, Four Thousand Holes unfolds at a measured pace, like a kind of contemplative walk in the woods in which the landscape changes slowly but dramatically over time. There is a spontaneous feel that belies the careful craftsmanship. Drury’s piano part is made up exclusively of chords based on major and minor triads, with Deal’s vibraphone and orchestra bells adding an extra sonic glitter. On top of it all, Adams generates a processed electronic ‘aura,’ derived from the piano lines, and it spreads out like a canopy of sound: dense, rich, and enveloping.”
—Josh Shea, Boston Globe

“I can’t stop listening to John Luther Adams’s Four Thousand Holes.”
—Alex Ross, Twitter