John Luther Adams’s Songs for a Vanished World

John Luther Adams’s Songs for a Vanished World

John Luther Adams’s Songs for a Vanished World

A conversation, conducted via satellite phone, with the legendary composer about his new memoir, Silences So Deep, and the music of his life.


Isolation has long been understood as an essential part of artistic creation—hence all those tweets about how we should spend our quarantine writing King Lear. That’s a high bar for most of us to meet, but there is something to the mythic ideal of the artist in solitude, like Georgia O’Keeffe in the desert. In his new memoir, Silences So Deep, the composer John Luther Adams writes of the long period he spent in Alaska, illuminating the effect of his solitude in that place on his life and his body of work.

Adams was born in 1953. He doesn’t spend much energy on the story of his upbringing besides noting, “Both my parents were alcoholics.” His adolescence dovetailed with a fevered political climate; an interest in rock ’n’ roll took him from Frank Zappa to Edgar Varèse, and exposure to Martin Luther King Jr. led him to Thoreau. “Throughout my life I’ve steered an uneasy course between the Scylla of solitude and the Charybdis of politics, between my desire to help change the world and my impulse to escape it,” he writes.

These twin contradictory impulses took him to Alaska in 1975, two years after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Adams worked there for the Fairbanks Environmental Center and at the time lived apart from his wife, Cindy (to whom he is still married). “My cabin was deep in the black spruce bog,” he writes, fondly remembering the ancient trees, stunted because they grow from permafrost, and the lack of direct sunlight during the winter months.

Silences is an elegiac work. It’s a remembrance of two great friends and their influence on Adams’s life and work: Gordon Wright, music director of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra, and John Haines, a poet. It’s also a eulogy for Alaska itself, a place forever altered by money (think oil) as well as global climate change (think oil again).

There are glimpses of Adams’s working process, though you sense the artist’s reluctance to talk shop, perhaps because that’s just, as the cliché has it, like dancing about architecture. Adams’s compositions seem to endeavor to turn the natural world into musical language, whether he is interrogating birdsong or conjuring a winter landscape. But this is a reductive way of thinking about the composer’s work, and anyway, he gives this information away in titles like songbirdsongs and Dream in White on White. Adams’s music can’t be understood as a simple act of translation.

The work of every artist evolves, and Adams’s work moves from a register of beautiful awe toward something else altogether. The critic Alex Ross called Adams’s 2013 Become Ocean “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.” There is indeed a creeping sense of unease in Adams’s mature work, a menace in percussion that’s almost unbearably loud. There is, correspondingly, an increasing interest in beauty—the music is rich and layered and lovely. It is disarming and disorienting all at once. In Silences, the composer recounts a friend’s observation that some of his compositions “might one day come to be a kind of archeological artifact of the Alaska that we knew and loved.” It’s possible that we have reached that day; so much of Adams’s oeuvre now sounds to me like a requiem.

John and Cindy Adams ultimately left Alaska a few years ago, a decision recounted in this book, and settled for a time in Manhattan. The year 2020 finds them having moved again. Adams’s income is derived from performance royalty and commissions, but Covid-19 has hobbled performances of live music, and as the composer wryly noted when we spoke, “We live in a world now where recorded music apparently has no monetary value.”

If Covid-19 has made traditional orchestral performance impossible, Adams’s Sila: the Breath of the World and Inuksuit may herald the future of the way music is experienced. These works are closer to installation than anything else: Musicians stand apart in a landscape, and rather than sit, audiences are invited to stroll among them. “These outdoor pieces that I’ve been composing for the last decade or more now are getting some performances,” Adams said. “People are finding them useful, which is exactly what I hope for. I want the art to be useful.”

“At this stage in my creative life, I wrestle every day with this question,” he told me: “What is the best thing that I can do?” Then Adams disclosed that he’s not only writing a new book; he’s also at work on seven new pieces of music. We spoke by satellite phone, the only way to reach the remote part of southern New Mexico where he and Cindy have settled for now. Perhaps that’s what this particular artist needs—to find the world’s silent places. He clearly hears so much in them.

—Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam: Whom do you consider your most important or most abiding aesthetic influences?

John Luther Adams: Musically, I came of age in a time when there was this ongoing war between smart music and pretty music. And one of the things that I discovered was that it’s a false dichotomy. Music can be intellectually airtight and still sock you in the belly or grab you by the ears or seduce you, ravish you. So it brought me back to this idea that music is all about sound. And the mysterious power of sound to touch us and move us and make us more fully human in ways that perhaps nothing else can.

I certainly got that intense love for the physicality and the magic of sound from James Tenney, my principal mentor and teacher at CalArts. And in a very different way from [the composer] Lou Harrison, who was, for 30 years, a dear friend and mentor. I got it from the music of Pauline Oliveros and Alvin Lucier and other largely American composers, who seemed to form this loose extended family of people who had started from scratch and reinvented—or rediscovered—something in music, going back, really, to Charles Ives and Ruth Crawford Seeger. This tradition—which is a funny word to use in relation to these people—of composers, none of whom sounded anything like the others, and who, in a way, couldn’t be imitated and who didn’t create schools was the element that united certain artists who shared this sense of devotion to the sound itself, and this declaration of musical independence from the European classical tradition.

RA: This is your third book, and in it you write a great deal about the influence on you of other writers. Not necessarily on your writing, but on your life, on your general artistic practice.

JLA: Years ago, Richard Serra observed in an interview that an artist reaches a point in their creative life when all the influences have been deeply assimilated and the artist finds themselves working from out of the work itself. I’ve been in that place for about a decade now. The most important literary influences in my life have been Barry Lopez and John Haines. Because, in an almost 30-year friendship with John [who died in 2011]—and Barry and I are well into our fourth decade now—the friendship was grounded in a feeling that we’re doing the same work in different disciplines. I have a number of close friendships with other composers whose work I admire, and I want to hear, and I want to know how they made it, and we talk shop. But on the deepest level, I get more out of talking with Barry, as I did with John Haines, because there’s just a little bit of a remove from the core of my work. And there’s this lovely sense of recognition: Oh, yeah, you’re thinking about that too. But you’re thinking about it in words and I’m thinking in tones.

RA: The book feels like its project is to memorialize two men—John Haines, the poet you just mentioned, and Gordon Wright, another composer. What you sought in Alaska was solitude, but you write that it was the companionship of these men that helped you create.

JLA: Friendship, community, fellowship, family—however we think of our most intimate relationships with other human beings, whatever you want to call it, to have that is a great gift. Solitude, as I’ve learned since leaving Alaska, is increasingly difficult to find, and such a rare and precious and fragile thing in this world with however many billion of us human animals there are. To have both at the same time, in the same place—and the love of this long-suffering woman who’s been my partner for 40-some-odd years now—these are the great blessings of my life. As you say, it is a contradiction. It’s not what I went to Alaska to find. I was running away from everything, but the trick was on me.

RA: You write about your move to Alaska as a political act, and once you had arrived there, about making a choice between a commitment to activism or a commitment to art. When you look at your career, do you see an overlap there?

JLA: I’m two men. There’s the guy who came of age marching in the streets, and there’s the guy who lived in his own private Walden in Alaska for a decade. And the two regard each other with a kind of bemusement. Yet they have a lot to say to each other. Ultimately, they’re obviously the same guy. They’re both getting at the same thing. Nevertheless, this contradiction between solitude and community hit me right between the ears.

In 2008 or ’09 when we were still living in Alaska, and I heard the first performance of Inuksuit, the first of my outdoor pieces. A big percussion piece. I had composed that in my splendid solitude, in my one-room cabin studio with the wood stove. The central metaphor of that piece was, of course, the Inuksuits themselves, the stone structures that Inuit people have constructed since time immemorial across the Arctic coastal plain. I thought that I was composing a piece about solitude. I imagined each performing musician and each individual listener as a solitary figure in a vast, empty landscape. It wasn’t until I experienced the first performance that I understood that, no, this is a piece about shared solitude, which ultimately is where community comes from. I’m hoping—in all the madness now with quarantines and masks and social distancing—that somehow we may rediscover, out of our shared solitude, a new and deeper sense of community.

RA: Are you aiming for art that almost touches the sacred?

JLA: Well, we live in a culture that’s in steep decline. And it’s a challenging moment because we don’t have traditions. There’s no larger cultural fabric of which we feel a part. At least that’s the way I experience life now. I am profoundly skeptical of any individual’s presumption to try and create ritual or myth. That’s just not how that happens. And yet, I’m after something.

RA: In Silences you write, “Before CalArts, I unconsciously subscribed to the notion that to be truly new and interesting music had to be complicated.” Do you think of the work produced when you were first in Alaska, as straightforward? Were you attempting to get back to basics, and do you think that is where your interest still is as a composer?

JLA: I’m after something that sounds and feels elemental. Like walking up a mountain: the idea that this feels absolutely solid and elemental and ultimately in some way mysterious and unknowable. Even when I was trying to get at those more essential, more elemental things in the music, no matter how superficially pretty or beautiful or simple the music might sound, I wanted it to be airtight. To me, one hallmark of a work of art is that it stands the test of time in its construction.

The construction of the music, the intellectual care, the mathematical rigor, the algorithmic detail—all that is essential, even if you don’t hear it or you choose not to listen to it. I’m not interested in showing you how much technique I have, how smart I am. The music is not about me, or even about my making it.

But I still think that if it’s well made, and if it has a formal coherence, like this mountain does or like the seasons do, it gives the music that elemental quality that I’m after. There are moments in Become Ocean or Become Desert when all these different tempos and sonic layers begin to converge, or diverge for that matter, and I believe when a listener hears that, even if she doesn’t hear it consciously, it creates a gravitational pull or a magnetic field in the music.

RA: Your later work has embraced an interest in more complex strategies—of composed silence or almost unbearable percussion. You’ve used technology to accomplish sound, even to transcribe the earth’s sound, in The Place Where You Go to Listen [a site-specific installation that renders seismic vibration as music]. It seems to push beyond the idea of music as a honed artifact and toward a music of soundscape or immersion. Is that the right language to use?

JLA: It’s ultimately about experience, for me. An unmediated experience. Authentic, direct, personal experience. I like to have an encounter with an animal or a landscape or a person or a work of art and think, “What the hell was that?” I want a little mystery, a little darkness, maybe a little fear.

RA: I wouldn’t want to overstate it, as I do think that the work extends a hand to its audience because it is using beauty. And because there’s an intellectual clarity in the way that you name the pieces, or the way that you talk about the pieces, that helps people to connect.

JLA: Yes, you’re right. And actually, I’m a liar. You’re absolutely right. I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. But I’m hoping that I may seduce you just enough—invite you in, and then you’re on your own.

RA: There’s an aura of elegy to this book, not only because you’re writing about Wright and Haines, but you’re writing about Alaska, an Alaska that in many ways really doesn’t exist anymore.

JLA: Yes, there is an elegiac quality, and even more so in the work that I’m doing now. I’m working on a huge piece that I suspect will be my last orchestral piece, because I think orchestras are going to really have a hard time, especially in the United States, where we think the arts are a luxury commodity and not a common good. It is a lamentation. It’s the most grief-filled music I’ve ever written.

Thomas Wolfe was right—you can’t go home again. And in this case, because home ain’t there. So all I can do is reflect on what there was. Maybe help build a cultural, an archaeological record of what that world was and how it felt to live there, but always calling myself to look forward rather than back. Even at this moment when it’s very difficult to imagine a future that any of us even want to look at: It’s terrifying, but I am trying to figure out now how I move beyond that world that I knew and imagine a world that I will never live to inhabit, a culture that may somehow be informed by the things we did experience and by the things we may have learned from that vanished world.

RA: You’re working out an intellectual idea, but you’re returning to a reverence for beauty, harmony, or something that is pleasing to the human as animal, right?

JLA: There is a Canadian poet, Robert Bringhurst, who wrote an essay that allowed me to loosen up called “Singing With Frogs.” It’s an ecological take on polyphony. The many voices of the world around us create a kind of diversity that makes the world better. The culture of diversity among humans and among all plants and animals. Polyphony is the sound of all these different voices singing, being heard together. When I stumbled across that, I thought, “Okay, I can do polyphony. I can sing with the frogs.”

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