USA Fellows Stories: John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams - Stories

John Luther Adams - Alaska
USA Ford Fellow 2006, Music

by Eric Gutierrez

“The stillness is what most inspires me, the darkness, the sense of being immersed in something large and mysterious and even a little scary and dangerous.”

John Luther Adams is in his studio, a 16-by-24-foot cabin on a hill north of Fairbanks overlooking the Goldstream Valley. It is quiet, there are no other houses as far as he can see, and what little sunlight there is finds its way into the studio.

A composer of orchestral and electronic music ranging from the conceptual to the site-specific, Adams, 55, is talking about winter in his adopted state of Alaska. It is the season when he began to explore what he calls “sonic geography,” that creative terrain that “exists between place and culture, between environment and imagination.” Now, however, the season is changing. Adams may be inspired by the dark, but as the Alaskan days grow longer, gaining “six or seven minutes of sunlight each day,” he is increasingly captivated by the light. He is making discoveries beyond the season and beyond this place.

Adams first arrived in Alaska in the mid-1970s as a young environmentalist with romantic notions of escaping into the frontier Shangri-la. “I came here to save Alaska but, without realizing it, hoping Alaska would save me too,” he offers, the hint of a smile in his voice. “And it did.” Adams fell “passionately in love” with Alaska, and for several years his work reflected the landscape, the seasons, and what they say and do to a person. The state became his workshop, his inspiration, and, to an extent that began to chafe in recent years, part of his creative identity. “I came here in search of a music I could only find here,” he acknowledges. “But I’m feeling an imperative I can’t ignore to expand my sense of the artistic geography I work with to encompass this whole beautiful beleaguered stone spinning in space."

Sonic geography, he has come to realize, isn’t about a place, it is a place. “I wanted to discover a music that, yes, comes from deep and sustained experience of particular place,” he explains, “but that also transcends and extends beyond that specific place and becomes a place in and of itself, a purely sonic landscape.”

He began exploring this new landscape with “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” his first foray into composition for new media, which he describes as “a virtual world that resonates with the real world.” Opening on the spring equinox in 2006 at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the “environment” translates seismological and meteorological data into soundscapes and light displays. It has no beginning, middle, or end and while it exists as a physical environment, it is most fundamentally an ongoing composition of a living earth and a dynamic cosmos. “Depending on when you hit it, it can be very alluring or downright implacable,” Adams explains. “It doesn’t exist just when people get together with their instruments and make sound. It’s going on there all the time. That gives it an independence from me that I find thrilling."

From his small studio, rich with “the essence of music and art and people that I love,” the composer breathes in the panorama, eager to explore more music in new media, including a commission for another sound-and-light environment in Venice, Italy. “I want you to hear the music and feel invited into a big and beautiful and frightening place and to get lost there, to have your own experience,” he says. “I don’t want to limit your imagination with my own constraints. One of the reasons why I’ve dedicated my life to this music is because it’s bigger than I am. That’s why it’s worthy of a lifetime of devotion, why it’s my life’s work and, you might even say, a spiritual discipline.”

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