Silences So Deep


On Friday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m., he will give an artist's talk at the Anchorage Museum titled Music in the Anthropocene. A reception at 8 p.m. will occur in the atrium adjacent to the auditorium. The talk will be simulcast at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, site of his installation The Place Where You Go to Listen.

From 6 p.m. to midnight on Sept. 2 and 3 the Museum will present the six-hour-long Veils and Vesper, a series of electronic pieces composed by Adams in 2005.

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I call John Luther Adams from my cabin near McCarthy. He's maintained his 907 area code, though I know he's relocated to New York City after 40 years in Alaska. My spot in the woods seems more akin to his former habitat than the deep urban place where he answers the phone. I'm picturing Adams inside his old studio cabin nestled in calm, subarctic boreal forest, as documented by filmmaker Bob Curtis-Johnson before Adams left. Afterimages of that short-and completely silent-film clash with the intermittent city sirens that whine through the phone. They're an odd soundtrack to our conversation about art, purpose and living.

Adams is a composer. He's also an author, presently finishing up his third book, called Silences So Deep: A Memoir of Music and Alaska, recently excerpted in Alaska Quarterly Review and forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.

Both his life and work are deeply rooted in the natural world. Adams was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic work Become Ocean, and a 2015 Grammy Award for "Best Contemporary Classical Composition". Inuksuit, his outdoor work for up to 99 percussionists, is regularly performed all over the world. He's won a number of other prestigious awards.

Born in 1953, Adams grew up in the South and in the suburbs of New York City. He studied composition at the California Institute of the Arts, where he was in the first graduating class (in 1973). He became an environmental activist in the mid-1970s, campaigning for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and then serving as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

Adams has taught at Harvard University, the Oberlin Conservatory, Bennington College and the University of Alaska. He has also served as composer in residence with the Anchorage Symphony, Anchorage Opera, Fairbanks Symphony, Arctic Chamber Orchestra and the Alaska Public Radio Network.

Though his recognition stems almost entirely from his musical career, his book Winter Music: Composing the North placed him on my radar a dozen years ago. Since then his work has been a steady presence for me.

I've also admired his depictions of two other Alaskan artists, the poet John Haines and conductor Gordon Wright. Adams has written evocatively of his friendship with them. Adams' anecdotes about how he and Wright would hoot at each other and a visitation from an owl after Wright died came to mind the night before our interview. I was prepping for our conversation when a Great Horned Owl flew passed the cabin and landed in a spruce. I went outside and it stayed put for minutes, bobbing its head and watching me. It was the first owl I'd seen since spring. Adams' joked: "That was probably Gordon. He always wanted to be my press agent."  

You first came to Alaska in 1975 and stayed for 40 years. You said you came to Alaska instead of going to grad school, and that your time playing timpani in Fairbanks was more valuable than graduate school could have been. How exactly did Alaska educate you?

Because I was in Fairbanks, I had opportunities that just wouldn't have been available to me perhaps anywhere else. I was immediately hired as the timpanist. I'd never played timpani in my life, but I was a kind of lapsed percussionist. I had the most important qualification for employment in Fairbanks in those days, though-I was there. It didn't hurt that the conductor was my best friend. By the time I finished I was probably at the best I ever played anything.

As timpanist and composer in residence at the Fairbanks Symphony I had the opportunity to learn things that I probably wouldn't have had anywhere else. I got to get inside of orchestral music of all sorts and learn it from the inside out. I learned about orchestration from inside the orchestra, from hearing the different sections practice different passages and then hearing how things went together. I always got the score for everything we were playing so I was not only learning my part as the timpanist, but I was learning the score. Previously, I'd had little or no interest in the canon of Western classical music. In my youthful rebellion, I had thrown that baby out with the bathwater. But because I was the timpanist in the Fairbanks Symphony, I came to terms with that music and learned it from the inside, and it was incredible.

In time, you know, part of the devil's bargain that Gordon [Wright] made with me was "Okay, you play timpani in my orchestra and I'll play your music." So really, as I used to tell Gordon, I got the better end of both sides there. I got to write things and hear them played. I got to learn how to compose for orchestra by doing it-not just by reading about it-and I got this incredible education about the history of orchestra music that I probably wouldn't have gotten any other way. It was a win-win for me.

And for us. You're primarily identified as a composer, but you are also an author. You've corresponded or collaborated with some fantastic writers in addition to composers, musicians and producers. What artistic obligations span your twin practices of composing and writing?

You know, I didn't answer the phone when you first called because my editor was just leaving. We're ploughing through the third draft of a new book, which is the story of my life and work in Alaska. But it's funny-I try not to think of myself as a writer; I still talk of myself as a composer who sometimes writes. Maybe that's just superstition, but I want to keep it fun. Composing is difficult.

There was a pitcher-I can't remember who it was, but it was a major league pitcher a number of years ago-who was also a pretty good hitter. Someone said to him "You know, you're a good pitcher, but you're a pretty good hitter, too," and he said "Pitching is hard. Hitting is fun." I sort of feel like that about writing. I know better, but composing is hard and writing is fun, at least by comparison.

You write quite a bit about the ideas and process behind your music. Has it felt important to "explain" yourself as a composer through writing?

Well, I'm usually writing for the same person for whom I'm composing-that is, myself. When I'm composing, it's almost as though I'm composing home. I'm trying to hear something I haven't heard before. I'm trying always to discover new sonic territory, new musical territory. If I'm lucky, I get hopelessly lost in those strange new landscapes. And, of course, that's what I want for myself, but it's also what I want for you, the listener.

As a writer, I write primarily to figure out what the work wants of me. The great painter Barnet Newman once quipped-he was a pretty fair writer himself-that the artist sometimes writes so he'll have something to read. I think I know what he meant. I think I understand that. I write sometimes before, sometimes during, and sometimes after the process of composing to try and figure out what the music wants from me. It helps me understand the work and where the work wants to lead me.  

So this book I'm working on now is the story of my life and work in Alaska. I really found home in Alaska, and it is home in the deepest sense and it always will be. I really came of age, as an artist and a man in Alaska.

So now that I've left home, I'm trying to figure out what it was that drew me there in the first place-what I discovered there, what I thought I was doing, and what it might have meant, and ultimately why the time came for me to leave. So once again, I'm writing a book as a process of discovery for myself, and then I hope to make it a good enough story that somebody else is going to be interested in reading it.

And you'll be reading from that new manuscript soon in Anchorage.

Yes. I haven't decided yet what I want to read. It's sort of carrying coals to Newcastle-bringing this story home-because everyone in the room will have their own Alaska story, but I'm excited about it.

You've written at length about the impact of creative collaborations and conversations with fellow artists, the conductor Gordon Wright and poet John Haines. How has your creative process changed in their absence and your own maturation as an artist?

John and Gordon are two of the three most important people in my life. The dedication in the new book is to Cynthia, Gordon and John. Cynthia, of course, is the love of my life, my soulmate for 39 years now. John and Gordon are not absent in my life. They're still with me every day in so many ways. You know-I shared with those three people a life and a vision of how the world is and how the world might be that still sustains me every day in everything that I do.

Did their passing help prompt or even permit your own choice to leave Alaska?

Absolutely. The short version is that when Gordon died, I knew the time was coming- and when John died-I knew the time had come.

As a poet, I was interested in how you describe Gordon Wright eventually learning that "sound rather than syntax was the key to making sense of [your] music," and that it was Haines's poetry that helped Wright realize that. Can you comment on how your experience of poetry and music have informed each other or how they might relate?

When I was an adolescent, like all of us, I wrote bad poetry. I read a lot of poetry and literature and I might have been a writer, I might have been a poet instead of a composer. I've always had that frame of reference or sensitivity to language. In addition to John Haines, one of my other dearest friends is [author] Barry Lopez. Barry and I delight in the feeling that we're doing the same work in different forms. We take no end of pleasure in discovering not the differences, but the parallels between our work in different artistic media. So I would say in a way that as a composer I've learned as much-probably more-from writers and from visual art than I have from music and other composers.

Interesting. I know you've endorsed Walter Pater's notion that "all the arts constantly aspire to the condition of music," so it's interesting to pair those thoughts.

Well, I'm slumming, right? [laughs] I think all the arts aspire to be whole. I think all of human intelligence and our human senses-we want to be whole, and we've become so divided from ourselves, let alone from one another. We're at a time in a culture in which human consciousness itself is dangerously fragmented and I think part of what we're trying to do through poetry, through music, through the science of ecology, through all forms of creative thought and good science is every bit as creative as good art is to re-innovate ourselves, to make ourselves whole again, to find- as Gregory Bateson would say- "the pattern which connects." And in feeling more fully integrated as individuals, hopefully we feel more integrated with one another and this whole miraculous world we inhabit, and all the forms of life with which we share this world.

That speaks to the condition of music and its relevancy across the arts and other disciplines.

Look, I've devoted my life to music and still I have no idea what music is. Music doesn't care. Music can be whatever it wants to be. Sure, it can tell a story. Sure, it can express emotions, but it can also be a place or weather or it can be things that we haven't yet imagined or understood. Ultimately, for me, as a composer-and I say this often-music is not what I do, music is how I understand the world. And the flip side of that is the whole world is music.

That certainly calls to mind The Place Where You Go To Listen, which was installed 10 years ago at UAF's Museum of the North. The Rasmuson Foundation announced plans last month to fund a $104,000 upgrade. How has the meaning of The Place for you changed over the course of its first decade?

I'm amazed that The Place is still up and running 10 years later. It's a complex piece with a lot of moving parts, you know, a lot of hardware and a lot of software. You know I wrote a whole book about The Place Where You Go To Listen and its evolution; in my body of work-and maybe in a larger sense-The Place Where You Go To Listen is unique. Within the context of my work, it's both a point of arrival and departure. In some ways, it's my most Alaskan work and if you want to experience The Place Where You Go To Listen you can't download it on the internet, you can't buy a CD. You have to go to Fairbanks and you have to sit in that room and wait. And listen. And wait. And listen. And wait. And listen. It's all about being there in that place.

I'm curious how indigenous people have responded over the years to your work.

Generally speaking I've not worked directly with Native music. There is one piece from many years ago-Earth and the Great Weather-that is subtitled "A Sonic Geography of the Arctic." That's grounded in the geography of the eastern north slope-what we now call the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge-which of course is the home country of both Iñupiaq people to the north and Gwich'in Athabascan people to the south. So in that piece, I worked very closely with four Native performers and even so, I didn't borrow directly from Native music.

I tried to translate what I had experienced as the energy of-the spirit of-Native music into my own musical world. I think the profound influence of Native culture on my life's work has been through-what would I call it?-the wisdom of Native experience. The deep and ancient experience of that place as home. The knowledge that the whole world has intelligence. The Yupik people talk about the spirit in all things. That really is close to the heart of my own faith, my own belief system. Everything in the world-everything in what we call "nature"-has presence, and dignity, and awareness, and everything in the world is in counterpoint with everything else, and in some way influences everything else which is a fundamental principle of ecology, isn't it? So that's probably the deepest influence of Native culture on my work.

Is there anything else you want to share in advance of your trip to Alaska?

I'm very, very excited about coming home. I miss Alaska every day, and as I said earlier, it's home and it always will be, and I can't wait to be home for a while.

Jeremy Pataky is the author of Overwinter (University of Alaska Press 2015) and the Interim Executive Director of 49 Writers, Inc. He splits his time between Anchorage and McCarthy.  

John Luther Adams will read from his new book Silences So Deep: A Memoir of Music and Alaska at Cyrano's at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1

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