Stephen Drury / Callithumpian Consort

John Luther Adams: Songbirdsongs

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Songbirdsongs, written between 1974 and 1979, is one of John Luther Adams' earliest scores, but it already contains the germ of the musical vision that has continued to engage him throughout his career: the intersection of human creativity with the natural world. All his major works, particularly since his move to Alaska in 1987, have dealt with the exploration of the territory of "'sonic geography' -- that region between place and culture... between environment and imagination." In Songbirdsongs, he uses two flutists (who also play piccolo and ocarina), percussion ensemble, and celesta, not to try to create an exact replication of birdsong (which he acknowledges would be impossible given its infinite variability) but to give the performers some written material characteristic of the songs as well as the freedom to use it with flexibility and intuitive spontaneity. Consequently, no two performances are ever the same, but when the piece is played with the looseness and freedom the composer envisioned, it sounds as wild and untamed as nature. The Boston-based Callithumpian Consort, under the artistic direction of Stephen Drury, plays with absolute understanding of the composer's intentions and its performance is exquisite: delicate, unpredictable, evocative, and just plain lovely. Adams does give the players fabulous material with which to work. The nine movements, each of which is devoted to the songs of a particular species, or to a group of species from the same habitat, are distinctive and memorable, because of his artful exploitation of percussion timbres and the character of the flute, piccolo, and ocarina. Strange Birds Passing, an octet for piccolos, flutes, alto flutes, and bass flute, is more conventional in its textures and form but its massed flute sounds create a gorgeously evocative depiction of a flock of birds. The work is performed with finesse by the New England Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble, led by John Heiss. Fans of new chamber music won't want to miss the originality of Adams' vision and the sheer sensual beauty of his music, particularly when it is performed as well as it is here.

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