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ON COMPOSING PLACE: AN ANALYSIS OF “CLUSTERS ON A QUADRILATERAL GRID” BY JOHN LUTHER ADAMS ERIK DELUCA HERE IS A VAST COLLECTION of philosophical texts that deal with place from both anthropological and geographical perspectives. The introduction to Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso’s book Senses of Place provides a wonderfully varied bibliography on the topic. Each of the ethnographies included in the collection describe and interpret some of the ways in which people encounter places, perceive them, and invest them with significance.1 Along this path there is a lineage of composers who have written concert music inspired by place, but there is a lack of published material that confronts the topic. The Sounds of Place by Denise Von Glahn discusses a number of “place pieces” composed by Americans. However, Glahn’s work, while rich with ideas, only briefly mentions the compositional devices employed to embody place.2 The following analysis seeks to unpack this particular compositional “mapping problem” in John Luther Adams’s “Clusters on a quadrilateral grid” from Strange and Sacred Noise (1991–97). For background information on JLA see Alex Ross’s Letter from Alaska: Song of the Earth.3 T 6 Perspectives of New Music STRANGE AND SACRED NOISE For the past three decades JLA has composed musical landscapes, “sonic geographies,” work inspired by light, and installation environments that are all inspired by Alaska. “As a young man I came north with the dream that I might discover a new kind of music here, music that might be found only here. I was drawn to the north by the land itself and by my own desire, in my art and my soul, for certain qualities this place represents.”4 The composer, while acknowledging his romanticized views of Alaska, has concurrently embraced its noise “just as we can find transcendent peace in the beauty of nature, we can also discover a different kind of transcendence in the presence of elemental violence. . . . Inspired by my encounters with calving glaciers, raging rivers, wildfires and extreme weather, Strange and Sacred Noise (1991– 97) celebrates noise in the primal forces of nature.”5 JLA claims that the musical materials used to compose Strange and Sacred Noise were extracted from geometric phenomena as a way to investigate and imitate the “elemental” violence of noise6 found in the natural7 expanses of Alaska and beyond. The following sentences were excerpted from JLA’s essay on Strange and Sacred Noise: My growing fascination with the violence of nature led me to a rudimentary study of chaos theory, fractal geometry and the science of complexity—recent attempts by Western science to describe the rich patterns of the world. . . . I wondered: How might these intriguing phenomena sound? My first exploration of this question is Strange and Sacred Noise—an extended cycle of pieces for percussion quartet, combining my long-standing passion for sounds and images from the natural world with a newly-found fascination for the mathematics of dynamic systems. In this music, I attempted to translate a few of the reiterated, self-similar forms of simple, linear fractals into sound and time, in search of their audible equivalents. Chaos theory arrives at the most complex of ends from the simplest of means. . . . I began my investigation of fractals as music with the simplest of forms: the so called “classical ” fractals, created by linear, iterative processes. Compared with the mindboggling complexities of forms generated by the Julia and the Mandelbrot Sets, these fractals are relatively simple. Still, they offer intriguing enigmas and rich metaphors.8 The six-movement, approximately 70-minute cycle, blends the composer’s long-standing “sonic geography” with a new fascination On Composing Place 7 for “sonic geometry” as a way to celebrate “noise as a metaphor for the turbulent phenomena in the world around us.” In addition, each movement was inspired by, and dedicated to, composers “who have explored strange new worlds of sound.” “I. . . .dust into dust. . .,” for two snare drums and two field drums, explores the Cantor set and Cantor dust—“a fractal model of the behavior of electrical noise.” “II. solitary and time-breaking waves (after James Tenney),” for four tam-tams, is structured on various and gradually...


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