The Hills Are Alive 

At this outdoor concert, the birds sing backup.

click to enlarge Composer John Luther Adams has been called "one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century" by New Yorker critic Alex Ross.
  • Composer John Luther Adams has been called "one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century" by New Yorker critic Alex Ross.

The robins and wrens on the University of Richmond campus don't know it, but they're about to become part of a massive concert produced by the university's department of music and ensemble-in-residence, Eighth Blackbird.

On Sunday, 99 human percussionists — and possibly a few woodpeckers — will perform "Inuksuit" by the innovative American composer John Luther Adams, who wrote the piece to be performed outdoors.

The title is the Inuit word for stone figures built as geographical markers and hunting aids. Each is different, depending on its purpose and on the types of rocks in the area where it stands. Likewise, each performance of the musical composition differs, depending on the shape of the landscape and mix of ambient sounds where the concert's held.

Adams, whose works are influenced by nature, particularly in his home state of Alaska, visits the site of each performance of "Inuksuit" in advance to get a feel for the environment. When he arrives on the campus later this week, he'll spend time listening to the birds. Then he'll rewrite the piccolo part to reflect their songs. He'll also help to decide exactly where the musicians will station themselves over an acre or so of mostly wooded land on campus.

Eighth Blackbird has performed "Inuksuit" in New York, Chicago and Berkeley, Calif. Its six members planted the idea for a concert at UR and will be on hand to perform. A handful of students and local musicians also are participating, with about 80 visiting musicians from New England to South Carolina coming to Richmond this weekend to make up the balance.

UR music professor Andy McGraw is helping to coordinate the event. Although he's performing, too, he says he wishes he could be in the audience.

"The audience has a better sense of the whole thing than the musicians," he says. By walking around, "you can actively shape your experience of the music. If something sounds interesting over there, you can go over there." While listeners move to different vantage points, they hear the music interacting with the hills, the lake surface, the newly leafed trees, and the ambient sounds of birds, traffic and wind.

"Don't think of it as 'a piece of music in the woods,'" McGraw says. "Think of it as, 'We're playing the woods with a piece of music.' It's not that I'm using a mallet to play a drum, but the drum is the mallet with which we play the space."

Besides drums of various kinds, the piece calls for natural and manmade instruments such as conch shells, rocks and whirly tubes. Because the musicians won't all be able to hear each other, they'll use stopwatches to maintain the pacing of the 75-minute work.

Adams intends for it to be difficult at times to distinguish his composition from the surrounding sounds of nature. If "Inuksuit" can blur the distinction between music and the world, then maybe people will begin to hear the sounds of the world as music. "If everything's music," McGraw says, "then life's better — or at least more interesting."

"And if we can work to hear links between ecology and aesthetic experience, why not act on that?" he says. In Inuit, after all, "inuksuit" means "that which acts in the capacity of a human." S

"Inuksuit" happens Sunday, April 21, at 4 p.m., at the University of Richmond's Jenkins Greek Theatre. The rain location is Modlin Center. Details at music.richmond.edu or 289-8980. Free.

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