An Aural History of "Adiemus"

Behind the bogus “world music” sound

Do you know who the most-performed living composer in the world is? That’s ok — neither do I. There is one composer, however, who’s pretty sure that he’s the globe’s favorite. As the first sentence of Welsh composer Karl Jenkns’ official “biog” (that’s what his website calls it) reads, “a recent exhaustive survey shows that Sir Karl Jenkins is now the most-performed living composer in the world.” But a funny thing about Jenkins is that you’re very likely to think that “Adiemus,” his most famous piece, wasn’t associated with him at all.

Google the title of said piece and neck-and-neck with Jenkins, auto-complete wonders if you’re looking for “Adiemus” plus “Enya,” the Irish New-Age singer-songwriter. Search YouTube and you’ll find plenty of uploaders who — somehow despite possessing a copy of the recording (thanks MP3s) — also credit Enya with the song. In a world with fewer and fewer record-store clerks, it’s as if we’ve come to sort music like the Pandora algorithm run amok: “Prominent female vocalist?” “Relaxed, New-Age feel?” Must be Enya!

If Freud thought he could access the human subconscious by studying psychological misfires and accidents — neuroses, dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue — we denizens of the internet age have these kind of digital errata as our own index of a larger undiscovered country: that collective unconscious home to conventional wisdom, hidden assumptions, and widely held beliefs that turn out to be all wrong.

The cause of the Enya–“Adiemus” conflation, however, is easy enough to locate: the 1994 new-age compilation CD Pure Moods. In the mid-90s, a commercial hawking the record was ubiquitous on afternoon cable TV in the US. (A UK version called just Moods preceded Pure Moods by a few years.) “Imagine a world where time drifts slowly,” the voiceover begins. The ad first features Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” before seguing into Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” which in turn gives way to “Adiemus.”

Just as that transition occurs, a scrolling track list rises from the bottom of the frame. Importantly — confusingly — the ad credits as the track’s artist not Jenkins, but rather some entity also called “Adiemus” Whence, perhaps, the mix-up; Jenkins’ name appears nowhere in the spot. Meanwhile, Enya was by far the most famous artist collected on the CD. So it’s entirely reasonable that many of us, recalling a swatch of melody or the soothing soprano from “Adiemus,” would ascribe it to the most notable figure in the ad, the prima donna of New-Age vocals.

For Jenkins, this one composition would spawn a much larger project that took on the Adiemus name (five albums numbered I through V, one live record, one “best of,” and Essential Adiemus to date), which was also used to denote the ad hoc group of musicians who recorded and toured his music. What else could you call them?

The reason for this explosion in Adiemus activities is a tale in itself. A page featured on Jenkins’ website until at least 2010 explains: “the Adiemus project ‘got off the ground’ initially due to a television commercial for an airline. Said Jenkins: ‘I’d been toying with a new idea, completely separate to my work in advertising. At this time, Jenkins Ratledge [the advertising music arm of his operation] were commissioned to come up with the music for an airline commercial. We presented the agency and the client with a demonstration tape of one of my completed compositions. They loved it.’

I think it’s possible to know what they loved in particular. Here’s one of the Delta ads featuring “Adiemus,” which began appearing in 1994:

And here’s the celebrated 1989 British Airways commercial known as “Faces:”

The latter ad uses for its accompaniment a track called “Aria” by Yanni and Malcolm McLaren (erstwhile manager of the Sex Pistols), which was itself a re-working of the so-called “Flower Duet” from the French composer Léo Delibes’ 1883 orientalist opera Lakmé. If you were an airline VP of marketing in the early ’90s looking to answer British Airways, “Adiemus” offered an irresistible chance. Both pieces highlight the same musical topic of a pair of sopranos duetting in lovely harmony.

In fact, both duets lean on the same harmonic hue, if you will: a preponderance of the interval called a third. (That is, spacing the two voices so that there is one full step between them — if I sing A, you sing C#; if you sing D, I sing F.) This sound, for those of us acculturated to the system of western tonality, tends to register as something particularly lovely — from pretty to ravishing depending on other factors. And it has for some time. Here’s Johann Joseph Fux in his influential 1725 counterpoint treatise Gradus ad Parnassum: “The imperfect consonances [thirds and their mirror-image sixths]…are more harmonious than perfect ones [unisons, fifths, and octaves].” In the airborne contexts of the two ads, the sopranos invoke the angelic, their intertwined melodies celestial and serene.

But the romance of air travel is only in part about the magic of being aloft the clouds; the other part is about visiting an elsewhere. Jenkins (and Yanni and McLaren, in a different way) offers a musical evocation of that, too. As he noted on his website, “My intention was to compose a work based in the European classical tradition but with vocal sound more akin to ethnic or world music.

So-called “world music” — never mind the dubious connotations of “ethnic” music — has been a fraught category. The label was apparently concocted at the Empress of Russia pub in London during meeting of British music-industry types in 1987. And rather than signifying “every kind of music,” as a literal reading might suggest, in practice it typically means “what (especially white, bourgeois) Europeans and Americans take to be exotic.” As fashioned by the music industry, “world music” has produced nearly as much controversy over appropriation, bum financial deals, and the convolution of international copyright as it has music; Paul Simon’s Graceland remains one of the classic cautionary tales. From how it addressed (or didn’t) Apartheid, to how it doled out (or didn’t) songwriting credits, the album remains controversial even in its 30th anniversary year.

Paul Simon’s Graceland Turns 30: A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

In the case of “Adiemus,” as the scholar Timothy D. Taylor observes in his discussion of the song in his 2007 book Beyond Exoticism: Western Music and the World, the attempt seems to be “to make a kind of timeless, placeless, unidentifiable sound that can stand in as the music of the world, or better perhaps, any music of the world.” In other words, a musicalization of the potential of human flight to take us anywhere we’d like to be. Of course, neither of these ends is actually possible. What would a music from everywhere sound like? How can one thing sound like everything?

Unsurprisingly, as Taylor quotes “Adiemus’” lead singer Miriam Stockley (not Enya) recalling, behind the scenes a particular — indeed, offensive — sonic imaginary guided production: “The advertising agency liked the lead vocal but wanted much more of an ‘African/child-like’ approach. So I suggested brining in Mary Carewe, who has a much brighter younger sound to sing with me in the choruses.”

The completed “Adiemus” bears the trace of this choice, with the color — or timbre — of its vocals varying starkly between sections: a darker, more “rounded” sound for the duet on “ariadiamus late / ariadiamus da…” versus a brighter sound in the choral section beginning “anamana coole ra we /anamana coole ra.” And so the “fusion” between “European” and “World” (read, we know, “African”) musics that Jenkins sought is really the reconciliation of an imagined, manufactured difference. The assumptions and associations are classic: a “European” sound is dark; a “World” sound is bright. It’s true that connoisseurs of certain European “classical” genres have tended to value darker vocal sounds. And many styles throughout the world (including in Europe, by the way) tend toward vocal brightness. But the canard that “Adiemus” relies on both overgeneralizes and essentializes a subtler and more contingent reality.

Various ways of singing are complicated stories of local history, accident, even environment. Think of, say, Alpine yodeling’s use of the acoustics of the high country. The kind of Euro:dark::World/Afro:bright theory of vocal timbre that “Adiemus” trades in shrugs off the really interesting questions about human difference in favor of a lazy heuristic. And as Stockley’s bracing remark conflating “African” and “childlike” in characterizing the bright choral passages makes clear, these kinds of pseudo-musicological rules of thumb almost always bear the mark of Euro-aggrandizing, colonialist thought: only Europe (and, of course, North America) is mature like a woman soprano, the rest of the world sings brightly, like a child.

Not that “Adiemus” ever admits to this dialectic of Euro and World in so many words. In fact, the song’s (non)words would try to throw us off the case. As Jenkins once explained, “The text in Adiemus is written phonetically, with the words viewed as instrumental sound. The human voice is the oldest instrument and by removing the distraction of lyrics, we hope to create a sound that is universal and timeless.” That is to say that “Adiemus” is in no language at all.

In the “European” duet, the sopranos sing “Ariadiamus late / Ariadiamus da / Arianatus late adua /Aravare tue vate / Aravare tue vate latea.” It’s hard not to hear this as a kind of faux-Latin, as many listeners have before, even suggesting that the song’s title could be construed as a barbarism (the term used by some Latinists, I’ve learned, for an anachronistic coinage) meaning “we will draw near.” Never mind that the word “adiemus” never actually appears in the song; nor that the actual Latin term “audiemus” — “we will hear/listen to” — might be a better candidate.

This invocation of Latin might carry several associations; perhaps with the Church, with classical antiquity, with the medieval university, with Erasmus and the Renaissance. In all cases, it seems to gesture toward an idealized, classic, European past of learning, civilization, and elevation, whatever the realities of actual history. For its part, the choral section is sung to these words: “Anamana coole rawe / Anamana coole ra / Anamana coole rawe akala / (Aya doo aye).”

The shift is subtle, but for my part, I no longer hear the Latinesque. Nor do the phrases gesture toward the Germanic languages, which, at least in my own mental linguistic-geography, seems to propel the passage out of “western Europe.” Not surprising, since this fits neatly with the bifurcation of vocal techniques we already know about. Likewise, the suspect anthropological theory suggested by these faux languages is familiar: European civilization and “other” cultures are different, you see, but here, in this music, they can commune.

Jenkins is far from the first composer to try his hand at this kind of verbal invention. A favorite example: in the “Pandemonium” scene of his 1846 légende dramatique (more or less an opera) La Damnation de Faust, the composer Hector Berlioz has a choir of “devils and damned” intone obscure and apparently hellish phrases like “Irimiru Karabrao!” and “Tradioun Marexil firtrudinxé burrudixé.”

In a footnote to the published libretto, Berlioz explains that (my trans.) “this language is that which Swedenborg called the infernal language, and which he believed to be in use among the demons and the damned,” pinning the strange tongue on the eccentric eighteenth-century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. That claim remains nearly as obscure to Berlioz students as the text itself, since the language seems to be entirely the composer’s own creation and not Sweedenborg’s at all.

Where Berlioz invented a language to depict a world beyond the human, Jenkins’ seems to imagine a latent human possibility. Namely, the possibility of unmediated mutual understanding, of fundamental sameness. “A sound that is universal and timeless.” This, too, is a creed of certain strains of “world music:” a faith in music as a kind of universal language.

“Adiemus” wants to have it both ways. Like the airlines, it wants a world dotted with sexy (and marketable) human differences. Like music-is-the-universal-language true believers, it wants to think that we’re all trying to say the same thing, despite the different languages we use to say it. Historically, attempting to square the circle in this way hasn’t worked out well; if we’re all playing the same game, it’s all too easy to get to drawing up rankings. Before long I’ll decide that my way of being different-but-the-same — the way I talk, the way I look — is superior to your way. I’ll hear your singing as child-like and mine as fully grown-up.

But if “Adiemus” gives an unsatisfying answer, it at least asks the right question. Looking out the airplane window, we can’t deny it: the human family is at once irreducibly one and irreducibly many. How on earth do we sing that song?

Brian Barone is a graduate student in Boston. He co-hosts the music podcast Tuner.