Listen & Do: John Luther Adams’ songbirdsong

It’s easy for music to evoke familiar sounds we hear around us. Birds are an obvious object of mimicry. When bird sounds are written out, they cease being improvised in the way you would hear them in nature. The composer is intentional. Music most often has some kind of intentional structure, a plan for how it is put together. Do you hear any structure in this music? Is there an arc you can hear through the piece? Or does it sound random and improvised? Sometimes composers write out something they intend to sound improvised.

John Luther Adams says that he is a control freak – he wants to direct every aspect of the notes he writes. But he also wants the music to take on the place in which it is being performed and be changed by it. This brings up the interesting issue of the tension between what happens “live” in a space – in a sense what is being improvised – and what the composer has carefully planned out and wants to control. Where would the ideal performance of this music be? In a perfectly quiet concert hall in which you can feel the composer’s complete control? Or in an outdoor space in which the ambient sounds will interact with (interrupt?) what Adams has written?


  1. Sarah Mockean says

    How do you anticipate what your music will do in a space you’ve never been? You (John) say you want to tightly control what your music does. But doesn’t the fact you’re in a space you can’t control guarantee that things won’t work out as you would like them to?

  2. Since John Luther Adams says he embraces the contradiction between being in control and being more open ended, I would expect that the outside open space would be more appropriate than the quite concert hall. For that reason I am looking forward to the Ojai Sunrise Concerts on June 8 and 9.

  3. quite –> quiet