‘Listening,” the composer John Luther Adams once said, “is the way I know where I am.”
It’s a succinct mantra from a composer who has insisted, more adamantly and originally than virtually any other in our time, on the fundamental importance of place in musical experience. He has created pieces, such as the Pulitzer-winning “Become Ocean” for orchestra, that channel with visceral precision the sense and the feel of natural phenomena, as well as “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” which takes data from the Alaskan wilderness (Adams’s former home) and converts it into sound.
Perhaps his most important achievement in this vein is “Inuksuit,” a site-determined percussion piece named for the stone land markers used by Inuit peoples to orient themselves. It can be performed by anywhere from 9 to 99 players, and while it can be presented in the occasional indoor venue – such as New York’s Park Avenue Armory, where it was played in 2011 – the work is designed for outdoor spaces. Indeed, the music of the piece is a product not only of sounds executed by the musicians, but also of their interaction with the surrounding environment.
“Inuksuit” is finally making its first sounding in Massachusetts thanks to the enterprising percussionist Maria Finkelmeier and her Kadence Arts organization. Finkelmeier and 91 fellow percussionists will load more than 650 individual instruments into the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain on Sunday to create the experience. The focus, she said, is as much on the beloved verdant surroundings as the human-produced sounds.
“I imagine John writing this piece in Alaska, and having this very personal way he relates to the landscape by the sound, not just the sight and the smells and the feel,” Finkelmeier said by phone recently. “I think he wrote it so that more of us can have this experience of entering a familiar space, but being more aware of and in tune with how it is sounding to us. We take in our surroundings by sound, and this piece allows us to embrace and encourage that.”
Despite the substantial forces, “Inuksuit” is actually “a really reflective piece” with its own “organic theatricality,” Finkelmeier said. This rendition will begin with all the musicians together in a clearing off of the Oak Path, near the Arboretum’s Bussey Hill, creating what Adams calls “breathing gestures” on air tubes and friction instruments. The players disperse slowly; as they take up stations in the Conifer and Oak Collections, the music grows more intense, tom-toms and bass drums playing polyrhythmic figures that, in Adams’s score, resemble the stone structures that give the piece its name. The piece ends with a series of transcribed bird calls played on glockenspiel and piccolo, which last as long as the performers decide to continue. (Given that local birds are sure to join in, it is likely to go on a while.)
One of the magical things about “Inuksuit” is that every listener’s experience will be unique. That’s true in any concert situation, but at the Arboretum – which has been “an ideal partner in this endeavor,” Finkelmeier noted – audience members will have the freedom to follow particular musicians or plant themselves in a single spot, as they please. She advised bringing a blanket. “I’ve always said it’s a choose your own adventure,” she said. “It’s nice to sit for a moment, be in one space, and open your ears, hear drums that are 5 feet in front of you or 50 feet away, and how do those sounds interact with one another?”
She also pointed out that the concert will happen rain or shine, and described having participated in a Connecticut performance where it rained throughout. “That adds a lot to the ambience and the sounds of what’s happening,” she noted. “We kind of embrace it in a way.”
The term “inuksuit,” Adams points out in his score, also translates as “to act in the capacity as a human.” It’s in that idea that a whole nexus of ideas about art, place, and our common sodality align. “As musicians, we’re able to communicate through dots on a page, and for me it’s so powerful that we can cross barriers by simply making sound,” Finkelmeier said. “This piece is very raw: We’re thinking about breathing, and timbre, and how each of our sounds is making an impact on the environment around us. And that is a very fundamental human urge. I think it’s an amazing platform for us to be the rawest form of ourselves.”
Or, as Adams himself put it, “I’m trying to hear as far as I can.”
JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: INUKSUIT
At Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, June 12 at 3 p.m. Free. www.kadencearts.orgDavid Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.