John Luther Adams’ music is constructed around the sense of place. ‘Sonic geography’ is his mission in sound, and his works have often been called sonic installations that conjure an equivalent experience in sound to the overwhelming and yet grounding sense we can get from standing in a landscape with a wide view. “The longer we stay in a place, the more fully present we become in that space,” he has explained, adding that his wish is for audiences to have the patience to “settle in, open up and listen in a different way.”

<i>In the Name of the Earth</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
In the Name of the Earth
© BBC | Mark Allan

This is a natural request for a supposedly ‘minimalist’-school composer to make of his audience, but Adams’ lifelong environmentalism adds resonance to this philosophy of music. His latest large-scale work, In the Name of the Earth, received its European premiere on Sunday morning at the BBC Proms. ‘Large-scale’ is an understatement: with three orchestra choruses and five London choirs making up eight groups of over 700 singers, distributed around the hall in groups to match the points of the compass, and a grand finale involving all but one of the choirs moving slowly onto the stage and the option for the audience to join in with the final canon, this was a true live event.

The parallel to attending church or mass on a Sunday morning should not be ignored. For his text, Adams weaves together names, a huge variety of them, in Spanish, English and indigenous languages, to create a celebration of mountains, rivers, glaciers, forests, plains and deserts, and the instinctive resonance of the words we put to nature. As Adams says in a programme note, we are a species “lost and wandering on the edge of our own extinction [and] we need new maps to help us find our way,” and this litany suggests the kind of reconnection to nature that might be possible were we to begin listening again.

<i>In the Name of the Earth</i> © BBC | Mark Allan
In the Name of the Earth
© BBC | Mark Allan

The music moves in slow, oceanic clusters of harmonies; eight conductors are beating at different speeds; the choirs move from melding to clashing to rising to falling. The effect is to create something rather like the movement of a river, the gentle (or furious) beating of wind on mountain. Alongside the long, slow masses of vocal lines there are shouts, chants, bells, and the rattling and scraping of makeshift percussion instruments.

Being open to these kinds of ideas helps, both musically and philosophically, in enjoying the work. If you are willing, this piece often approaches the kind of overpowering quality of tides. Adams passionately wants his work to be practically and spiritually useful in the effort “to understand more deeply the places we inhabit. And if we better understand where we are, we may better understand who we are and how best to live.”

As the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Hackney Empire Community Choir, London International Gospel Choir, London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chorus, LSO Community Choir, Victoria Park Singers and their respective conductors took their bows, I was left feeling both bereft and reinvigorated, having had to leave Adams’ expansive, geological sound-world, yet returning to this one with wider eyes.

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