By now, the Park Avenue Armory’s Recital Series concerts are a known quantity: art song and chamber music in ornate, intimate spaces.
Whether the programming is classic or contemporary, the packaging is the same, with only a few surprises — as when the soprano Barbara Hannigan turned Erik Satie’s music into semi-staged monodrama. But there hasn’t been a performance quite like the one by the ensemble Alarm Will Sound on Thursday.
Abandoning the traditional Recital Series rooms, the group’s members spread throughout the Armory’s capacious drill hall for John Luther Adams’s characterful and moving “Ten Thousand Birds,” an installation-like project that’s as much environmental — in presentation, but also in its preoccupations — as it is musical.
Adams, our reigning 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-ended and modular folio, with minimal guidance. “The size of the ensemble and the duration of a performance may be tailored to the specific site and occasion,” Adams writes in a note for the published version. “It is not necessary to play all the pieces in this collection. It’s not even necessary to play all the musical material within a particular piece.”
He also calls for “the largest possible physical space”; the drill hall is about 55,000 square feet, which Alarm Will Sound occupied with both freedom and precision in a staging by Alan Pierson, the group’s artistic director, and the percussionist Peter Ferry, its assistant artistic director. (Early in the pandemic, Pierson and these players made a short video adaptation called “Ten Thousand Birds / Ten Thousand Screens”; imaginative and often funny, it remains a high point of a low moment in classical music.)
At the Armory, Alarm Will Sound 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 awakening accumulation of morning, the liveliness of afternoon and the long pauses of night before returning to that peaceful wind. Overhead the lights gradually dimmed, and on the floor, the audience was invited to move among the musicians. Just as there is no one way to present this work, there are no rules for how to hear it.
On Thursday, people weren’t entirely prepared for the piece to begin, with some preshow chatter lingering alongside the wind. But it’s difficult to miss a breathy bassoon being waved around, and audience members more clearly understood what was happening as other musicians took their places. A flute, hazy and lightly arpeggiated, introduced melody to the mix, which grew richer: percussion in the familiar falling interval of bird song in classical music, and harmonic runs in the strings.
Adams has in the past evoked immense natural forces — such as in his “Become” trilogy, which includes the Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy Award-winning “Become Ocean” — and here he balances both abstraction and transcription. For every passage of lyricism that emerges from instrumental dialogue, there is a phrase with the uncanny exactitude of Messiaen: a piccolo call, an agitated piano flutter.
And, as staged at the Armory, there was a subtle sense of drama. Zoomorphic in their movement, the players shifted throughout the space less like musicians and more like characters. A timpani rumble dispersed a small ensemble that had been crowded around it. Some performers were elusive or difficult to place, perched in the mezzanine or in the frame of a Juliet balcony but obscured by darkness. Strings zipped through listeners in a buzzing swarm. By the time the work reached its nocturnal scenes, though, that kind of levity gave way to serene patience — long silences punctuated by passing song.
As in “Inuksuit,” another of Adams’s installation works, the audience’s engagement varied. Curiosity kept me in constant motion; some people stayed in chairs, or sat in groups on the ground like picnickers. A few lay flat, eyes closed, as if in meditation. David Byrne strolled with a bicycle helmet in hand, scrutinizing unattended percussion instruments. One man knitted, while another played Scrabble. Many — too many — pulled out their phones to take photos or record, their flashes distracting in the dark.
Which is unfortunate because what “Ten Thousand Birds” offers, above all, is an opportunity to marvel, not document. If I were to attend again, I would be in the camp of those who rested in one place and let sounds come to them, the way they might during a day at the park. Regardless, focus is all it takes for this piece, and Alarm Will Sound’s thoughtful realization of it, to achieve its aim: a heightened aestheticization of nature, and perhaps a renewed connection with it.
Whether Adams accomplishes something more with this work — whether its spirit of appreciation rises to the level of advocacy — is, like the experience of the music itself, up to the audience.
Alarm Will Sound
Repeats on Friday at the Park Avenue Armory, Manhattan; armoryonpark.org.