'Inuksuit' takes over Libbey Park with sound

48 percussionists perform Inuksuit -- an experimental music piece by John Luther Adams -- in Ojai, CA. The score is based on the Inushuk, which is a large stone sculpture that Inuits and other native peoples use to orient themselves in the Arctic circle.
48 percussionists perform Inuksuit -- an experimental music piece by John Luther Adams -- in Ojai, CA. The score is based on the Inushuk, which is a large stone sculpture that Inuits and other native peoples use to orient themselves in the Arctic circle. Mae Ryan/KPCC

It starts in the middle of Libbey Park ... with the wind instruments. They blow you toward the glockenspiels. If you step 20 feet east, you’ll find whirring plastic tubes. Fifty feet west, you’ll be standing a little too close to a siren, and 30 feet north, listen closely to find rocks rubbing together.

Or just stand in the middle – and enjoy everything at once.

This is Inuksuit, an experimental percussion piece by John Luther Adams. The 80-minute sonic adventure makes its West Coast debut at a free concert as part of opening day of the Ojai Music Festival.

The piece means a lot to Steven Schick, the artistic director of the performance. The composer gave it to him and his wife as a wedding present.

"We registered for a mind-altering, world-changing percussion piece at Crate & Barrel, and this is what we got, you know," he said.

Forty-eight musicians, mostly college students, gather at Libbey Park in downtown Ojai before fanning out to all corners. They take up stations at gongs, conch shells, cymbals and some more traditional drum sets. Audience members get to walk wherever they want.

Bonnie Whiting Smith has played in all three performances of Inuksuit: at its opening in the Canadian Rockies with 18 percussionists and exactly two spectators, at the Armory in New York with 99 percussionists and hundreds of spectators, and now in Ojai.

"You know if you don’t like what you’re hearing you can walk to the next space and have a different experience," she explained.

Whiting Smith added that the musicians have a lot of flexibility in the score.

"While every single note that we are playing is in fact scripted in our scores, there’s a lot of indetermancies. There’s a lot of chance and choice that ends up happening where you can decide, 'OK. Is now my moment to move on? Or should this crescendo be a little louder or softer?'"

The name Inuksuit comes from large stone structures that Inuits and other native peoples use to orient themselves in sparsely populated Arctic spaces. The stacked stones resemble massive human figures with long, stony legs, a horizontal mass jutting through the center and a rounded boulder on top.

"They are the stone sentinels at the edge of the habitable world," said artistic director Schick.

The Inuksuit metaphor also carries into the music. The notes on the page are lined up to look just like those stone sculptures.

"So if you were to listen to one person play the Inuksuit figures, and you closed your eyes and you listened through the pauses and imagine that as empty space and then every time you hear a note it’s something solid, you could reconstruct the shape of the stone sentinel just through your ears," he continued.

As the cacophony dies down, the musicians move back to the park’s center – except for the birds. They’re piccolo players perched in trees.

Whiting Smith is one of them.

"Do I remember which birds?" she asked. "I’m playing three birds. Am I a western meadowlark? Is one of them a song sparrow? And what is my third bird? I forget."

The composer, John Luther Adams, customized his composition to mimic the birds of Ojai. According to Schick, the surrounding wildlife can tell.

"I noticed that the birds started singing just about the time the first birdsong came and it’s actually not that unusual. You find that the animals, and particularly the birds, they are listening and they sing back to you," he said.

There are other songs filtering into the performance, too, like passing ice cream trucks.

Those are the unwritten notes of Inuksuit, the ones you still might hear at the composition’s debut in Libbey Park at the Ojai Music Festival.

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