"What's with all of these composers with names of dead presidents?" asked John Kennedy, drawing a laugh from the audience that filled the Simons Center Recital Hall at the College of Charleston for the opening of the Music in Time series.
This program was full of these names. There was Kennedy, organizer of the series and a composer himself, introducing a work by John Luther Adams, to be performed by the percussionist George Nickson.
When Kennedy glanced at Nickson to gauge his reaction, Nickson threw up peace signs with both hands in a nod to the other Nixon's iconic salute.
First on Saturday's program was Adams' "The Light Within," a fascinating soundscape of exquisitely subtle harmonic changes inspired by James Turrell's 1999 art installation piece "The Light Inside." In this performance, it was nearly impossible to distinguish the ensemble's varying timbres from within the wall of sound they created.
Daniel Black's gentle, unobtrusive conducting did not betray the harmonic changes or punctuate the sweeping soundscape as you'd think a conductor's gestures might. He quietly led the ensemble as they shifted between warm harmonies and cool dissonances. The music moved from a ringing brightness to an eerie darkness and back again. Each time a new harmony coalesced, it inspired a wave of goosebumps.
Nickson, along with the pianist Conor Hanick and members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, mastered Adams' difficult task of creating color with sound.
Second on the program was the world premiere of Kennedy's "Inequalities," composed for Nickson and Hanick, who often perform together. Kennedy said he included the piece to provide "something aurally different" between the two Adams soundscapes.
"There are big inequalities between the piano and percussion in how they play and how they blend," Kennedy said. He set out to highlight these inequalities, and the result was a profound dialogue between two gifted musicians.
In Kennedy's piece, the piano and the percussion moved in and out of time with one another, creating sometimes similar and sometimes divergent textures. At times the loud toms opposed the gentle piano, or vice versa. At other times, the timbres connected and radiant overtones oscillated between them. In one moment, a particularly intense opposition gave way to a soaring union. One couldn't help but think that these inequalities in music - as in the social world - are but constructions that keep us from experiencing true harmony.
The program concluded with Adams' "Four Thousand Holes," a 32-minute soundscape of cycling major and minor triads. Kennedy called it a "saturating experience."
Indeed, about 15 minutes into the piece, the audience could not absorb any more. Several times the music reached somewhat of a cadence, only to be followed by a harmonic or textural change that foretold another cycle. The performers turned another page in their monstrous scores, and the audience began to fidget.
Adams' primary goal as a composer is to recreate nature with music. Nature exists all around us, yet we barely notice it. When we are asked to sit and pay attention to it, rendered in harmonic cycles that repeat in such a large arc that developments go unnoticed, it's a bit like watching the clouds go by; for most of us, it's beautiful and mesmerizing for a few minutes. After 32 minutes, well, an audience might be forgiven for becoming restless.
The exhausting length of Adams' piece aroused nothing but admiration for Nickson and Hanick, who persevered with intense focus. Often, they seemed to move as one. It is no wonder that they like to work together. On his website, Hanick wrote, " this weekend, I join forces with The Great George Nickson." And join forces they did.
The pair demonstrated a remarkable command of Adams' organized chaos. Indeed, is that not what nature is? Adams' work, though challenging and long, artfully captures nature's endlessness and complexity, as well as its beauty, and Nickson and Hanick commandeered his vision with considerable skill.
Sarah Hope is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.