John Luther Adams - Ten Thousand Birds
October 4, 2021
The culmination of an effort that began in Spring 2020 following the complete shutdown of all in-person rehearsals and performances, this recording of the John Luther Adams work Ten Thousand Birds features the Contemporary Music Ensemble, co-directed by Alan Pierson and Ben Bolter. John Luther Adams writes of the birdsong-inspired work, "In this music, time is not measured. Each page in the score will be its own self-contained world that occupies its own physical space and its own time."
In 2010, the Bienen School awarded John Luther Adams the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition.
Ten Thousand Birds is based on the songs of birds that are native to, or migrate through the American Northeast and Midwest. It explores the connections between nature and music, a topic that John Luther Adams has pursued over the course of his remarkable career. Most recently in Sila: Breath of the World and Become Ocean (for which he won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and Grammy) he has portrayed—in big musical gestures—the awe one experiences in response to nature’s grandeur. In Ten Thousand Birds, on the other hand, the source of inspiration is particular birdsongs, captured in minute detail.
Ten Thousand Birds has an open, modular structure: each page of music can be combined in varied ways. This 50-minute interpretation follows the cycle of a day, starting with bird songs heard in the morning, then afternoon, evening, night, and a return to morning.
In Spring 2020, as all of us at the Bienen School grappled with how to make music while our students were all stuck at home, my imagination quickly turned to the work of John Luther Adams. The spiritual openness and generosity of John's music seemed like just what we all needed at that moment. And the practical flexibility of John's Ten Thousand Birds—it's music for which John has left an enormous amount open to players, and which is envisioned for performance in wide open spaces with players spread far apart—made me optimistic that, with some creativity and ingenuity, we could figure out how to perform it together remotely online.
And so, along with co-director Ben Bolter, I began gathering a team of Bienen School graduate students to help us figure out how to make this live, remote performance happen: David Schrek became our video engineer, Tim Maines our sound engineer, and Evelyn Proffit our stage manager. (A stage manager turns out to be necessary even without a stage!) We researched and tested options for real-time remote performance, settling on Zoom for video and Ninjam for audio, a combination which let us watch and hear one another in high quality even over students' uncertain WiFi connections, though with imperfect synchronization.
And then we began rehearsing, learning together how to make this music together in this strange and unconventional way. Players were spread out across the world: some in Evanston, others in homes across the country, and at least one in Asia. When we began rehearsals, I joined from an apartment in Mannheim, Germany, though I led the final rehearsals from quarantine in New Jersey. Despite being spread so far apart, we were brought together by the remarkable experience of creating John's music together in real time. Taking off my headphones at the end of the performance, it was surreal to rediscover that I'd actually been all alone in my silent bedroom.
At my first in-person performance with the Contemporary Music Ensemble since the pandemic, I ran into our Ten Thousand Birds video director, David Schrek, now a Bienen School alumnus. It was wonderful to catch up with David after so many months of creating this online performance together. It was only after a few minutes that I realized: we'd never actually met in person together. So deep and real was the experience of connecting through Ten Thousand Birds, that it never occurred to me that we'd never actually been in the same space until that moment. That is the power of John's music. We're so happy to share this performance with you all.
Contemporary Music Ensemble Personnel
Flute/piccolo Andrew Creech, Vaynu Kadiyali
Oboe Tyler Kuehn
Clarinet Nicole Zhang
Bass Clarinet Jackson Brown
Bassoon Marissa Takaki
Horn Julian Stiles
Trumpet Filip Czarkowski
Trombone Evelyn Proffit
Percussion Benjamin Krauss, Drew McComas, Hayden Busby
Piano Alex Tchaykov
Harp Justine Dawn
Violins Abigail Schneider, Jelena Lee
Viola Sachin Shukla
Cello Jacob Barker
Bass Emmett Jackson
Alan Pierson, director
Benjamin Bolter and Alan Pierson, ensemble directors
Nicholas Koo, assistant conductor
David Schreck, video director
TIm Maines, sound engineer
Evelyn Proffit, stage manager
Benjamin J. Penwell, graduate assistant