‘Inuksuit’ brings a symphony of sound to a quiet corner of campus

The tree-covered corner of campus that hosted hundreds of Houstonians under the oaks for a performance of John Luther Adams’ composition “Inuksuit” is naturally quiet, often occupied only by the birds, squirrels and rabbits that make the grove their home. This is exactly what drew Sydney Boyd, the Spatial Studies Project Manager for Rice’s Humanities Research Center, to select this place when she organized this event.

Hundreds of visitors came to campus Feb. 16 for a performance of John Luther Adams' "Inuksuit." (Photos by Brandon Martin)

Hundreds of visitors came to campus Feb. 16 for a performance of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit.” (Photos by Brandon Martin)

“Here at Rice, we’re taking a corner of campus that people largely don’t come to,” Boyd said. “We really wanted to activate a space that had been inactive.”

Indeed, the grove was activated that day: The mournful wail of an air siren gave way to the ghostly harmonic tones of corrugated whirly tubes whipped around amongst visitors who walked slowly through the various, often otherworldly sounds of “Inuksuit.” Overhead, a “smoke ribbon” crafted out of aluminum mesh by artist Falon Mihalic hung suspended between several live oaks, drawing attention upward and into the trees.

The Feb. 16 production of Adams’ concert-length piece, which is scored for between nine and 99 percussionists, also featured instruments ranging from the ordinary — drums, cymbals, xylophones — to the unusual, including bullroarers and conch shells. That is because “Inuksuit” isn’t a product of a traditional master score.

"Inuksuit" is scored for anywhere from nine to 99 percussionists. (Photo by Brandon Martin)

“Inuksuit” is scored for anywhere from nine to 99 percussionists.

Instead it suggests a collection of musical materials and possibilities for performers to use as they create their own unique realization of the work. Each production, therefore, is completely different— but each shares a common setting.

“It is supposed to be in an outdoor environment,” said Brandon Bell, a percussionist with the Shepherd School of Music who produced the piece. “Alex Ross, the music critic, calls this the ‘ultimate environmental piece.’”

As audience members wandered through the grove, they were challenged to examine their understanding of how music can transform an existing space and how they, as humans, now relate to a tiny corner of campus — and of nature — they may have never before considered. And this, Boyd said, was the idea.

“On a really broad scale, the humanities think about what it means to be human in the world,” she said. “And this piece thinks about what that is on a smaller scale.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.