By now, the Park Avenue Armory’s Recital Series concerts are a known quantity: art songs and chamber music in ornate, intimate spaces.
Whether the lineup is classical or contemporary, the packaging is the same, with only a few surprises — like when soprano Barbara Hannigan turned Erik Satie’s music into a semi-stage monodrama. But there was no performance quite like the one per set Alarm Will Sound Thursday.
Abandoning the traditional Recital Series rooms, the band members dispersed to the Armory’s Great Drill Hall for John Luther Adams’ moving and characterful film, “Ten Thousand Birds,” a project similar to an installation that is as much environmental — in its presentation, but also in its concerns — as it is musical.
Adams, our titular musical ambassador of the natural world, hasn’t written a score here in the usual sense. It is an Audubon book in translation: each page, the portrait of a bird in sound. Together, the sketches form an open, modular folio, with minimal guidance. “The set size and duration of a performance can be tailored to the specific site and occasion,” Adams wrote in a note for the published version. “It is not necessary to play all the pieces of this collection. It is not even necessary to play all the musical material of a particular piece.
He also calls for “the largest possible physical space”; the drill hall is approximately 55,000 square feet, which Alarm Will Sound has occupied with freedom and precision in a staging by Alan Pierson, the band’s artistic director, and percussionist Peter Ferry, its assistant artistic director . (At the start of the pandemic, Pierson and these players made a short video adaptation titled “Ten thousand birds / Ten thousand screens”; imaginative and often funny, it remains a high point of a low point in classical music.)
At the Armory, Alarm Will Sound has arranged “Ten Thousand Birds” into a roughly 70-minute experience that follows the cycle of the day: Beginning with a gentle breeze, it traces the buildup of morning awakening, the liveliness of the afternoon and the long breaks of the night before returning to this peaceful wind. Above the head, the lights gradually dimmed and, on the ground, the public was invited to move among the musicians. Just as there is no single way to present this work, there are no rules for hearing it.
On Thursday, people weren’t fully prepared for the start of the play, with some pre-show chatter lingering along the wind. But a choppy, breathless bassoon is hard to miss, and audience members got a better sense of what was going on when other musicians took their place. A flute, misty and slightly arpeggiated, introduces the melody into the mix, which is enriched: percussion in the familiar descending interval of birdsong in classical music, and harmonic tracks in the strings.
Adams has in the past evoked immense natural forces – as in his ‘Become’ trilogy, which includes the Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award winner “Becoming Ocean” – and here he balances both abstraction and transcription. For every passage of lyricism that emerges from the instrumental dialogue, there is a phrase with Messiaen’s uncanny accuracy: a piccolo call, a restless piano beat.
And, as staged at the Armory, there was a subtle sense of drama. Zoomorphic in their movement, the actors moved through space less like musicians than like characters. A roar of timpani dispersed a small ensemble that had crowded around her. Some performers were elusive or difficult to place, perched on the mezzanine or in the frame of a Juliet balcony but obscured by darkness. The strings went through the listeners in a buzzing swarm. By the time the work reached its nocturnal scenes, however, that kind of levity gave way to serene patience – long silences punctuated by passing chants.
As in “Inuksuit,” another Adams installation, audience engagement varied. Curiosity kept me constantly in motion; some people remained on chairs or sat in groups on the ground like picnickers. Some were lying down with their eyes closed, as if in meditation. David Byrne walked around with a bicycle helmet in his hand, peering at unattended percussion instruments. One man was knitting, while another was playing Scrabble. Many – too many – pulled out their phones to take pictures or record, their flashes distracting in the dark.
Which is a shame because what “Ten Thousand Birds” offers is above all an opportunity to marvel, not to document. If I were to attend again, I would be on the side of those who rest in one place and let the sounds come, as they might on a day at the park. Either way, concentration is all it takes for this piece, and its thoughtful realization by Alarm Will Sound, to achieve its goal: a heightened aestheticization of nature, and perhaps a renewed connection with it. .
Whether Adams achieves anything more with this work — whether his spirit of appreciation reaches the level of advocacy — depends, like the experience of the music itself, on the audience.
The alarm will sound
Repeats Friday at Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.