Natural sound

You Must Experience the Environmental Wonder of Inuksuit

Melding music, nature, and place, John Luther Adams's monumental percussion work comes to Rice this Saturday.

By Hannah Che February 13, 2019

Rendering of Falon Mihalic's landscape art created for Saturday's performance of John Luther Adams's Inuksuit at Rice.

Inuksuit is meant to be heard outdoors. Composed by John Luther Adams and scored for 9 to 99 percussionists, the concert-length work premiered on a mountainside in Banff, Canada in 2009 and has since been reenacted in the Alaskan wilds, New England forests, the Australian seaside, and hundreds of public spaces around the world. Described as "the ultimate environmental piece," the work seamlessly unfolds in and reflects upon the performance environment, often to provocative effect. (Sixty-four percussionists recently performed the piece straddling both sides of the border wall separating San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico.)

Now, on Saturday, February 16, 45 musicians from across Texas will descend upon the live oak grove adjacent to Rice's main entrance with their drums, cymbals, gongs, whirly tubes, conch shells, and glockenspiels. The performance is organized by Sydney Boyd for Rice's Spatial Humanities Initiative, and is directed by Douglas Perkins and produced by Brandon Bell. It also features the first landscape installation ever created specifically for this piece: a hovering oculus and listening map meant to guide audience members as they roam freely during the 70-minute performance.

John Luther Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his orchestral work Become Ocean, has spent the majority of his adult life in Alaska, and his work is deeply imbued with a sense of place, keenly attuned to the rub of culture and ecosystem. His music is urgent, often demanding listeners pay as much attention to the acoustic environment as the notes themselves. Perkins, who’s directed countless performances of Inuksuit, remembers the events that led up to the piece's creation: He and three other percussionists had just performed Adams's Strange and Sacred Noise, and as part of a dare, somehow ended up on the Alaskan tundra. "We were performing these percussion quartets up on this mountaintop for the moose and no one else," Perkins recalls, "and it was the sound of these drummers, flying away into the air, that made Adams realize he wanted to write this work."

The initial idea was about solitude. Inuksuit, translated literally, means "to act in the capacity of the human,” but it also denotes the megalithic stacks constructed by the Inuit as arctic landmarks. Adams had imagined each musician as an isolated stone sculpture on a vast landscape, but the end result, with the musicians interacting with each other and the audience members and the site, inevitably engendered community. According to Perkins, “it ends up not being about solitude but about a communal sound and communal, shared experience.”

No two performances are the same. "None of us have any idea what it will sound like on Saturday,” Perkins admits. At the grove at Rice, the trees are tall and brambly, forming a dappled, sound-reflecting canopy overhead. It's a tranquil area, rarely frequented by students, and traversed only by the occasional jogger or car passing through. "The whole idea was to bring attention to a space on campus that's not actively used, that people would normally miss," says Bell, the producer who also brought in landscape architect Falon Mihalic. 

Mihalic has been working in the grove for the past week, installing boundaries to help the performers and audience locate themselves. “I don't want to ask the land art to do anything more than exist as it is—mostly stones on the ground that define a place,” she says. 

Performers will start and end the piece in the center under a suspended chandelier, and then “all elements will radiate out from that origin.” They’re divided into three groups, but they'll act as soloists, scattering into the surrounding space on their own and collectively building intensity with tam-tams and drums, pounding out waves of grand chaos, or “the rising of the seas,” as Adams notes. Gradually the cacophony will transform into a quiet series of local birdsongs played on glockenspiel and piccolo, and in the end completely meld with the environment. “It's a really powerful moment,” says Bell, “when everything fades away and what’s left are the sound of the trees and the birds overhead." 

Adams's work carries a fascinating lure among musicians. "Percussionists will come out of the woodwork to play this piece," Bell explains. "I've gotten emails from people that I've had to turn away because of capacity and budget limitations. People will travel long distances to participate, it's the strangest thing." Saturday’s performers will be made up of local musicians—students and alumni of both Rice’s Shepherd School of Music and UH—as well as musicians coming in from Corpus Christi, Waco, and Austin.

Part of the piece's appeal lies in the way it breaks free from the traditional concert experience. The musicians are let loose to interact with the environment, and the audience members as well. In the grove, there are no “best seats.” “One of the great things is that you create your own experience of it just by walking through the performance zone," Bell says. "It's like a build-your-own-adventure." 

All you need to do to prepare for Saturday’s performance is to pack a blanket or a folding chair. Maybe even a snack or a thermos of coffee. Plant yourself in a grassy spot in the grove and allow the sounds to envelop you, or wander around chasing sounds you're curious about, or maybe track the path of a particular performer. Feel free to stretch, to fidget, to zone out. Just as no two performances of Inuksuit can be the same, no two listeners will hear it in the same way. Don’t be afraid of silences, either.  

"In these pauses," Adams writes in his performance instructions, "the music of the place becomes part of Inuksuit, which in turn becomes part of the continuing music of the place."

Feb. 16 at 4 p.m. Free (limited parking available in Lovett Lot). Rice University, 6100 Main St. 713-348-0000. More info at

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