Last Saturday at 4 p.m., the Williams Percussion Ensemble (WiPE), an innovative group directed by Artist Associate in Percussion Matthew Gold, performed John Luther Adams’ Strange and Sacred Noise outside on the grounds of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
The Clark’s newly-designed reflecting pools provided both a beautiful and an essential setting for Strange and Sacred Noise, which was composed by the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. Gold noted in his opening remarks that the piece takes a “geometric approach to nature,” as does the space in which it was performed.
In fact, the reflecting pools were as much a part of the concert as the drums, gongs, marimbas and sirens played by the ensemble throughout. The ensemble traveled around the space for each separate movement. At one point, individual members were isolated at the corners of each pool, playing gongs; at another, the group moved beyond pools and concrete to play sirens close to the base of Stone Hill. The pleasant sound of the pools’ small waterfalls remained present in each movement.
Gold encouraged audience members to experience the 70-minute performance as they wished, whether that be finding one spot in which to relax or moving about with the ensemble. The very sizable group of spectators and listeners certainly took his words to heart: families sat with their feet in the pools, couples strolled around the grounds and one patron even did yoga. This freedom of movement made me feel less like an audience member and more like I was part of the music itself. Changing where I stood meant I could change the very sound of the percussion, as drumbeats were amplified and marimba tones muffled while I walked. Audience sounds, from coughing to chatting to babies’ cries, were integrated into the piece between movements, and thanks to the occasionally strong breeze, audience members even participated in the concert to a certain degree, holding down sheet music and stands that threatened to blow away.
In his introduction, Gold explained that Strange and Sacred Noise is a piece about nature, not necessarily in its exact sounds and rhythms, but in its “scale, inevitability and indifference to humans.” His analysis could not have been more accurate. The sounds of Strange and Sacred Noise were overwhelming at times, such as the harsh, unending beats of snare drums and whining sirens. The members of WiPE were masters of volume and of pacing, their crescendos precise and controlled. While the haunting reverberations of the gongs and the tones of the marimba were intriguing, the more (deliberately) unpleasant moments of the piece perhaps reminded me most of nature in the way Gold described it.
The sheer loudness and uniformity of certain sections was reminiscent of hail on a rooftop or a rushing waterfall, and the sirens whirring in the distant grass called to mind at once the sounds heard through a city window as well as sounds heard in the bird calls of the country. Nature’s grand power and unpredictability were reflected in each movement of the piece.
WiPE’s Strange and Sacred Noise was unlike any concert I had ever experienced, and I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to do so in the gorgeous and conducive setting of the Clark’s new outdoor spaces.