John Luther Adams‘ new album Everything That Rises (2018) was produced by Cold Blue Music, an independent label that Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times describes as “devoted to the post-minimalist, immersive LA sound, whether the composers happen to be Angelenos or not.” The JACK Quartet, who has made playing and commissioning new music their mission since 2005, performs Adams’ 56-minute work as the latest of their over 30 albums. Their previous work includes Adams’ The Wind in High Places and Dream of the Canyon Wren in addition to quartets by Iannis Xenakis, Laura Schwendinger, Gyorgi Ligeti, Chaya Czernowin, Amy Williams, and Elliott Sharp.
In 2014, Adams summed up his work in an interview with NPR’s Tom Huizenga: “It seems that every time I had the opportunity to make the right career choice, I made the wrong career choice, which in the long run turned out to be the right artistic choice.” Making the right artistic choices seems to be the theme of Adams’ recent career. His 2014 Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winner, Become Ocean, received its world premiere on June 20, 2013 with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony. The vast natural landscapes that Adams has seen daily while living in the Alaskan interior encourage his music to flow, to take up space, in a way that a city would not. They make the harmonic echoes of Copland’s Americana in his earlier works (The Far Country of Sleep, 1993; The Light that Fills the World, 2002) and of Part II of the Rite of Spring in Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1997) a natural frame for the geographies he chooses, but they are only a starting point.
In all of his music, Adams celebrates landscapes—or naturescapes might be more appropriate, as many are not land. He refuses labels of pastoralism or ecocriticism, and reaches neither for a nostalgic idea of the landscapes nor for a dystopian soundscape focused on pollution and environmental destruction. Instead, Adams depicts his chosen environments as they exist in a moment and as they change through a moment. He makes little to no investment in narrative, and refuses to have a favorite compositional weapon—natural for a percussionist, who has so many instrumental colors and textures to hand.
Everything That Rises is Adams’ latest string quartet, following The Wind in High Places and Canticle of the Sky (Cold Blue Music 2015). He chose Just Intonation when writing for this quartet—where intervals are only tuned to ratios of whole numbers. For Adams, the environment he envisions determines the space he creates in his music. The capacious intervals are no smaller for the string quartet than they would be for an orchestra. The clarity of these intervals paired with the string harmonics creates an expanse within the musical language. This is space that the listener can not only hear, but feel. In spite of the soaring harmonics, there is no point of departure, no liftoff as it were, that separates the listener from the musical ground. The four soloists climb continuously higher from a subsonic fundamental in their respective registers, through acoustically perfect intervals that become progressively smaller (i.e., closer together), which Adams describes as sixteen “harmonic clouds,” until their sounds seem to vanish, shimmering, into thin air.
What soaring homages Become Ocean payed to Debussy and Sibelius in 2014 are still present in Everything That Rises. If anything, the JACK Quartet makes them even more ethereal. The sweeping, complex harmonics seem to swirl on updrafts, soaring above the lower notes without ever seeming to beat their wings. JACK handles the Just Intonation with ease, and the exposed lines and quiet dynamics sound as comfortable as anything. This is the kind of musical mastery that I respect the most. Achieving near-constant expression while playing so quietly over an hour requires a hyper-focus and stamina that few can boast having.
Adams’ musical language is experimental and heir to the tradition of Cage and Feldman, but does not aspire to “maverick.” It seems reductive to call him a minimalist, though undoubtedly in technique he is. “Atmospheric,” too, seems inadequate. Calling his musical lexicon both “philosophical” and “meditative” while appropriate, feels trite. Indeed, because he has not aspired to the titles and labels that we give composers, his music eschews these descriptors, as well. I find that I love Everything That Rises more for its desire to express the ineffable than for its ability to define it. After 56 minutes of listening, waxing poetic about how much I enjoy this album seems insignificant.