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Music review: Cloudscapes from the Great Noise Ensemble

by Tom Huizenga

Few composers are more appropriate to an Earth Day concert than John Luther Adams. He writes in a small cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska and his music, he says, is “a deep response to the landscapes of the far North.”

But there aren’t any picture-postcard landscapes in Adams’ hour-long “Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing,” which the Washington-based Great Noise Ensemble performed Friday night at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Silver Spring. Instead, the piece unfolds as a succession of harmonic studies on equal-tempered intervals — from unisons and half steps up through major sevenths and finally, octaves.

Never mind the technical set-up. It’s Adams’ slowly unfolding soundscapes that reward the patient listener — the musical equivalent of watching a sky full of clouds gradually shape-shift and evaporate into themselves. Once surrendered to its meditative state, you feel like the music creates something much larger than itself. Except for one cacophonous storm in the middle, “Clouds” is a quiet, unhurried work in the style of Morton Feldman, dressed in brief melodic cells with repetitive, sometimes gently rocking, rhythms. Painterly washes of fluttering winds and shimmering strings blend with sustained, colorless notes and pealing bells in vibraphones.

Great Noise’s adventuresome artistic director Armando Bayolo, who has presented contemporary music in Washington over six seasons, conducted his 17 musicians from the rear of the shallow auditorium. As his forces were spread wide, balancing the sound was challenging, but the ensemble made a strong case for this strangely beautiful music.

Projected images accompanied the performance, but they were unnecessary. Random shots of bells, misty trees and molten lava looked like computer screen savers and only distracted from the natural atmosphere created by Adams’ music.

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