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Adiemus was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with additional performers and a project choral group conducted by Jenkins. The lead vocalist is Miriam Stockley from South Africa. The music is generally categorised as New Age.
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Each Adiemus album is a collection of song-length pieces featuring harmonised vocal melody against an orchestra background. There are no lyrics as such, instead the vocalists sing syllables and 'words' invented by Jenkins. However, rather than creating musical interest from patterns of phonemes (as in scat singing, or in numerous classical and crossover compositions), the language of Adiemus is carefully stylised so as not to distract the listener's attention from the pitch and timbre of the voice. Syllables rarely end in consonants, for example. In this respect it is similar to Japanese and several other languages. The core concept of Adiemus is that the voice should be allowed to function as nothing more than an instrument, an approach that has become something of a trend in recent choral writing (compare, for example Vangelis's score for the film 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), or "Dogora", a symphonic suite by French composer Étienne Perruchon). The word Adiemus itself resembles the Latin word 'adeamus' meaning 'let us approach' (or "let us submit a cause to a referee"). Jenkins has said he was unaware of this. Perhaps even more appropriately, the song title also resembles two forms of the Latin verb 'audire' (to hear), i.e. 'audiemus' (we shall hear) and 'audiamus' (we are heard).
Session singer Miriam Stockley performed the vocal parts on the first four albums. Stockley was described by Jenkins as central to the Adiemus project due to her range and intonation, however she was not re-engaged for Vocalise. Additional vocals were provided by Mary Carewe on all but Dances of Time, which saw the introduction of the Finnish Adiemus Singers (who would later appear on Vocalise). Extra vocals and the chorus effects were created by overdubbing multitracked recordings of the singers (in some cases up to 40 times) and varying the speed of the tape.
The Songs of Sanctuary orchestra consisted of a string section augmented by various ethnic percussion instruments, with occasional further additions such as bells, a recorder and a quena. Mike Ratledge, with whom Jenkins had played in Soft Machine, contributed to the first album as well. Jenkins added brass and woodwind for Cantata Mundi, and continued to add more diverse instruments such as acoustic guitar on later albums. From Songs of Sanctuary to Dances of Time, the London Philharmonic Orchestra was used; Jenkins later formed his own Adiemus Orchestra to perform on The Eternal Knot recordings, returning to the London Philharmonic for Vocalise.
The musical language of Adiemus draws heavily on classical and world music. Jenkins follows conventions of tonality up to a point—his harmony is derived from gospel and African music, decorated with functional dissonances such as suspensions and with greater freedom of movement between loosely related key areas. He avoids the most common time signatures, such as 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4, with a slow 3/2 being very characteristic along with 6/8, 9/8 and even 5/8 (Cantus Inaequalis from Songs of Sanctuary). "Free time" is also prominent, in this as well as the majority of new age projects. The percussion section, when used prominently, typically gives the pieces an upbeat, tribal-like rhythm.
Songs of Sanctuary was a commercial success, topping classical album charts. Though none of its successors has achieved the same critical acclaim, Adiemus acquired a cult following and maintained a place in mainstream consciousness through its use in TV commercials, in particular the track Adiemus in a Delta Air Lines commercial (for which the project began), and Cantilena from Cantata Mundi in a recent Cheltenham & Gloucester commercial. It was also the 8th feature track of the original 1997 Pure Moods album. The Adiemus track was used at the beginning and end of James Brandon's magic show "Imagine" which played at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas in the late 1990s, and is currently used as the soundtrack behind the Kubla Khan pillar show at the end of the big room cave tour in Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona. Additionally, Adiemus was used in the trailer to Invisible Children's documentary movie, and featured in the titles of the 1996 BBC children's series Testament: The Bible in Animation. That same year, it was used in the Baywatch episode Beauty and the Beast.
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