john luther adams
/ writings / by
writings / by
John Luther Adams
Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing
 “The universe is more like music than matter.”

Quantum physics has recently confirmed what shamans and mystics, poets and musicians have long known: the universe is more like music than like matter. It may well be that our most fundamental relationship to the great mysteries is one of listening. Through sustained, concentrated attention to the fullness of the present moment, we listen for the breath of being, the voice of God.
Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing is a work of musical contemplation, an attempt to consecrate a small time and space for extraordinary listening. The work is titled after The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th Century mystical Christian text which has much in common with the teachings of contemplative traditions throughout the world, be they Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Sufi, Native American or other. The essence of the contemplative experience is voluntary surrender, purposeful immersion in the fullness of a presence far larger than ourselves.
The Cloud of Unknowing teaches that we can achieve communion with God only through the Grace of divine Love. To prepare ourselves to receive this gift, we must enter a state of quiet stillness, suspended between heaven and earth. Above — between us and God — lies a mysterious “cloud of unknowing”, which our understanding can never penetrate. Between us and the world, we must create a “cloud of forgetting”, leaving conscious thought and desire below. In this timeless place of forgetting and unknowing, we may begin to hear that for which we are listening. T.S. Eliot said it this way:

“We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity for a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation…”
To Quiet The Mind
John Cage once inquired of a musician trained in the classical traditions of India: “What is the purpose of music?” Her reply made a profound impression on the composer: “The purpose of music is to quiet the mind, thus rendering it suseptible to divine influences”.
Music, of course, can have many purposes. But in order to quiet the mind, we must give up our attachment to that which is “interesting”, that which diverts and engages our intellect. We must let crumble the walls of boredom we build between ourselves and the full presence of each moment.
Cage was fond of saying that if he found something boring for five minutes, he would try it for fifteen. If it was boring for fifteen minutes, he would try it for half an hour. If it was still boring for half an hour, he would try it for an hour, and so on… Sooner of later, he said, we discover that everything is interesting.
Beyond interest and boredom, lie “another intensity…a deeper communion”. It is to such intensity and communion that Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing aspires.
Losing Perspective
To find communion, we must lose perspective. What, after all, is perspective but a way of removing ourselves from experience?
A painter friend once showed me slides of his paintings from Antarctica. Among these was a view of the Ross Ice Shelf, which I found to be among the most compelling of his images I had ever seen. The composition is stark in its simplicity. A large field of azure sky dissolving into lavender light is separated from a lower field of somber purples descending into coal black water, by the startling yellow edge of the ice.
Although it occupies the middle ground between the open water and the plateau of ice and sky, the serrated yellow line appears to float, emerging into the foreground, only to recede again into the middle ground and the distance. The result is a continual shifting between vertical and horizontal, here and there, near and far.
“What makes this happen?”, I wondered. The interrelationships of the shapes? The relative weights and masses of the large color fields? The vivid contrast of the jagged line?
In the same portfolio was another image of the same portion of the Ross Ice Shelf, painted from a vantage point only a few hundred feet removed from the first. Despite breathtaking hues, this painting struck me as much less successful. Initially, I couldn’t say why. But my eye kept returning to a rock outcropping in the lower right-hand corner. Finally, it occured to me that this was the crucial difference.
The outcropping defines the foreground. In doing so, it fixes the ice edge in the middle distance, freezing its mysterious floating quality at a specific point in space. Because of the outcropping, the second painting projects a more definite sense of the almost incomprehensible scale of the Antarctic landscape. But at the same time, it removes one from the full presence of the place. The country is so large that it seems to retreat, as if viewed through too wide a lense.
The first painting has no definition of foreground and, therefore, no fixed perspective. By not telling us precisely where we are standing, it invites us to travel freely within the full dimensions of an ambiguous space, from the farthest horizon to a veil of colored mist suspended just before our eyes. This painting is so powerful because it is imbued with an inherent presence which demands our participation. It requires us to explore and discover for ourselves an extraordinary imaginary space, firmly grounded in the presence of a remarkable natural landscape. I aspire to a similar experience in music.
In Western music, melody and harmony are the equivalents of figure and ground. Together, they constitute a kind of musical perspective, which evolved parallel to that of Renaissance painting. In the musical textures of Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, I have purposely tried to lose perspective. Working with elementally simple materials and gestures, purposely stripped of expressive rhetoric, I have tried to blend line and chord into an enveloping sphere of musical space. Clouds of short melodic cells are superimposed on expansive harmonic clouds of the same tones. Figure becomes ground in dense clouds of expanding, rising lines. Ground becomes figure in the glacial movement of large harmonic clouds, which, as the listener enters the suspended time frame of the music, come to sound melodic — like exaggeratedly slow chorales.
Much of my recent work has explored the natural intervals of the harmonic series, in just intonation and other non-tempered tunings. But Clouds is a return to and celebration of the rich complexities and ambiguities of equal temperament and chromatic modes. This is my most complete and direct statement of a personal harmonic idiom which has developed over the course of many years. Formally, the work describes a single, expansive harmonic arch, moving — over the course of seventy minutes — from unisons and minor seconds, through the succession of equal-tempered intervals, to major sevenths and, finally, to the perfect clarity of octaves.

Forms and Presences
One of the great powers of music is that it can mean nothing and anything, sometimes at once. Living in Alaska for most of my creative life, I have come to measure my own work and all human creations against the overwhelming presence of the place itself. My music has long been grounded in a strong sense of place and a deep response to the landscapes of the far north, exploring a territory I call “sonic geography”.
But the landscapes of Clouds are more essentially sonic and geometric than geographic in nature. My hope has been not so much to compose a piece of music as to create — in essentially musical terms, with no external references — a wholeness of music, a sonic presence somehow equivalent to that of a vast landscape. Still, (perhaps unavoidably for me), the sound of this music has a certain coldness, clarity, aridity and starkness, reminiscent of the light, atmosphere and landforms of the Arctic.
I began work on Clouds immediately following the death of my father, in early 1991. By March of that year, I had completed a forty-minute fragment for large orchestra. The press of other commitments forced me to set this aside. But over the next five and a half years, I returned to Clouds as time allowed, following as it evolved through various incarnations and instrumentations. I worked on it throughout 1994, during a fellowship from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, finally completing it in late 1995.
In composing Clouds, I was determined to sustain an uncompromising faith in the musical materials — surrendering self-expression for trust in the instruments, their sounds, and the essential richness inherent within them. In retrospect, I believe the only significant compromises in this music are those which resulted from the limitations of my own concentration, imagination and technique.
His music perfectly echoes the landscape he loves: impersonal, relentless, larger than human scale, yet gorgeous, a quiet chaos of colors, suffused with light. It’s not a climate everyone could live in. But for those who want to bathe their ears in an aural aurora borealis while staying warm inside, it’s a spiritual odyssey well worth taking. - Kyle Gann
john luther adams
From time to time we put out a newsletter of JLA's musings on work in progress, new recordings and publications, and forthcoming performances. Enter your email address below to subscribe.
Copyright © 2024 All rights reserved.