Grad Student's Unique Experience of John Luther Adams' Inuksuit

Rebecca McDaniel
Gaines/McDaniel/Worstell

In August 2016, one of the School of Music’s graduate percussion students, Rebecca McDaniel, traveled to Governors Island in New York to participate in the Rite of Summer Music Festival.  She had been invited to perform in John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, an epic outdoor piece that has helped to redefine what live musical experience can be in the 21st-century.  Led by Music Director Amy Garapic, The Inuksuit Band included musicians from New York and beyond and featured drummers Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) and Brian Chase (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), as well as members of many of NYCs top percussion groups and schools.  The School of Music is proud Rebecca was chosen to perform in this event.  Below is an interview between her and director, Dr. Julia Gaines, about her experience.

JG:  Tell me about the event in NY.

RM:  I traveled to Brooklyn for a performance of John Luther Adams’s outdoor percussion ensemble piece Inuksuit, part of the sixth annual Rite of Summer Music Festival. Every summer, the festival sponsors free outdoor concerts of classical and contemporary music, often presenting New York’s most famous soloists and chamber ensembles. Their directors wanted to have a concert at a recently finished park on Governors Island called The Hills, so they approached Brooklyn-based percussionist Amy Garapic who has organized many performances of Inuksuit. It’s written to be performed outdoors over a fairly large space, so the piece showcased the new park very well. With over 70 musicians spread around The Hills, we certainly filled the place with music.

JG:  How did you afford to go as a graduate music student!?

RM:  My professors told me about the Mizzou Advantage program, a fund that assists students doing interdisciplinary research in a few specific areas: Food for the Future, Media of the Future, One Health/One Medicine, and Sustainable Energy. I have been doing interdisciplinary research on Inuksuit since college, and I wanted the chance to work with Amy Garapic on one of her performances. I applied to Mizzou Advantage under the Media of the Future category, and they provided funding for travel, lodging, and food during my trip. I am very grateful for their assistance; it made the whole thing possible!

JG:  What type of research did you do on this piece?

RM:  For about three years, I have been very interested in how listeners react to music that alludes to nature, is performed outdoors, or uses natural materials in other ways. In 2014, I began investigating Inuksuit’s potential as an environmental education tool by surveying people from the audience at performances of the piece. One of the unique characteristics of this piece is its liberation of the audience: they don’t have to stay in one place for the 60-75 minute piece. They can walk through the performance space as much as they want, making the experience different for every single person! I want to know if this kind of musical experience prompts people to react to or understand their natural surroundings any differently, so I ask them to record thoughts about the piece using their smartphone or on a paper survey. I also use GPS-tracking apps to follow their movements during the piece. After the performance, I make a preliminary map of the site and then put all the data I get from the audience members onto it, syncing all the data using GPS coordinates and timestamps.

I’ve always been passionate about outdoor education and conservation of natural resources, so I’m constantly searching for new ways to combine that passion with my work as a musician. Investigating this piece has opened my eyes to lots of composers and artists who are reimagining nature and our ever-changing planet in their own creative ways.

JG:  What was the most meaningful part of the weekend for you?

RM:  That’s tough: the whole experience was incredible. I suppose that the most meaningful parts were the insights I gained from working behind the scenes, helping Amy plan and put on the performance. I got a close look at just how many people with very different roles (musicians, park security guards, festival directors, and everything in between) come together for a performance like this. Most of the musicians involved were Amy’s friends and acquaintances from the New York City area, so I was able to meet many prominent young performers. I learned about how these professionals craft their careers and gained inspiration from their work, and I can now reach out to them with professional questions. I also reconnected with friends from summer seminars, and with the piece’s composer, John Luther Adams. We had met at another performance in 2014, and I was thrilled to see him and talk about my research again.

JG:  Any final thoughts about the weekend.

RM:  This audience member sums up Inuksuit beautifully:

“For me a whole new way to experience music—music you can move through & see & hear from many different vantage points. Music & the environment & the performers & the audience all making the experience together shared but unique for each – democratic / not delivered from the stage to a passive audience / Started in silence except the sounds of the city / Gentle beginning growing to all-absorbing & then again gently drifting back to sounds of nature and the city.”