JOHN LUTHER ADAMS
“My work in some ways is a series of love letters to people I will never know.”
To hear John Luther Adams tell it, his life truly began when he moved to Alaska more than 40 years ago.
The world-renowned composer, whose orchestral work “Become Ocean” won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, was born on the east coast of the U.S. and had “grown up all over the place,” he says.
“As a result, I didn’t know where home was. People would talk about going home, and I didn’t know what they meant. There was no place to which I felt that I belonged in that deep sense,” Adams said by telephone from what he calls his “urban cabin,” an apartment in South Harlem in New York City.
“When I first set foot in Alaska in 1975 at the tender age of 22, I immediately knew that I had come home, that I had found my place.”
Adams, now 65, says although he didn’t know it at the time, that sense of home is precisely what he came to Alaska to find.
“I went north running away. I had a deep inarticulate hunger to find that real home, but it was inarticulate, I probably wouldn’t have been able to say, oh, I’m looking for my home,” he says. “But I was running away. I was running away from my family, I was running away from academia, I was running away from urban and suburban life, I was running away from the competitive careerism of the so-called music business, I was running away from all these things.”
A CABIN IN THE WOODS
Adams came to Alaska as a “professional environmentalist.” Working on what would become the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), passed by Congress in 1980, Adams was executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, and was part of the Alaska Coalition.
“I came north in part to help save the wilderness,” he says.
Guided by what he calls “several bad role models,” most notably Henry David Thoreau, Adams settled into life as an activist in Fairbanks.
“That misfit inspired me to spend a decade of my life living alone in a cabin in the woods outside of Fairbanks,” he says. “I spent the 1980s living that way with Gordon (Wright) as my closest next door neighbor half a mile away. And chopping wood, carrying water, all of that.”
But music was never far from Adams’ heart and mind. He knew he wanted to be a musician, he says, from the time he was a teenager, initially playing in garage bands.
“I pretty quickly lost interest in that and discovered this whole new world of contemporary classical music,” he says. “I knew from about the time I was 15 or 16 that this was what I wanted to do with my life. But I also had this deep passion and concern for the earth itself, and so it’s always been impossible for me really to separate those two passions of my life -- my passion for what we call nature, and music. It was all part of it, even back then, even when I first came north.”
And as Adams found an unexpected home in Alaska, coming north also promised to take his music to a new, unforeseen place.
“As soon as I arrived in Alaska, I realized there was a possibility that I might be able to discover a new kind of music there, music that was in some way drawn directly from all that space and silence, all that snow and wind, that fire and ice. So that was another thing that brought me there and certainly kept me there for the better part of my life.”
But first, he had a decision to make. Trying to “do it all” throughout his 20s and early 30s began taking a toll on him, Adams says. His health, his relationship and his art were all suffering. So he realized that while he perhaps could do it all, he couldn’t do it all at the same time. So he chose to focus on his music, disappointing friends who expected him to carry on as an environmental activist and perhaps even enter politics. But Adams says he didn’t have the courage or temperament for a political life.
“I took this leap of faith, to rededicate to my art as a composer, and I think implicit in that leap was the belief that, in its own way, art can matter every bit as much as politics,” he says. “I’ve probably been trying to make good on that ever since.”
Adams says, for him, music is far more than his vocation.
“Music is not what I do, it’s how I understand the world. I’m trying to compose the world as I imagine it really is or as it might be,” he says. “I want to live in the music. And that’s what I want for you too… I want to discover a strange and beautiful new musical landscape and invite you into that place to find your own way, or, if you’re really lucky, to get lost and have your own experience.
“In a broader sense,” he adds, “I’m trying to compose home.”
He says people often ask him what piece of those he’s composed is his personal favorite. His answer: “The one I haven’t written yet.”
“For me, being an artist is about following your curiosity and your sense of wonder and discovery. It’s about hearing something that hasn’t been heard before. That’s what keeps me going.”
And that means asking himself some very interesting questions.
“What would it sound like if… the light in the desert could sing? What would it sound like if you were hearing the echo of the music of the hermit thrush in a dream or maybe from the other side? Sometimes they’re very physical, very specific questions that I’m asking and indulging my curiosity, and other times they’re more poetic or metaphorical like that.
“In a specifically musical sense, I’m listening for something that I haven’t heard before.”
Adams says he wants for himself exactly what he wants for everyone who listens to his music -- a feeling of presence in the world that carries with it a responsibility for making that world a better, healthier place.
“I want to discover new ways of being at home in the world. For me, music is an invitation to be more fully present. In the moment, in the world, here and now. That’s what I want to feel for myself, and that’s the invitation I want to extend to you as a listener. And I think in some ways implicit in that is a model for the society that I would like to live in. If we lived in a society in which we all felt more fully present and empowered, but also more fully responsible for our position in the world, then I think a lot of these problems such as climate change, that seem so intractable, would be dealt with, because they would have to be dealt with. We would demand it.”
CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Adams doesn’t live full-time in Alaska any longer. He’s written about the various reasons he made that decision, including in a memoir he’s working on now, his third book.
But he and his wife Cynthia still own his studio near Fairbanks and they’re planning a visit next year. Adams’ cabin and the nearby cabin of his late friend Gordon Wright -- who among many other things was conductor and music director of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and in 1970 founded the Arctic Chamber Orchestra -- are “still the center of the universe for me,” Adams says.
Adams says he can’t live without Alaska, and that in a certain way, “I am Alaska now. It’s in me and it’s pretty close to the best part of me.”
“I consider Alaska home in the deepest sense and it always will be,” he adds. “I didn’t know where home was when I went north. Even now, having left Alaska, I always know where home is.
“It’s the place itself, it’s the land, it’s the light, it’s the plants, it’s the birds, it’s the wind and the weather, it’s the physical space, it’s the space, it’s the stillness, it’s the physical environment and I would say the spiritual experience of interior and Arctic Alaska, northern Alaska.
“I love all of Alaska,” he adds, “but my home country is from the Alaska Range north.”
Adams says his years living in and traveling around Alaska influence the way that he views the world now, even as he’s often away from it.
“I’ve been all over Alaska and I lived in the woods. I did the cabin thing for a goodly stretch so I know what that is and that influences how I live now, even though I’m sitting here in this nice little apartment in South Harlem,” he says.
Now, “I can go to a place and if I learn a few of the birdsongs … learn some of the plants, watch the light a little bit, these are things I’ve learned from my Native friends in Alaska, from my own slow witted observations, my own experiences, and it grounds me in what I think of as the real world.”
Asked to recall a prized memory from his time in Alaska, Adams chooses two. The first was with his dear friend Wright, as the pair toured the state with the Arctic Chamber Orchestra. It was just the two of them one day, Adams says, standing under the eaves of a building near a remote airstrip, taking in the sunshine.
“There we were. And I was 28 or something. I think of it as the golden moment. I was out there in the country that I love. We were visiting villages and performing our music and listening to storytelling and dance performances -- some of them masked dances back then -- in the villages, and there was this whole rich dimension of Native culture and my music was being played, my best friend was conducting, and there we were – this golden moment in this golden place. The world just felt so full… it felt as open and as full of possibility as the country around us and as filled with light as that morning was.”
Adams’ second “golden moment” again includes Wright, along with Cynthia and another friend. The four hiked high into a mountainous bowl on the north side of the Brooks Range, spending the afternoon “alone together,” each taking in the magnificence around them without speaking for hours.
“I’ve had lots of dramatic experiences in Alaska, but it’s those quiet moments shared with people I love that nourish me most.”
‘RUNNING TO MY LIFE’S WORK’
In many ways, Adams says the choices he made when he was younger were the “wrong” ones, the unconventional choices. He moved to Alaska, he didn’t go to graduate school. But in a twist he finds interesting, “of course it turns out over the course of the decades, that all those wrong choices were actually the right choices.”
Back when he moved to Alaska, “I was running to home, I was running to my real family. I was running to my life’s work, and over time that life’s work has sustained me and it has come apparently to mean something to other people.”
Adams believes that “in the most fundamental sense,” art matters more than politics. He notes that if we look at what we cherish from other civilizations and cultures, “we remember the art, we remember the literature, we remember the poetry…”
“These are the things that embody the best of the human spirit, they embody creative thought, arts and sciences embody creativity and curiosity and questioning, and the so-called political leaders don’t lead anything, they follow. They don’t come up with ideas, art does, science does.”
SOUNDSCAPE OF ALASKA
What is it that lingers so strongly in Adams’ memories about Alaska? What continues to call to him now, more than four decades after he first arrived? The composer has several responses.
“Well, you know, it’s all about the sounds. It’s all about the music of the wind, the music of the birds and that deep resonant stillness that you can still find in the north. It’s getting harder and harder to find, but it’s still there,” he says. “And it’s also the space itself. My work over the years has gotten bigger and bigger. Space and place have always been obsessions for my music.”
Initially, he says, that space might have been poetic or metaphorical. But over the years, “the actual space that we inhabit has become a fundamental element of my music. And that comes from Alaska. It’s the soundscape of Alaska, those open spaces.”
And then there’s Alaska’s light.
“There’s nothing like our side light, our low angle saturated winter colors, or that glow in the north in midsummer, or don’t even start with the aurora borealis. That’s magic and it never fails to take my breath away,” he says.
“It’s the wind, it’s the birds, it’s the music of the sea and the rivers, it’s the soundscape, it’s the silence, the stillness, but it’s also the space itself, and it’s the light.”
It’s clear Adams isn’t done yet – not with Alaska, or his work.
“I’m having fun,” he says. “I’m not a kid anymore, but creatively I feel as though I’m still in my prime. So I’m going to run with that as long as I can.”
Adams believes we’re in a historical moment as a species in which “our own survival is threatened and we ourselves are our own worst enemies. We are in desperate need of new ideas.”
“As an artist I feel, especially now, at a certain age, I feel that I’m a worker for a culture, for a society, that I will never live to see, I will never inhabit. But hopefully someone will. That keeps me going.
“My work in some ways is a series of love letters to people I will never know.”
And he can’t imagine creating that work, without Alaska.
“Alaska informs everything that I do. My experience especially of the wild landscapes of Alaska continue to inform everything I do as an artist, everything I am. It gives me kind of a vision of how the world once was, how the world might be, how we might be in the world. Beneath all the noise and confusion and fear and darkness that surround us in the human world these days, really underneath all of that, how the world still really is. That’s something I’ve experienced most profoundly in Alaska,” he says.
“Alaska gave me my life’s work. It gave me my identity as an artist, as a man. It gave me this vision that sustains my life’s work, even as it’s no longer tied specifically to Alaska. I think about Alaska all day every day. I miss it. And I’m profoundly grateful for all that it’s given me.”
That relationship, between him and the land he first came to find as a young man, is what he’s exploring in his new book, Adams says.
“It’s the story of this kid from the suburbs coming north with all these questions, with all these delusions, and somehow finding his home and his people and the meaning of his own life. Alaska gave me all of that,” he says.
“And honestly, it’s not rhetorical when I say this, I can’t imagine what might have become of me had I not gone to Alaska. Had I not spent most of my life in that place.”