There are many who count John Luther Adams (JLA) as one of the most significant composers on the planet today. Myself included.

On the eve of World Environment Day, with temperatures quivering around 10 degrees, there was a warm glow inside the South Melbourne Town Hall. This past week 16 young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music had been working on a realisation of JLA’s 2013 intriguing environmental work, Ten Thousand Birds.

Ten Thousand Birds. Photo © Pia Johnson

Their mentor was Tim Munro, ace Aussie fl(a)utist and music activist, originally from Brisbane and now a longtime resident of Chicago. From 2006 to 2015, he was the leading light in the triple Grammy-winning new music ensemble, Eighth Blackbird. These days, the affable and charismatic Munro is more a solo act, specialising, as he says, “in the presentation of large-scale, immersive projects that put listeners at the centre of the musical experience”.

Such is JLA’s Ten Thousand Birds. For almost 40 years, JLA was based in northern Alaska (today, he and his wife Cynthia divide their time between rural Mexico and the wilds of Manhattan). Birdsong has been a primary focus of his work over these decades, from solo pieces to extended, luxuriant works for full orchestra which have yet to be heard in this country.

The performance materials for this work constitute a kind of ‘music-kit’, a folio of unbound pages which becomes “an atlas of musical possibilities for performers to use in creating their own unique realisations of the music”. Free to choose the order and duration of their sounds and, conversely, their silences, the musicians may combine, simultaneously and sequentially, their own ‘score’. Thus each performance will be quite radically different from another. JLA encourages the musicians to perform in a large space, moving around the audience, and the audience moving also, to experience the music from various aural perspectives. Perhaps regrettably, few in the audience chose to abandon their chairs and comfortable beanbags; it took almost 15 minutes before the first brave souls began to engage with the geography of the hall.

Ten Thousand Birds. Photo © Pia Johnson

For this exercise, Munro drafted five students as co-creators or team-leaders. Together, they devised a performance which lasted 55 minutes and which traced the cycle from Morning-Midday-Afternoon-Evening-Night-Morning, with around 10 minutes per element. Working without conductor/leader – regrettably, Munro did not play a note in this performance – they produced a serene and seamless mosaic of musical fragments. Perhaps, it might be said, a little too beauteous; evocations of storms and more raucous birds would have dispelled the soporific euphony that engulfed the audience.

JLA appears to have transcribed the sounds of various North American birds, as well as sounds of frogs and the wind. It was not possible, nor was it necessary, to identify the calls of the birds. (By peeking at sheets on music stands, I was able to identify the low growl of the American bullfrog, produced by the French horn of Eve McEwen and the startling scream of the Northern cardinal, emanating from Jarrad Linke’s clarinet, and the terrifying night frogs unleashed by cellist David Moran.) Their cries-and-responses, their echoes, and fanfare-like choruses braying from the balcony and foyers were utterly engaging. The overall performance was finely paced and well controlled, with ebbs and flows and even silences emerging as satisfying moments of joyous activity or blissful repose. Primarily, this was an exercise in listening, for players and audience alike. As such, it was captivating, engrossing and vividly imaginative.

Ten Thousand Birds. Photo © Pia Johnson

Within JLA’s framework – it is not entirely accurate to call it a ‘score’, in the conventional sense – there could have been ceremony or ritual, although none was specified. Had there been time, that element could have been worked on more purposefully. Thankfully, there were no projections or recordings of the actual birds. Instead, there was a semi-theatrical lighting plot devised by Michael Gilders with different light settings projected onto the grand ceiling of the South Melbourne Town Hall.  On a few occasions, the players appeared to be gazing in wonderment at the aurora above them. Perhaps this was accidental – even so, such moments were sheer magic.

Future exercises of this nature might enhance this visual element. They might also provide musicians with tips on how to stand still, how to move around an auditorium, how to engage their audience with physical gestures (think Berio). Thankfully, again, they were not required to vocalise or use extended techniques in their playing. The pianist Maggie Pang, for instance, realised her Messiaen-like avian flourishes without leaning inside the grand piano; such manipulations appear not to be in JLA’s vocabulary.

Following the performance, Munro engaged the audience in a Q&A exchange, generously affording three of his young team-leaders the chance to respond to the perceptive comments and observations of the audience, around 200 strong. Perhaps the most interesting observation came from the gentleman who wondered how JLA might respond to an aviary of Australian birds. Munro’s response was tantalising: it’s in the works…

For this listener, and for his growing cohort of admirers here, a JLA visit to Australia can’t come soon enough. “Ultimately,” he says, “music can do more than politics to change the world.” How many more World Environment Days will we have to wait before he can bring his music and his message to us?