Gayle Young:
What were your first impressions of Alaska?


John Luther Adams: From the moment I arrived, I knew I’d finally found Home. I grew up in several different places, from the deep South to the suburbs of New York City. After leaving Cal Arts in the early seventies, I fled southern California for rural Georgia, and then to the Nez Perce country of central Idaho. But I felt restless and unsettled. In the summer of 1975, I made my first trip to Alaska. The sprawling distances, unbroken silences, and incredible qualities of light up here completely changed the course of my life and work.

I spent the next two summers working as an assistant guide on outings from the rainforest of southeast Alaska to the Brooks Range and the Arctic coastal plain. I became active in the Alaska Coalition, working to establish new national parks, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas. When my first wife and I drifted apart, I headed North for good. I spent my first winter at Nome, in 1978.

I’d met Cynthia a couple of years earlier, through the Alaska Coalition, and when I was hired as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, in 1979, she was already working there. We’ve been together ever since. We were married in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We’ve raised our son here, and we’re as passionate about Alaska as we are about one another.

Gayle Young:So it’s definitely home…

John Luther Adams:In the deepest sense. My life and work are deeply rooted here. After twenty some-odd years, it’s no longer possible for me to separate my music from my home and family. It’s all part of the ecology of my life. Living so far from the centers of urban culture and commerce has sometimes made it difficult to sustain a career. But I think it’s allowed the music to develop in a certain way that might not have been possible anyplace else.

Gayle Young: Human scale is so much smaller in this setting than in cities, even towns, or plains. How does this influence you?

John Luther Adams: Living in Alaska for most of my creative life, I’ve come to measure everything I do — in fact, all human invention and activity — against the overwhelming presence of this place. This has profoundly influenced the atmosphere and the scale of my work. The sense of space is increasingly important in the music. And the pieces just seems to get larger and larger!

Gayle Young:How would you describe that sense of space, the way sound exists within it, for someone who has not been there?

John Luther Adams:In the landscapes of the North, there’s a palpable feeling of space and time extending endlessly in all directions. It’s that fullness of the moment, that presence of the timeless, that we occasionally experience in music. In winter, in the northern Interior, where I live, sound is the exception. The rivers are frozen. Deep cold and snow mute the land. As Murray Schaefer observes, there’s a pervasive stillness that can attune the ear in extraordinary ways. Each sound — the growl of bootsteps on snow, the wingbeats of a raven — stands out with pristine clarity, in that enveloping presence of the white silence.

Gayle Young:What about the quality of light, and the extreme differences of the seasons?

John Luther Adams:People often ask me how I manage the long, harsh winters. And I find myself telling them it’s not the cold, or even the length of the winter that I find so difficult…It’s the darkness. After twenty winters, it hasn’t gotten any easier. Still, in many respects, winter is my favorite time of year — a good thing, since it lasts for seven to eight months! The whole world is white. Twilight and morning glow last for hours, with extraordinary light and colors painted on the snow…pale pinks, steel blues, slate greys and deep violets. The stars are startlingly vivid. The moonlight casts deep shadows. And the aurora borealis never fails to take my breath away.

Gayle Young:When you write music, is it an inward directed attention, or is it extended out towards the vastness around you?

John Luther Adams:It’s a little of both. When I compose, I feel myself surrounded by the vastness of this place. From that center, I turn inward and listen. After a few hours of work, when I get tired or find myself losing my concentration, I take a walk up the mountain, which grounds me and puts me back in my place again.

The long darkness can make it difficult to concentrate…or even to stay awake! The pineal gland wants the body to shut down and hibernate, which is what most reasonable animals do. Still, there’s a meditative, dreamlike state of mind which sets in…I call it “winter mind.” I tend to work very slowly, listening carefully, considering each sound for a long time, again and again. The darkness and the stillness encourage this.

With the extremes of darkness and light — the brief explosion of life in summer, and the long, quiet stasis of winter — it’s like living in two different places, winter and summer. Somone pointed out to me that you can hear this in my music, which encompasses two radically different sound worlds: one quiet, static and expansive, the other, violently explosive.

Gayle Young:Are there two, almost opposite, sides to your work, the abstract and the representational, the reflective and the dramatic?

John Luther Adams:I guess it’s my version of that age-old dichotomy of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, the classical and the romantic. The aspiration, of course, is to somehow embrace both at once. My work has long been grounded in the physical, cultural and spiritual landscapes of Alaska, and an ideal of “sonic geography,” a music of place. But recently, I’ve begun to explore more abstract dimensions of place and presence, which I understand as a kind of “sonic geometry.” I think the connection between these two worlds of geography and geometry is my obsession with music as the sounding image, rather than music as a language of tones.

Gayle Young:Can you trace a path of development in your work? Which pieces do you think of as “geography,” and which are “geometry”?

John Luther Adams:It began with birds. The earliest music in my active catalog is songbirdsongs — a cycle of pieces for piccolos and percussion, which date from the early 70s. Working with birdsongs, I hoped to translate into my own music something of the essence of those mysterious languages which we humans may never fully understand.

Gradually, as I began to work with birdsongs in a larger, orchestral pieces, landscape became the primary metaphor for the music. A piece like A Northern Suite (1979-81) is essentially a collection of tone-paintings, in the romantic, programmatic sense. But by the time of The Far Country of Sleep (1988) and Dream In White On White (1991), I’d begun to move beyond music about place, toward a more complete sense of music as place. In these pieces, the musical textures and gestures evoke the feeling of northern landscapes, but they’re no longer direct translations of sounds from the natural world.

My friendships with Alaska Native people and with writer Barry Lopez led me into the theatre. Coyote Builds North America (1987-90), the first of several collaborations with Barry, was written for Tlingit storyteller Gary Waid and my own musical ensemble.

Earth and the Great Weather (1990-93) was a collaboration with several of my Iñupiat (Alaska Inuit) and Gwich’in (Athabascan) friends, and my ensemble. Earth is an evening-length performance work — (some have called it an opera)–conceived as a journey through the physical, cultural and spiritual landscapes of the Arctic. So it’s definitely about place. In fact, its subtitle is: “A Sonic Geography of the Arctic”. But there’s no landscape tone-painting in it. Instead, for the first time, I included recordings of natural sounds — ice melting, swans calling, glaciers booming — as musical elements. The musical ground of the piece is a series of pieces for microtonal strings and digital delay, which grew out of my work in the Arctic with an aeolian harp. The text is a series of Arctic Litanies, composed entirely of indigenous names for places, birds, plants, the wind and the weather, spoken, whispered and chanted in Inupiaq, Gwich’in, English and Latin. And there are three big pieces for drums, grounded in the rhythms of Iñupiat and Gwich’in dance.

Earth was followed by Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1991-96) — a large work for chamber orchestra which I composed over a period of five years, following the death of my father. Although there’s an underlying contemplation of death and transcendence, musically speaking Clouds represents nothing other than itself. After years of composing in predominantly consonant harmonies, exploring the harmonic series and non-tempered tunings, I wanted to return to the rich complexities and ambiguities of equal temperament and chromaticism, to discover, if I could, new colors within them. Over the course of an hour, Clouds moves inexorably from unison, through all the equal-tempered intervals and nineteen different chromatic modes, to the clarity and repose octaves. The funny thing is that I thought I’d finally composed a piece of purely “abstract” music. But people tell me it sounds like the Arctic, anyway…so I just can’t seem to avoid it!

I’ve just recently completed Strange and Sacred Noise, a concert-length cycle for percussion quartet, which is my most extensive exploration of “sonic geometry”. It’s based the self-similar forms of classical fractals. And I think of it as a kind of formal and acoustical speculation, which I hope is both conceptually rigorous and sonically arresting. A very important model for this work is the music of James Tenney: Those remarkable pieces of Jim’s in which a single large sonority, an apparently simple sounding image, slowly reveals a entire world of richness and complexity.

Gayle Young:Yet you maintain a connection with the natural world in these pieces, don’t you?

John Luther Adams: Absolutely. The initial inspiration for the Noise cycle came from my experience listening to the spring breakup of ice on the Yukon River. The music is a celebration of that awesome elemental violence of nature, and of noise as a gateway to ecstatic experience.

In a certain sense, the recent music is becoming more “abstract,” and more itself. The references to the natural world are becoming less obvious and, at the same time, deeper. I’m trying to refine a few elemental sound images — sonorities, textures and gestures, which I want to distill to their most fundamental forms, so they no longer represent or express anything, other than themselves: they simply sound!

But I’m still deeply involved in theater. I’m just now beginning work on a new opera, set at Tikigaq (Point Hope) on the Arctic coast. Unlike traditional opera, the piece isn’t built on the development of a linear narrative or the psychology of individual characters, but on the larger ceremonial presences of the land and sea, the people, and the spirits of the animals and the ancestors. At the center of this world is the Shaman, the hearer and seer who is the intermediary between the land, the people and the spirits. It’s probably no coincidence that the Shaman is also a drummer!

Gayle Young:Do you see yourself as part of a particular movement or musical tradition?

John Luther Adams:Well, I grew up playing rock ‘n roll, I’m a long-time student of Inuit music and the songs of birds, and the two most influential composers in my life have been James Tenney and Morton Feldman. You tell me what that means! I can’t figure it out!!

Composer-critic Kyle Gann uses the term “totalism” to describe the music of those of us who were born in the ’50s and grew up with most of the world’s musical traditions at our fingertips, and whose own music has a certain rhythmic and textural complexity. Many of us composing in North America today no longer feel a living connection with the European tradition. After a century of unprecedented exploration and innovation, we now have our own rich and vibrant tradition. I don’t know what to call it, but it seems to me that at least since World War II, (and arguably earlier than that), the most vital music activity in the West has occured on this side of the Atlantic. In the US, Uptown New York still looks toward Europe. But the Downtown scene has largely turned away from the Old World to embrace pop culture and the cosmopolitan influences of its own neighborhood. On the West Coast, as Paul Dresher says, composers have been “Looking West to the East” in the tradition of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison. I grew up in the East and studied in California, so I feel a certain affinity with both my Downtown and West Coast colleagues. But, here on the northern extreme of the continent, I’m much more directly influenced by the rich cultural traditions of the indigenous peoples, and by the overwhelming presence of the place itself.

This interview appears in Issue Number 70 (Spring 1998) of Musicworks.