I caught the last night of John Luther Adams’ sound installations, Veils and Vesper, at Diapason Gallery in New York Saturday night. Now, right off, how can you not like pieces with titles like that? Immediately Veils conjures up some Debussy impressionism, and is there a piece with “Vesper” in the title that anyone can not like? You think of Monteverdi’s Vespers for the Blessed Virgin, and a little screwdriver pokes in and disconnects part of your critical apparatus before you walk in the door.
As befits those titles, Veils and Vesper were lighter, less mammoth, easier to take in than John’s installation The Place Where You Go to Listen that I wrote about earlier this spring. Where that vast work continues to chart eternity via weather and seismological data, these two were on six-hour repeating cycles of slowly rising and falling tones. The sound source was all pink noise, filtered once again through Jim Altieri’s Max patches, but diffracted through what John calls “harmonic prisms.” And in fact, you were immediately aware of a kind of tonality, some chord or scale shimmering indistinctly through the slowly shifting web of pitch lines. Putting your ear against one of the loudspeakers, it was difficult to distinguish one tone from another, as though you were hearing C and B at once or in alternation, and within a minute’s listening you could get a feel that the range was gradually rising or falling, but without leaving the basic tonality. Irregularly pulsing low tones from the woofers seemed to enforce a drone on the D of a Dorian scale, so that, reduced to a single impression, Veils seemed to be an endlessly suspended ii7 chord awaiting a resolution that would never come. Meanwhile, within that was an almost imperceptible trickle of sound waves upward or downward, like – if it is not degraded by the comparison – one of those huge, quiet waterfalls over slabs of rock at a fancy restaurant or hotel. Calming, beautiful, and, with those titles to set you up, an invitation to a crepuscular frame of mind.
The effect of music is difficult to describe at best, and in this case seemingly impossible. It’s why, when you know something about how the music was made, it’s so much easier to fall back on technical descriptions.