Arctic quintet plays “strange and sacred noise”

Lilly Necker / Sun Star Reporter
Sept. 27, 2011

Cover photo from John Luther Adams' "A Strange and Sacred Noise."

Seeing the premiere of the documentary “Strange and Sacred Noise” on Sept. 24 in the Davis Concert Hall in the UAF Department of Fine Arts wasn’t just watching a film, it was more like a full-body experience. Howling sirens marking the sunrise over Alaska mountains were so intense that it was almost painful. Huge xylophones rang out while the Yukon River broke free of its icy mantle on the big screen, making it easy to imagine this was acoustically what bitter cold feels like.

Composer John Luther Adams was inspired during a several-day hiking trip with his wife on the Yukon River in 1989.

“I always dreamed about creating music that somehow is place. I tried to compose this musical piece that has that sense of scale and feel of that kind of wilderness,” Adams said.

Living in Alaska since 1978, Adams, 58, was connected to the wilderness in a special way. “The experiences I had being alone in the tundra are above anything else the most powerful in my life,” Adams said. “When I am out there I feel connected to the large of the world. That is my church, being as close to religion as I can.”

As a composer for more than 40 years, the older Adams became, the less interested he was in the music in his hand than in the music in the world around him, he said. He started to create something that would express and transport both the feel and sound of nature.

“It’s like listening to the noise of a waterfall and sculpt and shape it in a way until those voices are singing loud and clear,” Adams explained. It took him five years to create the 70-minute composition, combining different components of Alaska’s wilderness: cloud formations that disappear and form again, sunrises and sunsets, spring thaw and flowers moving their heads in a rough wind.

Robert Esler, one of the musicians who played in Adam’s piece, came up with the idea to play the composition where it was inspired, transforming the piece into a  film. In 2008, Doug Perkins, Steven Schick, Rober Esler, his wife Lisa Tolentino and UAF music professor Morris Palter made their way to the Yukon River to perform.

“We knew each other as musicians for a long time and we all have been enthusiastic about John and what he created,” Palter said at the premiere. “It ended up being an amazing experience. Performing that in that space is really overwhelming.”

Leonard Kamerling, the film curator at the UA Museum of the North, directed the film and not only transported his crew and video equipment into Alaska’s wilderness but also built all the instruments in the different locations.

Adams, Kamerling and Palter held question and answer session after the film. Adams started off the session by thanking Kamerling. “Today was the second time I’ve seen the film in its final version,” Adams said. “I am stoked by the way my friend Leonard honored the place and the musicians who played.”

One viewer was irritated by loud sequences of screaming plastic sirens. A woman in the audience suggested to turn down the volume a bit because she almost “threw up.”

Adams wasn’t angered by that reaction at all. “It has to be that way, I want the music to be overwhelming and somewhere inbetween beauty and fear,” he said.

Audience member Gerry Utermogle found the film challenging. “I tried to listen more than watch but the sound was sometimes a little too pure for my taste,” Utermogle said.

Viewer Caroline Kremers, on the other hand, was completely overwhelmed.

“Yes it was sometimes hard to listen but I loved it for so many aspects,” Kremers said. “I was almost in tears about the intensity of being outdoors and to create such a huge project with so much artistry.”

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