July 30, 2006

Recent Listening

Strange and Sacred Noise is a rare example of music that I became familiar with through a score before I heard it (I spotted it on the new acquisitions shelf at school towards the end of the year). Both ways of approaching this piece are rewarding, but yield very different results. If you look at the score, it contains epigrams on violent natural phenomena, along with brief descriptions of the fractals which John Luther Adams took as "inspiration."

The CD liner notes talk about the violence bits, but don't get into too many explanations about the fractals. Granted, you don't need to understand them to enjoy the music, but it's neat to know anyway, compositional process-wise. The first and last movements, for example, are based on Cantor dust. If you look at the score for these sections, the connection to the fractal is pretty much self-explanatory (JLA has an excerpt up for viewing).

Even though the role of the fractal looks like it could have been conceived completely "on the page," I do think it's possible to hear them in performance. One notable thing about the piece is that JLA found a way to make "organic" (and audible) large-scale structures that don't rely on tried-and-true methods of symmetry and repetition (à la sonata). The moments in first movement when the Cantor dust becomes most dispersed/chaotic is truly striking, almost awe-inspiring, these little lightning bolt contours of sound jumping out of silence.

One thing I really wish had been brought up in the notes is an explanation of sacred noise, a concept which I'm assuming was borrowed from R. Murray Schafer's The Tuning of the World (a true must-read for any musician). From an article on the author:
"Noise pollution is a world problem," says Schafer. "What I call Sacred Noise is in every society. If you want to find prominent institutions, you will find that they have a certain identifying sound or a noise. And just as the tallest buildings in any cityscape are generally centres of power, the biggest noises in the city represent centres of power. And the sacred part is, because they represent power, no one is permitted to complain against those noises."
This is where Adams's piece is at its most thought-provoking. Its fractal forms provide a fairly literal translation of chaos in nature, unleashing sounds that run the gamut from the barely audible to the barely containable. By being a representation of nature, the music both illuminates it and tries to wrest control of it (the jury's still out on the feasibility of the latter). At its core, the piece is an eloquent statement of one of JLA's favorite themes: a plea for listeners to attune themselves to their environments based on the sounds in them.

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