there is no one, not even the wind
2 flutes, oboe, horn, 2 percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello, bass
First performance: September 2017, Emerald City Music, Seattle.
What makes music American? There are as many answers to the question as there are composers in the Americas, but we still find ourselves looking for something in common, an identity we might share in this hemisphere. There is a certain urge to reconfigure institutions and forms shared among American composers, conductors, and performers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Classical music, after all, is a European transplant. Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions were convinced that it could only survive in America with a transfusion of new ideas, so from 1928 to 1931, they hosted a series of concerts in New York City designed to foster young American composers. With a similar concern, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge endowed a foundation at the Library of Congress in 1925 to commission and perform new works, a legacy that included Appalachian Spring (1944). More recently, Robert Spano’s commissions and public outreach as leader of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra have led to the emergence of the “Atlanta School” of composers, including Christopher Theofanidis, for whom accessibility is not a byword. The newest work from John Luther Adams, there is nothing, not even the wind, is the result of an innovative co-commission from five partners, including the Chamber Society of Lincoln Center and the Redlands Symphony Orchestra. But what about the sound and the spirit of the music? Another shared attitude that this program reveals is the awareness of nature—whether human physicality, natural landscapes, or the living web of our environment—that inspires many American composers. American composers look to the future and to the horizon.
John Luther Adams takes us into the wilderness with his works, seeking what he calls “an ecology of music.” For example, Inuksuit (2009) is intended for the out of doors, and the orchestration is unique to each performance—the size of the ensemble and specific instruments are determined in response to the topology, plants, and even the sounds of local wildlife, like birdsong. Its most recent performance, by the San Diego Symphony in January 2018, straddled the Mexican-American border, contemplating both natural and human geography. Sila: The Breath of the World (2014) engaged an urban landscape at its premiere on Lincoln Center’s Hearst Plaza. The open-ended performance highlighted the contrast between the concrete and metal of the architecture and the natural elements of the plaza: cellists performed under a grove of trees, percussionists surrounded the Paul Millstein Pool while singers waded in the water, and brass and woodwinds perched on the dramatic incline of Illumination Lawn. The landscape we are asked to contemplate during there is no one, not even the wind is less a physical than a mental one. The title transmutes a quotation from a poem by Octavio Paz, Piedra Nativa (Native Stone): “No hay nadie ni siquiera tú mismo.” (“There is no one, not even yourself.”) Adams felt this solitude in his contemplation of the Sonoran Desert, but the result of his contemplation is not so much pictorial as it is an invitation to meditate in the musical space he constructs, each with our own internal worlds to traverse. Adams explains his music as an ecosystem: “For me the essence of music is not the specific patterns of harmony, melody, rhythm and timbre. It’s the totality of the sound, the larger wholeness of the music.” The spare elements of this work form an attenuated web: sustained high harmonics from the strings are punctuated by single notes from the celesta and vibraphone, like drops of water that ripple outward, while the piano discretely outlines harmonies. The two flutes emerge from the chrysalis of the strings, gradually reaching to probe the heights and depths of their range, seeming alternately to whistle, whisper, or moan. This music is remarkably still, with only occasional shuddering pulses from the marimba, and its form is articulated by the places where the music almost ceases to breathe… where there is not even the wind. Paradoxically, by asking us to contemplate absence, what this piece reveals is “the central truth… that everything in this world is connected to everything else.”