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A percussionist plays the triangle during a performance of "Inuksuit" by composer John Luther Adams on the campus of U.C Berkeley on Monday, June 11, 2012 in Berkeley, Calif. Cal Performances presented the 80-minute experimental musical composition as part of the Ojai North music festival. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

This was the scene Monday afternoon in the rolling glade behind Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus: sunbathing students, children rolling down a hill, a dog chasing a Frisbee. Perhaps 300 curious folks of all ages circled the shady glade, parked on blankets or camping chairs, awaiting the mystery music of John Luther Adams, maverick composer from Alaska, whose compositions seem to rise from and mimic the natural sounds of vast open spaces.

His composition "Inuksuit" was to be performed: a ceremonial opening to this week's Ojai North music festival, presented by Cal Performances. The festival, a spinoff from Southern California's famous Ojai Festival, brings to Berkeley a lineup of superb and non-conformist classical artists performing works that range from Beethoven to Berg to -- well, to John Luther Adams, whose music conjures landscapes those composers never encountered.

Monday at 5 p.m. Monday, the bells atop Sather Tower (known as the Campanile) rang out across the campus, and then the happening began. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome," master percussionist Steven Schick intoned through a megaphone. "It's 5 o'clock, and you know where your percussionists are."

"Inuksuit" is scored for a flexible percussion orchestra of nine to 99 players. (Premiered at Banff in the Canadian Rockies in 2009, the piece was a wedding gift from Adams to Schick and his wife, Brenda.) At Ojai, with Schick functioning as commander, there were 21 percussionists, divided into three groups of seven. In other words, there was an order behind the otherworldly sounds that ensued: at first, breathing sounds (funneled through cardboard megaphones), rubbing sounds (of rocks), sifting sounds (of sand, I think, inside the pan of a drum).


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Along with dozens of other listeners, I was seated under a large shady tree at the center of the glade, where several musicians strolled about, generating these barely audible sounds. It took a moment for a few of my neighbors to realize that the free concert had begun, but then, quickly, one sensed a sea change among the listeners. One could feel their focused attention to the growing silence in the glade, penetrated by these percussive rustlings and by distant sounds: a jet far overhead, a bird tweeting in a tree at the other end of the glade.

The first wave of percussionists kept advancing, twirling whirring lengths of plastic tubing, as well as bullroarers -- low-humming wooden blades, spinning on cords. Bullroarers are ancient ritual instruments; archaeologists have dated some to the Paleolithic Age.

My guess is that Adams is among the first composers to notate music for them -- and this music is notated, while allowing for a certain malleability of tempo and interpretation with each performance of "Inuksuit." The piece takes its name from the stone markers -- sculpted stacks of stones, known as "inuksuit" -- with which Inuit people mark trails in the Arctic. In Adams' score, the notes are arranged to form images of these markers.

In so many ways, Monday's event broke down the formalities of so-called classical performance. Some listeners lay in the grass, rapt, with eyes closed. Others grinned and giggled. One man broke into a free-form dance. Many people -- including Cal Performances director Matias Tarnopolsky and his children -- wandered among the musicians, getting up close to the bass drums, cymbal trees and ornately hammered gongs.

At 5:10, at an edge of the glade -- about 50 yards from where I sat -- Schick blew a conch shell, signaling a transitional moment in the piece. He was answered by another blast from another conch across the glade. Then suddenly: Whack! Boom! Crash! The thickening sounds of percussion resonated through the space: clattering polyrhythms, stacked like the stones of the inuksuit markers.

I'm not sure this music is exactly "new." It reminded me of much jazz of the '60s and '70s: the Art Ensemble of Chicago, or some of saxophonist Sam Rivers' bands. (Check out the percussive opening to his album "Streams.") What "Inuksuit" shares with those improvisers is its sense of ancient ritual. It rings out like a call to attention: Listen, people!

Monday's performance continued with sirens and ever more dramatic cymbal crashes; one shiver of cymbal seemed to correlate with a surprising shiver of cool air in the glade. At the precise instant that another wave of percussion reached its climax, that dog leaped high into the air and snagged the Frisbee. Synchronicity!

There was something exhilarating about this event, which gradually, over the course of an hour, vanished into the twinkling sounds of glockenspiels, setting off a wave of bird calls in the trees, and then ... silence.

The audience sat for a moment, absorbing that silence, then broke into cheers.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069.

Ojai North Music Festival

Leif Ove Andsnes, pianist and music director; with Norwegian Chamber Orchestra; pianists Reinbert de Leeuw and Marc-Andre Hamelin; and others

Through: June 14
Where: Hertz Hall,
UC Berkeley
Tickets: $10-$20,
510-642-9988,
www.calperformances.org