It’s tough enough to establish a reputation as a modern composer. How does it feel to be often confused with that other John Adams?
This doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I’ve known John for many years, and I admire his work. But my music sounds very different from his.
And most listeners have no problem telling the difference.Still, people in the music business sometimes underestimate the sophistication of listeners. And the star system prevails. After the phenomenal popular success of Nixon in China, I thought seriously about changing my name. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. So I started using my middle name.Both the name thing and living in Alaska have had very real professional costs for me. But I think this has also given me a certain sense of detachment from the fame game, and has allowed my music to develop more naturally, in its own time. Ultimately I think this has been a gift, both artistically and personally.
How did you end up in Alaska? What influence does it have on your work?
I was a suburban refugee. I grew up in relatively homogenous suburbs from the deep South to the outskirts of New York City, and I went to music school in southern California. All that moving around left me with a deep, inarticulate hunger to find the place where I belonged. I first came North in 1975. The moment I arrived, I knew this was Home.
In the mid-70s, I worked for the Alaska Coalition, lobbying in Congress and doing roadshows around the country for passage of the Alaska Lands Act – the most sweeping land preservation law in history. This was how I met my wife, Cynthia. For several years, we worked together at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. And our wedding ceremony actually took place in the Arctic National Refuge.
My passion for this place has had a profound influence on my life and my work.
Your work it totally original but it has echos of other “northern” composers – Rautavaara, Vasks, Kanchelli. Is this coincidence or is there something in the cold northern light that reveals itself as music?
In Alaska, everything we do is measured against the overwhelming presence of the place. And the landscapes of the North are a constant touchstone for me.
Over the years, my music has evolved from tone painting “about” place into more self-contained musical landscapes. Works like The Far Country of Sleep (1988), Dream In White On White (1991) and Earth and the Great Weather (1993) are “about” place. But I hope that works like Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1995), Strange and Sacred Noise (1997) and other more recent works in some sense are places.
Like the landscapes of the North, my music embraces extremes – from dense clouds of sustained tones, to explosive fields of percussive sound. I want the music to be rigorously formal and ravishingly sensual at the same time. I want it to immerse the listener in suspended time and a sense of endless space. I want music to be a wilderness. And I want to get hopeless lost in it.
What were your earliest musical influences? Whose work has influenced you most and why?
Like many composers of my generation, I grew up playing rock ‘n roll. As a kid, I took piano lessons, sang in choirs, and played trumpet in school bands and orchestras. But it was playing drums and singing in a series of garage bands that really got me excited about music.
As time went on, my band mates and I got tired of just rehashing other people’s songs and started writing a few of our own. The deeper we got into songwriting, the more adventurous and ecumenical our listening became.
On the back of his early records, Zappa used to print a defiant little epigram: “The present-day composer refuses to die!” – Edgard Varese
My buddies and I would read that, scratch our heads and wonder: “Hmmm. Just who is this VaREEsee guy?”
Then one day in the local record shop (this must have been about 1967), one of us discovered one of the first Varese discs (a mono LP). We quickly wore out the grooves.
From Zappa to Varese, it didn’t take long for us to discover Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Partch, Oliveros, Reich, Nancarrow, and a whole new world of music.
Can you recall the moment when you realized that you had music inside your head? What was the feeling like?
One of the defining epiphanies of my life came when I acquired a Columbia Masterworks LP titled “Morton Feldman: The Early Years”. All I really knew about Feldman was that he was a pal of John Cage’s. But when I heard the Piece for Four Pianos, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.This music took me to a place that Pink Floyd just couldn1t go. It was right then I decided I had to be a composer.
With so many “classics” firmly established in the repertory and audiences so generally conservative, how difficult is to get heard?
Although my music incorporates elements of the European “classical” tradition, I feel much more directly connected with the uniquely American tradition of eccentric experimentalists, from Ives and Cowell, to Cage, Feldman, Nancarrow and Tenney.
It’s hard to imagine what the future of symphony orchestras, opera companies and chamber ensembles will be. At the moment, it seems that most of them are museums of the past. Still, I’m quite optimistic about the future of music.
Audiences today, especially younger people, are more curious and adventurous than ever. They’re open to a wider and wider range of musical experiences. They don’t much care what music is called or even where it comes from. They care what it sounds like.
I think this bodes well for the future of the art.
Tell us about your day-to-day life, your family, your work habits, and how you achieve a balance between your career as a composer, and an environmental activist.
I live in the hills northwest of Fairbanks, amid the boreal forest of birch, spruce and aspen, overlooking the Tanana River flats and the peaks of the central Alaska Range. Our house is quite small, a cottage really, but it’s our own design – very open, with lots of glass – and I worked on it myself. My studio is a one-room cabin with a wood stove, a few hundred yards from the house.
I travel a lot these days, but when I’m home, I lead a pretty hermetic existence. The photoperiod up here swings from one extreme to the other. In summer, it’s never dark. And in the winter, it’s dark much of the time. Clock time doesn’t make a lot of sense. So as the winter sunrise gets later and later, I tend to stay up very late and get up later. But no matter how dark or how cold, I try to get out for a walk every day.
For me, composing is not about finding the notes. It’s about losing them. The most difficult thing is knowing what to write down. It’s knowing what not to write down.
I’m trying to discover music that sounds elemental and inevitable. Before beginning to write a new piece, I spend a lot of time thinking, reading, looking at art, walking, and sketching. I ask myself lots of questions about the essential nature of the music and what it wants to be. I try to let everything grow directly out of the instruments and the sounds themselves.
I haven’t been a full-time activist in many years. But I still try to do whatever I can to help. And Cindy still serves on the boards of environmental groups. Our son, Sage, was raised up here. He now lives in Portland, Oregon, and is preparing to study environmental law. So he’s carrying on the family crusade.
Simon Rattle remarked in an interview with us that there are few periods in history when so many kinds of music were being produced at the same time as today. Do you see any patterns that suggest a trend or direction?
There’s so much music. And so much of it is wonderful. It may seem strange, but I don’t listen to a lot of music these days. My job is to try and hear something that no one else has heard yet.
Now that the whole world of music is available instantly at our fingertips, the world is one big, noisy Musicircus that never ends. Everything is happening everywhere, all the time.
In the past, when people in the West spoke of “the Mainstream”, they meant a certain canon of European art, literature and music. But that canon is now a thing of the past. If there is a cultural mainstream today, it may lie in the products of the commercial entertainment industry.
Even in non-commercial music – from minimalism to post-minimalism, neo-romanticism to post-modernism – authentic creative impulses and original voices are trivialized and popularized as “style”.
Diversity is strength. This is a fundamental principle of biology and of culture.
At the foundation of my own life’s work is a strong conviction that the work of local culture is a vital and essential countercurrent to global commercial monoculture.
In a world dominated by Disney, Time-Warner and a handful of other global corporations, it may well be that one of the most radical acts that artists can perform today is simply to stay at home and do our work.
This is a tough question, but what would be your five Desert Island disks?
I’d want music I could live inside for a long time; music that’s complex and enigmatic enough that there’s always something new to discover. Off the top of my head, my choices might be:
1. One of those big, open form works by Bach, maybe The Art of Fugue. But if you’d let me have a keyboard, I’d give up the CDs and finally plunk my way through The Well-Tempered Clavier.
2. One of Morton Feldman’s major works, probably the Second String Quartet. Or maybe For Philip Guston.
3. LaMonte Young’s Dream House, custom installed in my little grass shack.
4. Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano – May I have them all? If not, I’d want to compile my own CDR of the later, most complex studies.
5. Wagner – The Ring. If I can’t have it all, then I’d have to face the difficult choice between Wagner – Parsifal – and Debussy – Pelleas et Melisande.
I imagine the most absorbing music for me would be the music of the desert island itself! The strange and wonderful birdsongs and animal calls, the music of the wind, the rain, the waves.
What are you working on now? How is it going?
I’ve just completed a new piece for large orchestra. I’ve also been working on some minor revisions to Coyote Builds North America – one of my music-theater collaborations with writer Barry Lopez – which is being produced at Arena Stage (Washington, DC) this spring.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked on a very large scale. I’ve composed three concert-length pieces for small to medium-sized orchestras – Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1995), In the White Silence (1998) and The Immeasurable Space of Tones (1998-2000).
My challenge now is to find ways to evoke a similar sense of expansiveness, and to create lush, orchestral textures with fewer musicians and instruments. So I’m moving more deeply into electronics. But I think like an orchestral composer, and I’m sure my work in this new medium will continue to involve “live” musicians playing acoustic and electronic instruments.
At the moment, I’m beginning a concert-length piece for percussionist Steven Schick, and I’m in the early stages of designing a permanent sound and light environment for the University of Alaska Museum. This room will resonate with the constantly-changing rhythms of day and night, and with earthquakes, the aurora borealis and other infra and ultrasonic events of earth and sky.
I’m also working on a book – Winter Music – which is a compilation of my essays, journals and other writings from the past twenty-five years.
Space has always been an essential element of my music. And my next recording – Strange and Sacred Noise – featuring Percussion Group Cincinnati, will be released on surround-sound DVD (and stereo CD) on Mode Records this spring.
In “live” performance, Noise is done with the four percussionists all around the audience. So surround-sound is perfect for this piece. I’m looking forward to further exploring ways the surround medium can help me create a more vivid sense of being completely immersed in the music.
Everything seems to come back to my obsession with music as place!