Tag: durational extremities

Sounds Heard: Dennis Johnson–November

I’ll admit it: I was doing other things while listening to November. This important work of early minimalism (from 1959!) by Dennis Johnson had until recently fallen into obscurity. While Johnson himself turned away from music not long after its composition, LaMonte Young–one of the fathers of minimalism–credits this piece as a direct inspiration for his influential The Well-Tuned Piano. But November was not performed for decades until, in 2009, Kyle Gann reconstructed the score using an old cassette recording and notes provided by Johnson for reference:

[T]he complete “score,” if that is the correct term [,] consists of “motifs” plus rules of which motifs can follow each given motif – at least that is what it should be, but I’m afraid that it isn’t made entirely clear. Items 1-15 were written around 1970-1971. Pages A + B are, I think, an attempt to make the transitions more explicit – or possibly to write down the transitions as they occur in the recording, but it was never finished, so the recording must stand as the primary definition example of the piece. The piece was not meant to be entirely fixed, but somewhat improvisatory, with the given transitions as the rules for the improvisation. No rules were implied about the times spent on any of the motifs, nor on the number of recurrences/recycles of any motif – they do recur in the tape.

Now, more than 50 years after its premiere, the composition has finally been recorded in its entirety by pianist R. Andrew Lee and released as a 4-CD set and digital download by Irritable Hedgehog.

At five hours, November is at the extreme outer limits of the average attention span, but its lengthy duration isn’t unique. Aside from The Well-Tuned Piano, Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2 comes to mind, for example, or the 24-hour version of Erik Satie’s Vexations. The particular performance rituals that have sprung up around these pieces have created a certain accepted context and etiquette for extra-long compositions. Concertgoers are not necessarily expected to be there for the entire performance, and may come and go as they please.

But November doesn’t quite fit in with those pieces, despite its placid ambiance and patient unfolding. Five hours is a length of time that means you could, conceivably, listen to the whole thing in one sitting. So instead of falling into the existing context, the piece asks you to do something slightly more radical, especially in its recorded form: it asks you to invent your own context. Do you listen to the whole thing in one sitting, alone, in the dark? Do you listen to a disc or two at a time while you do the dishes or fold laundry? Or, as I did, do you listen to the entire piece on a long road trip, accompanied by the dull roar of the freeway, with occasional intermissions at rest stops and gas stations?

What is unusual, even startling, is how the piece both demands and defies attention in practically any listening environment. Mechanically, it’s nothing more than a series of piano chords (and occasional single notes), given ample time to resonate and decay. Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable sense of progression. The first couple hours of the work, based on a transcription of an incomplete recording from 1962, are quite linear and structured, even teleological, though the material moves forward at a very unhurried pace. Lee’s thoughtful, plangent chord voicings catch the ear here—kind of like Thelonious Monk, if you slowed him down about 800%.

Somewhere in the middle of the second disc, however, a change occurs. Here, the performer is asked to improvise around small cells of musical material. It’s a subtle transition, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it happens, but the music does become noticeably more static. There are many ways this kind of improvisation could go astray, but Lee’s sense of pacing is impeccable. He might spend several minutes lingering on an idea, exploring its many permutations, or he might breeze through a passage in a fleeting and ephemeral way, but the way Lee manages to keep a sense of direction going throughout this material is truly impressive. The overall effect on the listener is something like exploring pools of liquid connected by tiny canals.

It was so absorbing, in fact, that I was about halfway through the Angeles National Forest when I realized I was almost out of gas and about 25 miles from the nearest town. Thankfully I did not become stranded in the San Gabriel Mountains, but if I had it would have been strangely fitting, being indefinitely suspended in a gorgeous landscape between a forgotten origin and a nebulous destination.

Verdict: November is captivating and highly recommended, but avoid operating heavy machinery while listening.

Test of Time

Paradoxically, the less free time I’ve had in recent years, the more fascinated I have become with works of art that require an extraordinary time commitment in order to be appreciated. I’m hopelessly attracted to musical compositions involving durational extremities (like La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano), time-based art installations (like the work of Marina Abramović), and extremely long novels (like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Mathias Énard’s Zone, even though I still need to figure out a way to actually finish reading the latter). Even further afield from temporal practicality, I’m completely enamored with the idea of works that last 24 hours, because the concept of filling an entire day with a work of art seems like a magical and extremely beautiful proposition. Eventually I would love to create something this long myself, something that would be constructed to parallel the details of a specific day—sunrise, sunset, rush hour, sleep, etc. That said, I have yet to experience any 24-hour piece and I am not completely sure how I would do so. Time constraints aside, there are some other basic issues that would require planning and navigating around, not the least of which are such mundane matters as physical stamina, dealing with hunger, and other bodily functions.


Anticipating noon was one of the highlights of my own experience of The Clock. Christian Marclay, Installation view of The Clock, 2010; Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours; White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, October 15-November 13, 2010. Photo Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Therefore I was extremely excited by the prospect of finally experiencing Christian Marclay’s The Clock last week, although to describe it as a 24-hour work of art—as publications including The New York Times and The Guardian have done—is a bit of a misnomer. Although the work consists of a total of exactly 24 hours of unique content, a mash-up plundered from literally thousands of film and television segments in which the exact time of the day is depicted (either visually—e.g. an image of an actual clock—or in spoken dialog), it is a seamless loop that hypothetically could repeat in perpetuity. (A crew is required to ensure that the video is always completely in sync with the exact time in whatever location The Clock is presented in.) “There is no beginning and no end,” according to Marclay, who addressed a press conference in New York City on July 12 prior to the private press viewing of The Clock at NYC’s David Rubinstein Atrium. As part of the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, The Clock opened to the general public on Friday, July 13 and it will remain open and free through August 1. Although closed on Mondays and only open from 8:00am to 10:00pm from Tuesdays through Thursdays, it will run continuously from 8:00am on Friday morning to 10:00pm Sunday night which offers folks the possibility of experiencing at least two complete cycles of it uninterrupted.

However, Marclay does not expect anyone to sit through The Clock for a full 24 hours; he admitted that he himself has never done so when I asked him if he had. (I had to ask.) “It is not an endurance test,” he explained. Rather, unlike cinema, which he adamantly proclaimed The Clock is not, it is designed for people to come and go as they desire. The audience members themselves determine how much of it they want to experience, and any chosen time frame is theoretically an equally valid experience of the piece. But as an audience member, I find being given that much liberty somewhat unsettling. If somebody has created something and I decide to experience it, I feel I have an obligation to endure all of it; to me it is part of the social contract of being an audience member. I never walk out during a concert, I always try to see every work that is part of an exhibition, and I invariably finish books once I start reading them, even books which are ultimately not fulfilling—often I will appreciate a book only once I’ve completed reading it. Admittedly, sometimes experiencing an entire work is not feasible or even possible. I was a bystander to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (a performance art installation in which individual audience members sit across a table from a silent Abramović for an indeterminate amount of time). I was afraid to actually sit across from her, worried that I might never be able to stand up again. Similarly I have yet to travel to Alaska to experience John Luther Adams’s The Place Where You Go To Listen. This is another work with no beginning and no end, its electronically generated sonic content—determined by weather patterns—set up to last ad infinitum. There are very few things that I’m more interested in hearing, but how would I ever be able to tear myself away once I got there?

Thankfully if one were to attempt to experience all of The Clock, it would offer less of a challenge. After 24 hours, it becomes less like The Place Where You Go To Listen and more like Groundhog Day. And even if, like Phil Connors (the character played by Bill Murray in the film), your experience of going through the cycle over and over again eventually leads to a major mental breakthrough, the guards will kick you out after a maximum stay of 62 hours (the weekend hours at the David Rubinstein Atrium).


Between noon and 12:30pm, this particular clock made several appearances in The Clock. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. Photo: Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Last Thursday, I stayed for only approximately three hours (from roughly 10:45am to 1:45pm, which is a mere 1/8th of the work). I wanted to stay longer, but I knew that I’d only be allowed to remain for only about an additional hour before the screening room needed to be cleaned in preparation for the next set of advance opening guests. As the time wore on, I decided I didn’t want the jolt of being told to leave, especially after hearing Marclay’s remarks about wanting the audience to decide when to come and go, meaning that the only way to be true to his intentions is to leave on your own accord. But it was really difficult to do so.

Yet on another level it was extremely easy to leave since there were no cliffhangers whose resolution I knew I would be missing when I did. I knew exactly what would happen next: time would continue its unstoppable progression. While thousands upon thousands of narratives are woven through The Clock, contained within its constituent snippets from pre-existing films which are just long enough to actually get you interested in the characters, the individual story lines never resolve; rather they get lost and replaced with others as time marches forward. And in the three-hours of the work I sat through, interspersed between classic and more recent Hollywood fare, there were excerpts from French, German, Chinese, and Japanese films as well. None of the segments in foreign languages included subtitles, since what the people were saying didn’t matter. Yet that is not to say that The Clock has no plot. I witnessed the birth of a bunch of babies as well as a few murders, a suicide, and a couple of executions, but the details of every one of these were never revealed; their sole purpose was merely to show the passing of time, which is the ultimate plot line. When I left at 1:45, my biggest disappointment was not finding out what was going to happen to anyone I had been watching for the last three hours, but rather in missing his portrayal of 2:00pm—this was something I did not need to stay there to know he would do.

Of course, I experienced 2:00pm on Thursday after noon even though by that point I was no longer inside Marclay’s construct, or was I? After walking out of the space, I found myself walking south on Broadway to get to a subway train to return to my office—actually I needed to take two trains to get where I needed to be. Bizarrely, it felt as if I had never left. At the 59th street station, a digital display announced that the local train would be arriving in 0 minutes and, suddenly, there it was. Changing for the express at Times Square was as effortless: a similar sign displayed 0 as the train I needed to get on pulled into the station. I got off at Fulton Street and walked up onto the sidewalk. I decided to take some food back to my desk since it was already later than when I usually have lunch, and yet again, no wait. No one was in line ahead of me. It was jump cut after jump cut, just like The Clock, until I got to my desk, ate my lunch, turned on my computer, and attempted to begin to write down my thoughts about what I had just experienced which finally eroded my constant awareness of time over days and has morphed into what you are now reading.


2:00pm according to The Clock; something I didn’t stay to see. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

If art is a mirror of life, and the most effective works of art change your experience of life, then The Clock totally worked for me. Back in February, when The Clock was being presented at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Will Brand expressed disappointment that Marclay broke his own rules and included many clips which did not seem to directly reference a specific time of day. But that didn’t bother me at all. We don’t always look at clocks in our day-to-day existence. So a relentless barrage of clock images and verbal time references without anything else would actually be less sincere. And in order for The Clock to be believable, the editing together of all of these audio and video fragments had to appear seamless and I thought that it did. If in order for his stitches to be perfect, he required footage to cut away to from time to time, as far as I’m concerned it’s as valid an artistic license as slightly flattening pure perfect fifths in order to work within a completely circular modulation chain. But I nevertheless had my own pet peeves. While it was nice to see noon on clocks all over the world, it is temporally impossible. When Big Ben chimes noon in London it’s already eight hours later in Tokyo and only 7:00am in New York City. But I travel too much, I suppose. Ultimately art is not life, art is art.

Part of why The Clock is so effective is it creates its own paradigms. That it does so by exclusively mining pre-existing work adds to its allure because it takes things that are familiar and makes them completely unfamiliar. And the fact that it eschews narrative plot lines through the use of content that constantly reinforces a collection of tried-and-true same story formulas, commercial motion pictures, makes it completely subversive. What is perhaps its most revolutionary aspect, however, is how it deals with time, which after all is the only thing it is about. Daniel Zalewski, in an extensive exegesis about The Clock’s genesis which appeared in The New Yorker, describes the essential challenge that The Clock poses to audiences of the cinema and/or television:

“People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.”

But Zalewski’s assessment of Marclay’s challenge for film and TV audiences holds equally true for audiences for any kind of artistic product, especially music. Although music exists in time, it is most effective when you lose your sense of time within it somehow. Isn’t it only the 10 minute pieces you don’t like that feel like they’ve gone on for half an hour, while a 25-minute piece that you’re in love with seems to race by? The Clock, on the other hand, doesn’t ever move too fast or too slow. Yet, according to Marclay, who in addition to his recent forays in video art remains active as a composer and a DJ, even though “you’re constantly being told the time, you still can get lost in it.” I know that I did and still am.

In that sense, The Clock, shares a kinship with the “The Entertainment,” the mysterious final creation of avant-garde filmmaker James Orin Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. “The Entertainment” was purported to have been so dangerous that anyone exposed to it would become incapable of doing anything other than viewing it. (Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but during the portion of The Clock I saw, one of the only clips that did not reference a specific time was the famous “Alas Poor Yorick” scene from the Laurence Olivier film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which includes the words “infinite jest”.) Marclay might be concerned about our sanity when he suggests that we should not feel compelled to sit through all of The Clock. But even when we are not viewing it, we are, since its plotline, the passage of time, is something from which we can never escape.

Out of Time

Istanbul Airport

The amount of time I spent in Turkey thus far in my life has been negligible; just a couple of hours waiting for connecting flights to Athens and then back to New York City, though at least it was enough time for me to buy a 9 CD set of Turkish pop at the Duty Free shop. But I hope I can return there soon and have a deeper experience of it.

I’ve been back in New York City for almost a week now, and for once I seem to have mostly dodged jetlag. Perhaps traveling through different zones on a regular basis makes it easier to adjust to different clocks. Over the last year I’ve travelled quite a lot, even by my standards: I’ve been in 32 different places in 12 countries on 4 continents. In order to get to most of these places, I’ve had to spend more than 140 hours—which is nearly six entire days—in flight. And while those 140+ hours were still technically in a time zone somewhere, psychologically they feel outside the grid.

I’ve often thought about time spent on flights as the most “free.” This might seem completely crazy since being on an airplane is so physically restrictive, but it is the only time that I am completely unreachable via email, phone calls, text messages, tweets, Skype, Facebook, etc. and so is everyone else around me. (I’m also presumably unreachable during concerts, but unfortunately folks who’ve forgotten to turn off their phones aren’t.) It is a real luxury to have a huge chunk of undisturbed time, and over the years I’ve taken advantage of this interlude to read large books that I otherwise would never get around to.

Back in January, during a flight from Paris to New York, I attempted to read Mathias Énard’s Zone, a 500 page novel published in 2009 which consists of only one sentence and therefore begs to be read in a single sitting. I’ve previously written here about merely getting one quarter of the way through before sleep got the better of me. But I’ve remained fascinated by this book because it aspires to the same condition as listening to music; it requires whoever experiences it to submit to someone else’s clock. (I once heard that Edgar Allan Poe eschewed novels in favor of short stories because short stories tend to be read in a single sitting and he wanted to have control over the reader’s time.) Or course nowadays, even music is rarely experienced without interruption; most people engage in other activities as they listen, and the music that they listen to is primarily on recordings which enable the ability to start and stop and skip at will. Curiously, how most people experience music is very similar to the way most people read books.

Anyway, since returning from France, I couldn’t figure out a way to carve out the requisite time for Zone. I tend to read about 30 pages per hour which means that a standard novel of 300 pages takes me about 10 hours. I was able to read the quarter of Zone that I completed somewhat faster than that, but I figured that I would still need at least 10 uninterrupted hours of reading time. I had the perfect opportunity flying round trip from Hong Kong two months ago (each way is a little over 16 hours), but instead I devoted it to reading—though not in its entirety—David Foster Wallace’s 1000+ page Infinite Jest, which I managed to finally finish shortly before heading to Greece. Being able to get through Wallace’s gargantuan multilayered narrative nevertheless encouraged me to once again attempt to tackle what is perhaps the most impossible reading assignment I have ever given myself. So I brought Zone to Greece.

Since I was doing a red eye from JFK to Istanbul to connect with my flight to Athens, reading Zone on the way there seemed doomed to failure. I didn’t even try. Instead I watched several movies and read a substantial portion of Jason Weiss’s fascinating Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disc’, The Most Outrageous Record Label in America, which is my idea of light reading. I planned to save Zone for the return flight from Istanbul to New York, which was during daytime hours. I figured I needed to start at the beginning again, in order to fully experience the flow, so I did. This time, however, I only managed to get about 50 pages in; despite the uninterrupted time, there were just too many other distractions: flight announcements, meals, the person directly in front of me leaning back his chair to the point that I was barely able to hold the book in my hands, etc.

I’ve concluded that it actually might be impossible for me to read this book the way I had originally intended to. But it has also made me extremely grateful that it is so much easier to listen to most music uninterrupted.

So How Long is Too Long?

For the past couple of years I’ve frequently had the problem of not being able to sustain a musical idea in a composition for longer than two minutes, sometimes even far shorter—well under a minute. Admittedly this is partially due to the fact that I have so little time to actually compose music. But it is also because I have gotten deeply interested in creating things that can all be reduced to a very small and readily perceptible musical cell which is then expanded through a series of permutations (not exact repetitions) and when all the possible manipulations are exhausted there’s really nothing else to say. Introducing additional ideas seems like interloping, so a way I’ve gotten around this (when I’ve had additional ideas) is to stitch together a chain of separate, all short, movements.

But I have also recently been very eager to compose a really long piece of music. I mean a really, really long piece. (No doubt it’s yet another manifestation of my whole fascination with impracticality. ) For decades I’ve been fascinated with La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano (which in live performance hovers somewhere between five and six hours), the late Feldman pieces (some of which go on for six hours), and an even earlier work—Erik Satie’s 1893 Vexations which lasted some 18 hours when finally realized according to the composer’s instructions during a marathon reading session coordinated by John Cage. There’s nothing comparable to the experience of listening to a single-movement, extended-duration work. If you are able to focus on it without distraction, it completely takes over your life and makes you lose all sense of time and place. But you also experience sound and form in a different way even if you let your life go on as you’re listening—which is the more frequent approach most folks take to such works (admittedly myself included), especially when experienced on recordings. In fact, recordings are the only way most people will ever get to hear such music, since live performances of extremely long works are also extremely rare.


Trick or treat? The physical carrier for The Flaming Lips’ 24-hour 7 Skies H3, released October 31, 2011

Of course everyone has a different threshold for listening. For many people, anything longer than a three-minute song is inexorable, but for some a two-hour Mahler symphony races by. Obviously, the Young, Feldman, and Satie examples cited above require an even greater endurance than what it takes to wallow in Mahler. There are even longer pieces. A few years back Dennis Báthory-Kitsz told me about a 24-hour orchestral work by the late Québecquois composer Gilles Yves Bonneau. It has yet to be performed to the best of my knowledge, but if someone wants to present it, I’m eager to hear it. On October 31, 2011, fresh after releasing a six-hour “song,” the Oklahoma-based alternative rock band The Flaming Lips actually released a 24-hour “song” titled 7 Skies H3. Wayne Coyne, one of the band members, has acknowledged that it was somewhat “kneejerk” to call such things songs, but that’s fodder for another discussion. Whatever you call the band’s magnum opus to date, it’s too big to fit on a CD or even a DVD, so the band has issued it in a limited edition hard drive that is (since they issued it on Halloween) purportedly embedded in an actual human skull. That’s not the kind of thing I’d want to keep around the house, so luckily they’ve also posted it online.

And there are even longer pieces. If ever completely realized, Lux et Tenebrae, an electronic composition by Arne Nordheim, would last 102 years. A church in the German town of Halberstadt is the first venue ever to present John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP; the performance will not be finished until the year 2640. And John Luther Adams’s environmentally based sonic installation The Place Where You Go To Listen conceptually never ends. But anything lasting longer than a human lifetime is obviously impossible for anyone to hear in its entirety, so the compositional impulse and the way it can be experienced by others is clearly about something other than total temporal immersion.

So just how long is too long? Might a 24-hour composition actually be viable? Sure it’s a large amount of time, but it’s not completely unrealistic. I’ve had days in my life where not much was going on, and spending a day doing nothing but listening to an entire piece of music would have been an improvement. That said, since discovering The Flaming Lips’s 7 Skies H3 online last Friday, I’ve only be able to listen to about an hour of it thus far. So why on earth would I want to write a 24-hour piece myself (I actually do) and when would I find the time to write such a thing, let alone hear it once it’s done, considering that even a couple of minutes is a time stretch these days?

Fairbanks: A Long Ride in A Slow Machine

Kyle Gann
Kyle Gann
Photo by Nicole Reisnour

The immense new wing of the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North is intended, I’m told, to resemble icebergs. It’s certainly towering and extremely white, but for me its out-of-kilter crescent shapes evoke Native American art of the Northwest’s indigenous tribes. Perhaps that’s a chicken-and-egg argument, but it’s a fine building. (“The only piece of architecture-as-art in Alaska,” UA Museum Director Aldona Jonaitis proudly assured me.) And if architect Joan Soranno was aiming, as rumored, at something Frank Gehry-esque, what she achieved was warmer, more inviting, and more snugly fit to its environment than the Gehry buildings I’m acquainted with. This concludes my undistinguished career as an architecture critic; what drew me to Fairbanks, of course, courtesy of the museum, was their new permanent sound installation, The Place Where You Go To Listen by John Luther Adams, which has generated a remarkable amount of national buzz for any work of that genre, let alone one so distantly regional.

The Place Where You Go To Listen is a translation for Naalagiagvik, an Iñupiaq place name on the arctic coast. Jonaitis talked to Adams, Alaska’s most visible composer, about creating a permanent installation for the museum before ground for the addition was even broken. At about twenty feet by nine or so, the space allocated turned out to be smaller than anticipated, but it serves as a meditation room directly upstairs from the main entrance. You walk in, separate yourself from the world directly outside, sit on the bench, and slip into the red-and-violet, or blue-and-yellow, moods of the five glass panels in front of you. A continual hum greets you, and after a moment you begin to sort out the strands of the complex tapestry that the hum turns out to be. There are sustained chords, an intermittent rattle of deep bells overhead, and an irregular boom of extremely low frequencies that you have to focus on to remain aware of. It’s a complex net of heterogeneous sounds, and though the ambiance is relaxing, taking everything in is a challenge for the ears.

What makes The Place—as Adams likes to refer to it—different from other sound installations is that you can’t just drop by for half an hour and take it all in. La Monte Young’s Dream House is a similarly complex acoustic experience, but it doesn’t change from one day or hour to the next. And most installation artists sort of plan around the presumed length of the average gallery visit. The Place changes radically from night to day, from winter to summer, from season to season.

First of all, those sustained chords: one is called the “Day Choir,” the other the “Night Choir,” and the former follows the sun around. Literally: there are fourteen speakers around and above the room, and from the listener’s perspective the day chord is centered on the direction the sun is at at that moment. Relative strengths of the day and night chords vary with the sun’s location above or below the horizon. In Fairbanks, which is less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, this means a strong seasonal difference as well, the night chord being far more prominent in winter. Add to this that the Day Choir is based on an overtone series, the Night Choir on an undertone series, and you get an association of light and dark with major and minor, and an eerie blending of the two during Alaska’s leisurely twilights. Nature is not always soothing; neither is The Place.

The Place
Seen but not heard:
The Place Where You Go To Listen at midnight
Photo by Kyle Gann

Another tone, less easy to isolate, follows the phases of the moon through a month-long glissando. The booming low frequencies indicate seismic activity. The computer that controls all this is receiving real-time data from seismological stations around Alaska, which is an unusually earthquake-prone region. There’s something going on almost all the time, and people were speculating that an actual earthquake would create quite a noise indeed.

But the really romantic association, and not only for us lower-48ers, is that between the bell sounds and the aurora borealis. The bells emerge from the speakers in the ceiling, and they’re driven by streamed data from five Alaska geomagnetic monitoring stations, arranged north to south and mirrored that way in The Place. When you see the aurora borealis playing in the sky, as I did on my first night, you know plenty of bells are going to sound in the installation; likewise, if you hear lots of bell activity late in the afternoon, you know that the aurora is revving up for a colorful night. If you walk in and there are no bells, you can be as momentarily disappointed as you might be on an aurora-less night but then pay attention to the subtler harmonies you might otherwise miss. And if it’s cloudy, you can hear the aurora even when you can’t see it. Passing clouds affect the overall sound as well, muting the brightness you’d hear on a sunny day.

So you sit in this room, on the bench, or lie on the floor as some did, and through a kind of conceptual prosthesis you become aware of the earth’s activities, including some things you could see for yourself outside, but many others that you couldn’t see and at a detail not available to human senses. As with many sound installations, there is a left/right-brain split involved, but perhaps one unprecedentedly mammoth in its impact. That split was quite apparent in the reactions of the listeners at the March 21 opening (timed to coincide with the equinox). Some wanted to learn about the scientific workings of the piece in exhaustive detail, and to isolate each sound and know what was caused by what. Others fiercely resisted explanation and simply wanted to soak up the sensuous ambiance.

Of course, neither pure state is really sustainable, a contradiction that is part of The Place‘s charm. Reduce it to the meaning of the seismological and geomagnetic data, and you miss all the months of fine-tuning that Adams and his programming assistant Jim Altieri put into making exactly this complex of scales and harmonies, all tuned to a G that matches the rotation period of the earth. Merely listen as a meditative experience, and you miss the super-large scale of the piece and the logic of its nested periodicities. The poetry exists in-between: savoring the slow-changing forms with their rich detail of surface activity, being conscious of their relation to global processes, and learning to appreciate the time-scale, the lumbering sense of syncopation, of the planet on whose surface you scratch out your humble existence.

Of course, as the eternal explainer of such music I never have ignorance as an option, so Adams opened the hood and let me peer inside. The entire piece is a humongous, multilayered Max patch, augmented by software programs that, for example, chart the relative position of the sun and moon. The starting point for all of the sounds is pink noise, meticulously filtered into minute pitch bands capable of being combined into timbres. Not wanting to fall into what one might call the usual Max sounds, Adams worked out his tones on alternate software, and then assigned Altieri—a former student of his at Oberlin, a double-major in composition and geology, and a programming superwiz—the task of replicating them in Max. Unconventional tuning is a large part of the piece, and the different layers demanded heterogeneous solutions. The Day and Night Choirs fused into mere timbre when tuned to an actual harmonic series (one of the difficulties of writing polyphony in just intonation), and so a tempered tuning was sought, the most flattering of which turned out to be the good old 12-pitch equal scale. The aurora bells, though, are tuned to prime-numbered harmonics from 2 to 31.

By zipping through some time-lapse data in the Max patch, John could zip me between summer and winter, night and day, fine and inclement weather, and show me The Place‘s range. (An internet demonstration by Roger Topp available in the lobby, soon to be marketed on DVD at the museum’s gift store, provided a similar function for the less privileged tourists.) Contrasts were indeed stark—the piece’s center of harmonic gravity, so to speak, shifting over a four-octave range. In real time, most of the drama happens over a languorous time curve, which means that the real audience for The Place isn’t us tourists who fly in through Seattle for a week (imagine getting to hear only ten measures of the Eroica Symphony), but the locals who check in every month on their regular visits to the museum. They’re the ones who’ll get to experience The Place in fair weather and foul, November, March, and July, quiet moonlit evenings and invisible geomagnetic storms. (John’s a little concerned that the midnight sounds won’t get heard much, since the museum is closed, but there are some plans to keep it open for special events like solstices.) They’ll learn and cherish its moods, habits, and anomalies. Perhaps no other sound installation has ever so justified, by vastness of time scale, its permanent place in a museum’s architecture.

In that respect, The Place is the culmination of Adams’s output to date. His long, long orchestra works—In the White Silence, For Lou Harrison, and Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing—work with Morton Feldman’s expansive sense of scale, but also, within that, with a sense of periodicity almost too large to take in. Adams is one of the few composers around who still talks about, and yearns to evoke, that 19th-century attribute called the Sublime, inspiring awe, attraction, and fear all at once. One could surmise that his love of the sublime was inspired by contact with the panoramic harshness of the Alaska landscape, but I suspect that, rather, he was born with a yen for that feeling and moved to Alaska decades ago in search of it. Like Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett, Adams’s 75-minute In the White Silence enwraps you in sensuousness but makes your human attention span feel picayune and inadequate. The Place Where You Go To Listen zooms beyond even that to a potential eternity that you’ll have to go back to again and again to fully appreciate.


Kyle Gann is a composer, music critic, musicologist, and Associate Professor of Music at Bard College. His music, which frequently uses microtonal scales, has been released on Cold Blue, Monroe Street, and New World Records. He maintains a blog on ArtsJournal and is the author of three books: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press, 1995); American Music in the Twentieth Century (Schirmer Books, 1997) and Music Downtown (University of California Press, 2006).