At a time when many classical composers are wondering "what's next," Alaskan composer John Luther Adams has come into his own. Adams' remote surroundings may seem like too great a sacrifice to make to those hopelessly committed to living in the concrete megalopolises that are home to most Americans. Nevertheless, Alaska is home to him, and Adams' music reflects its purity and a great sense of wonder of the natural world. In Adams' multi-movement percussion piece Strange and Sacred Noise, non-pitched instruments combine in basic gestures to communicate some of the immediacy and inscrutability of his icy, frozen environment. All of the music is pared down to the essentials, and nothing in Adams' 73-minute composition is extraneous. Different movements are characterized by the combination of instruments involved -- snares, tam tams, tom-toms and bass drums, mallet percussion, and bells. Although some of the various movements are dedicated to different composers that Adams admires, Strange and Sacred Noise is at times reminiscent of George Antheil's Ballet mécanique minus all of its complexity and confusion, as though single textures from within it are taken out and given a closer examination. Though this may not have been Adams' intention, Strange and Sacred Noise returns us to the very flashpoint of American percussion music for a fresh perspective, to "the scene of the crime," if one will.
Strange and Sacred Noise features the awesome talent of Percussion Group Cincinnati, an ensemble regarded as one of the world's premier interpreters of percussion music for the past quarter century that, for some reason, have spent much of that time without an outlet for their recordings. Word has it that this Mode release will not be the last we hear from them on compact disc, excellent news for fans of percussion music. The playing here is seamless and disciplined -- percussion players will be astounded by the drill-like precision of their snare and field drum patterns in the movement entitled "...dust into dust..." and the completely unified work on mallet instruments, producing a low rolling sound that one would never know is coming from marimbas. Mode's recording quality is top of the line -- producers of "hi-fi" records back in the 1950s would have gladly "killed" to be able to issue a recording like this.