American Contemporary composer John Luther Adams [born 1953] has written five named works for string quartet. The piece under discussion – Everything That Rises, is his most recent, from 2017. Due to its form, I would like to describe it as minimalistic because it fits my take on the genre. That is, it is a long piece, 56 minutes, that presents as very static as it unfolds and nothing seems to change, but if you wait long enough, you will realise it has changed. Interestingly the piece is pretty much defined by its title, starting in the lowest register, and rising to extremely shrill at the conclusion.
The first minute is taken up by a solo cello, which moves in and out of audibility. The cello holds sustained tones between the near-silences, with the sound having the texture of the Australian didgeridoo. Now double-stops (playing two strings at once) in the lowest register brings in several other string sounds, which are definitely secondary. This is pure mood. As the cello continues to dominate, the violins offer up mysterious musings that I don’t regard as melodic lines. The previous short silences continue to be used. I am reminded of the opening to Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs which features a bevy of resonant cellos and double basses. I also realise that we are no longer in the introductory sound, and yet it’s only in hindsight that I can feel the change. Now violins edge upwards, again without melody, just texture. The timbre of the instruments is quite rough and mechanical, although these are old machines at work here.
A repeated theme develops, one which has the violins crafting a long phrase, which ends on a trill. I’ve completely lost my way now, all I have are dim musical memories and the present moment. That rise that I alluded to is becoming more evident with the violins seemingly at the limit of their range, but I believe they can go higher. All this time the cello has continued to grind along, like a furrowing plough leaving indentations for the violins to fill. I just skipped three minutes and, while I can tell that the pitch has risen, the music doesn’t sound much different to what I last heard, it must just be imperceptibly changed.
The violins now seem to dominate, as the cello has taken on a role of random intrusions into the landscape presented by the violins. Another brief skip and the pitch has risen further, with sustained violin and viola lines underpinning the ever more shrill violin – the tension is palpable. The cello has disappeared, it probably couldn’t play in the current tonal range and the viola appears to have taken its place.
This is a desolate soundscape as the violins progress their slow ascension, without a hint of a coherent melodic line and totally bereft of a feeling of harmony. The violins are somewhat scratchy now, such is their roughly hewn texture. As we near the end, there seem to be only two voices left, with the cello and viola long gone – of course, I didn’t hear them leave, I just suddenly no longer noticed them.
The violin is now in the stratosphere, and a dull, rumbling ambience is all that accompanies it. The music is now barely audible, although occasionally what sounds like a helicopter intervenes with sporadic incursions. The last three minutes are merely barely audible, sporadic whispers… and it is over.
I won’t say that I’ve never heard a work like this before, but off the top of my head I don’t remember anything – maybe they will come to me later. The piece is a trance-like desolate journey and I could imagine listening to it as a background to other activities, or as an exercise in total concentration – and every circumstance in between. There are some words by the composer together with the obligatory complimentary reviews on the composer’s website http://johnlutheradams.net/everything-that-rises/. I am sure that there would be as many responses to these words as there are readers of my account of the work.
Performed by the Jack Quartet and released on the Cold Blue Music label, the CD is available from Amazon US and UK.
Listenability: Alright for some…