Adams, John Luther

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Rebecca Franks describes how the American composer John Luther Adams found his distinct musical style by abandoning all for the wilderness of Alaska

A picture of the composer John Luther Adams

In 2014, Become Ocean (composed by John Luther Adams) won the Pulitzer Prize for music. A vast and immersive symphonic seascape, it is a modern-day answer to Debussy’s La mer. And there’s a clue in the title. This isn’t music that so much describes the ocean, but music that somehow, metaphorically, is the ocean.

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Beneath its glittering surface are powerful undercurrents. Its notes behave like shifting water; its structure is built of surging waves. While meticulously constructed as a musical work, at its heart is also a serious environmental message. In a note on the score to Become Ocean, its composer wrote: ‘Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.’

Who is John Luther Adams?

This landmark work was, for many, their first taste of John Luther Adams. For a long time, the American composer had been overshadowed by the ‘other’ John Adams – so much so that he included ‘Luther’ to his published name to avoid confusion. Everything changed with Become Ocean. After the Pulitzer, the premiere recording won a Grammy in 2015, and when pop star Taylor Swift heard the piece, she donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony, its commissioner.

Alex Ross of The New Yorker declared Adams ‘one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century’, while snippets of Become Ocean turned up in the soundtrack to the wilderness film, The Revenant. Sometimes a piece of art finds its moment in time, and Adams’s blend of art and environmentalism couldn’t have felt more apt or urgent.

It had been a long time in the making. Adams has often spoken of making the ‘wrong’ decisions in his life, yet it’s this series of unexpected turns that helped him find his voice.

When was John Luther Adams born?

John Luther Adams was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1953. The son of an accountant working for AT&T, John Luther Adams moved with his family to various parts of the US during his childhood.  

He had an eclectic musical upbringing. He played in several rock bands as a teenager and devoured music by The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Edgar Varèse. After stumbling across an LP of Piece for Four Pianos in a record shop, he fell in love with Morton Feldman’s music. ‘It took me to a place that Pink Floyd couldn’t take me,’ he once told BBC Music Magazine. ‘I knew then I wanted to be a composer.’

Despite dropping out from high school, Adams’s musical talent earned him a place at the Californian Institute of the Arts, where he studied with James Tenney and Leonard Stein. After graduating in 1973, he became involved in environmental activism, and headed north. Far north. To Alaska. When he first visited the state in 1975, a lost 22 year-old in an alien and challenging environment, he immediately felt at home. ‘I realised there was a possibility that I might be able to discover a new kind of music there,’ he later said; ‘music that was in some way drawn directly from all that space and silence, all that snow and wind, that fire and ice.’

When did John Luther Adams move to Alaska?

From 1978, Adams spent the next 36 years in Alaska. For a whole decade, he lived in an isolated cabin in a boreal, black spruce forest near Fairbanks, in bitingly cold temperatures. He chopped wood, carried water and lost himself literally and metaphorically in the wild landscape. He later reflected that those were ten ‘lost’ years when it came to his music, as the lifestyle was too gruelling to allow time for creativity. Nor was he trying to be a full-time composer. Continuing his environmental activism, Adams fought to protect Alaska’s natural heritage, campaigning against the dams, roads, mines and oil drilling that would damage its wildlife and landscape.

What genre is John Luther Adams’s music?

Still, he hadn’t forsaken music. Adams was a percussionist with the Fairbanks Symphony and Arctic Chamber orchestras from 1982-89, immersing himself in western symphonic repertoire. He attended Inuit festivals and learned about their powerful musical traditions: drumming, singing, dancing. And then there was birdsong. He had first become fascinated with it after hearing a wood thrush in the hardwood forests of Georgia, US. Years of paying attention to birds and writing down their calls resulted in songbirdsongs (1980), a collection for two piccolos and three percussionists. Unlike Messiaen, Adams wasn’t interested in accurately transcribing birdsong, but sought instead to evoke its melodies and rhythms. The result was both fresh and mystical.

Other pieces he wrote during these years include Night Peace (1976), Strange Birds Passing (1983) and Forest Without Leaves (1984). His emerging musical voice started to attract attention, and by the spring of 1989 he found himself at a crossroads: art or activism? One lifetime wasn’t enough to succeed at both. Adams decided to rededicate himself entirely to music. Someone else could take care of the politics. As he threw himself into life as a composer, he came to believe that ‘fundamentally, art matters more than politics’.

New pieces began to appear, written slowly, in solitude. Earth and the Great Weather of 1993 was a major achievement, bearing all the hallmarks of his style. Subtitled ‘A Sonic Geography of the Arctic’ and described as ‘a journey through the physical, cultural and spiritual landscapes of the Arctic, in music, language and sound,’ the 90-minute piece is utterly shaped by his Alaskan experience. Scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, spoken voices, three drum quartets, strings and electronics, it sets eight ‘Arctic Litanies’ – texts which name plants, weather and seasons in English, Latin, and two indigenous Alaskan languages, Inupiaq and Gwich’in. The naming of things became an important tool that Adams would later revisit, and surely adds to the elemental power of this music.

Adams refined his craft over the coming years. He explored further the idea of sonic geography, or of music having its own topography, as an alternative to the musical pictorialism of, say, the chirruping birds and dramatic storms of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. As a result, his music often evokes a feeling of vast space, something conductor JoAnn Falletta once described as a ‘natural geographical cathedral in sound’. Time also seems to take on a different quality in his music, drawing on rhythms and cycles of the natural world as much as any western classical notion of metre and tempo. Just as spending time outdoors in nature encourages people to slow down and pay attention, Adams’s music requires a different sort of listening.

Works like the hypnotic Canticles of the Holy Wind (2013) and the sunset-inspired The Light Within (2007) bring the outdoors into the concert hall. At a certain point, Adams found himself wondering if he could do the opposite: take music back into the outdoors. Inuksuit was the impressive upshot, named after the standing-stone way-markers used by the Inuit in the Arctic and written for anything between nine and 99 percussionists (and optional piccolos). The audience can move around during its performance, changing perspective in a way that’s impossible in a concert hall. Music, listener and landscape all become part of the art. Described by The New York Times as ‘the ultimate environmental piece’, Inuksuit opened a new avenue in Adams’s work. In the Name of the Earth (2018), for instance, was even more ambitious, with 800 singers gathered for its outdoor premiere in New York.

And what happened after Become Ocean?

It became the second part of, as Adams admits, ‘a trilogy that I never set out to write’. Become River (2010) was the first instalment, a smaller-scale work for chamber orchestra; Become Desert (2017) was the third. This was on an even larger scale than Become Ocean, with an orchestra and choir divided into five ensembles surrounding the audience – ‘Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light,’ instructs the score. It also echoes Adams’s own life. He left Alaska, and moved between the deserts in Mexico, Chile and the southwestern US, while also re-joining the urban jungle with a flat in New York. Yet his work has lost none of its connection to nature; in fact, with the impact of climate change ever more visible, his message has become more vital.

By nature, Adams is a deep thinker. And there’s a sense now that, at 68, he is reflecting on the life he has already lived, and what he will do with what he has left. In 2020, he published his memoir Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska. He is also working on what will be his final piece for symphony orchestra, as he revealed in a recent interview published on the website of American bird conservation society Audubon. In Vespers of the Anthropocene, Adams sets the ‘Litanies of the Sixth Extinction’, a roll call of 192 endangered and extinct species – of which humans are the last. Scored for choir and orchestra, the piece intends to sound an alarm bell. ‘It’s a lot to hang on music, but it’s all I’ve got,’ he told Audubon. If any composer can wake listeners up to the awe and majesty of the planet, it’s John Luther Adams. 

John Luther Adams’s style

Birdsong

This is a constant thread in Adams’s work, culminating in Ten Thousand Birds, an open-ended collection of flexible pieces. He is not so much interested in literal representations of birds, but how we listen to them, what we hear and what is lost in translation. 

Time

Sometimes it can feel as if not much is happening in Adams’s music, as if you were watching a cloud drift by. Yet his music demands that the listener slows down and pays attention, and then it feels that everything is happening. Subtle surface nuances are twinned with longer-term shifts in the music.

Space

Adams creates expansive spaces in his music. Sometimes that’s through quite literal means: choosing a large outdoor location or using huge casts of performers. Sometimes it’s more of an illusion, created through moments of stillness in the music, for instance.

Drumming

A rock drummer when he was growing up, while in Alaska Adams got to know traditional Iñupiat drumming and became fascinated by the shifting rhythms and metres. His pieces often feature intense and impactful drumming sequences.

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Read our reviews of the latest John Luther Adams recordings