Book Reviews

Sonic Geographer

The composer whose music bears witness to a planet in peril

By Sudip Bose | October 5, 2020
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Symphony performs John Luther Adams's
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Symphony performs John Luther Adams's "Become Ocean" at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, 2015. Omar Bárcena (Flickr/omaromar)

Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska by John Luther Adams; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 208 pp., $28.85

Is there a composer of classical music who depicts the natural world, in all its splendor, beauty, terror, and peril, more vividly than John Luther Adams? The titles of his pieces—The Light That Fills the World, Canticles of the Holy Wind, songbirdsongs, The Wind in High Places, Become Ocean, Become Desert—tell us much about an artist seeking to create a “sonic geography” where the imagination and the environment intersect. Adams’s music is not outwardly complicated—his tonal language and rhythmic structures are immediately accessible to anyone coming to it for the first time. What he does require from his audiences, however, is a special kind of sustained attention, given that some of his works are made up of continuous lines that can last as long as an hour or more. Only by immersing yourself in these sprawling, hypnotic pieces do you become sensitive to the subtlest changes in texture and pulse, melody and sonority. Surrender to them with all of your senses, in an act akin to meditation, and it’s hard not to be carried along by their relentless sweep.

In 2014, Become Ocean received the Pulitzer Prize, bringing wider attention to a long-admired composer who, as he describes in this contemplative and elegant memoir, took a most unorthodox path to musical celebrity. Adams honed his craft outside the gates of academia, all the while shunning the politics of the music industry, working for decades, moreover, in the wilds of remotest Alaska. Born in Mississippi in 1953, he began his musical life as a rock drummer, discovering classical music only after his family moved to suburban New Jersey, and he began spending his teenage years in the record shops of Greenwich Village. A curious note on a Frank Zappa album led him to the work of the modernist composer Edgard Varèse. At first, he could make little sense of Varèse’s difficult music, which appeared to have no discernible melodies, harmonies, or rhythms. But Adams was hooked, and he was soon moving on to Igor Stravinsky and John Cage, training his ear to appreciate and understand the diverse idioms of 20th-century music.

Adams knew he wanted to write music, but he would forgo study of the Baroque, classical, and Romantic masterpieces, bypassing all the exercises in form and counterpoint that other composers work through. In some ways, the experience of writing without the burden of an inherited tradition must have been liberating, and so it was perhaps fitting that Adams found his way to the progressive, iconoclastic California Institute of the Arts, where he experienced the next in a series of musical revelations. “Before Cal Arts,” Adams writes, “I’d unconsciously subscribed to the notion that to be truly new and interesting music had to be complicated. Now here I was surrounded by music that was formally simple yet sonically rich and bracingly new.”

Graduating from Cal Arts, Adams got a job as a farmhand in Georgia, work that allowed him time to take daily walks in the surrounding fields and woods. He learned, in particular, to identify different species of birds by their songs, and he enthusiastically wrote down what he heard in a notebook. Olivier Messiaen was the composer best known for incorporating birdsong into music, yet Adams adamantly refused to listen to Messiaen or anyone else attempting something similar. “I wanted,” he writes, “to take dictation directly from the birds themselves.” And not just from the birds. During his first trip to Alaska, Adams went hiking on the Mendenhall Glacier when he heard

a faint tinkling—like glass wind chimes in a gentle breeze. Looking down, I realized it was meltwater, resonating from deep within a crevasse. Such a delicate sound for such an immensity of ice! In that moment of epiphany, I knew that something fundamental had changed. …

As I traveled through Alaska I imagined there was music that could only be heard there, music that belonged there like the plants and the birds, music that resonated with all that space and silence, cold and stone, wind and fire and ice. I longed to hear that music, to follow it wherever it might lead me.

Adams did not move to Alaska, however, with the aim of simply writing music. He went instead as a hopeful environmentalist. This was the 1970s, a time of marked nationwide progress on the environmental front, and Adams had been reading about “a new generation of activists committed to the preservation of complete ecosystems, and to creating a sustainable, post-petroleum society in Alaska.” Taking up residence in a cabin set amid a spruce bog (there was no running water, though he did have a greenhouse to grow vegetables), Adams got a full-time job at the Fairbanks Environmental Center, where he worked to protect a wilderness increasingly at risk from drilling, mining, and dam and highway construction. Fulfilling though it was, the job prevented him from writing much music. One afternoon in the spring of 1979, Adams sat amid the aspen and birch trees near his cabin when he heard the song of the hermit thrush, with its elongated phrases and bell-like tones:

Then I opened my notebook and began writing down the bird’s music as I heard it, with piccolos and violins in mind. The gentle swaying of the trees struck me as slower echoes of the thrush, and I sketched them for soft chimes. The long, sustained whistles of a varied thrush, I scored for crotales (antique cymbals) to be played with a contrabass bow. Deeper in the woods, a ruffed grouse began drumming. I scored this for a log drum. Before long I had Evensong, my first piece composed entirely in Alaska, and the final piece in the collection songbirdsongs.

He knew that he could not simultaneously inhabit the worlds of politics and art, so he gave up his life as an environmental activist to devote all his energy to music.

Part of what sustained him during his semi-Thoreauvian retreat were the close friendships that he formed, namely with two other artists who became role models: the conductor Gordon Wright (music director of the Fairbanks Symphony and Arctic Chamber Orchestra) and the poet John Haines, whose lyric “Listening to October” gives this memoir its title (“There are silences so deep / you can hear / the journeys of the soul, / enormous footsteps / downward in a freezing earth.” A collaboration with Haines led to an important work in Adams’s development: the cantata Forest Without Leaves, scored for chorus and chamber orchestra. Wright, meanwhile, provided not only inspiration but also technical guidance, helping the young composer work out problems related to orchestration and form. He also hired Adams to play the timpani in both of his ensembles. Thus did Adams finally immerse himself in the core symphonic repertory that he had previously avoided, an experience that benefited him immensely as a composer.

The longer Adams lived in a state of relative solitude, the more his music evoked the Alaskan wilderness. Camping alone one day at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers, Adams heard the “glassy tones of candle ice swirling in whirlpools, the intricate arpeggios of melt water dripping, and the ominous rumbling and grinding of icebergs,” which “resonated deep in my dreams.” You can hear all of these phenomena in Adams’s In the White Silence, a remarkable work—for me, the most beautiful score the composer has written, a piece at once ecstatic and foreboding, elegiac and hopeful, one in which time and space seem to expand as we float as if through a dream, surrendering to the bewitching motives and timbres. I can sense the cold in this music. I swear I can hear the light.

In a way, Adams’s music teaches us how to listen to it, teaches us to focus principally on sonority, on how sound changes in both subtle and dramatic ways, activating different emotions within us. Some of his pieces, especially the later works, composed not in Alaska but in the Sonoran Desert—Canticles of the Holy Wind and the landmark trilogy Become River, Become Ocean, and Become Desert—may seem like formless streams of sound, yet the notes are actually shaped by sophisticated structures. Become Ocean, for example, is constructed out of a system influenced by fractals, chaos theory, and waveforms—a sonic geometry to go with the composer’s sonic geography. And though Adams may proudly proclaim his “independence from the orthodoxies of European classical music,” he is as much of a formalist, in his own distinct way, as were the classical composers writing in sonata form, or the composers of the Second Viennese School who adhered to the 12-tone method, or the contemporary composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich, whose minimalism is underpinned by a precise mathematics. “The most successful designs,” Adams writes, “are usually the simplest. And the best construction is usually the most transparent. No matter how much good work may lie beneath the surface, technique should disappear, leaving only the beauty of the material visible or audible.”

I do wish that Silences So Deep had been as carefully planned. Because the narrative does not quite follow a linear progression, consisting instead of a series of impressions and set pieces, there is a fair bit of repetition (all the more noticeable in a work so slim), enough to suggest that certain sections were tacked on to fill the narrative out to book length. Nevertheless, Adams is a sensitive, poetic writer, and his memoir contains many vividly rendered passages. Consider the following lines, which describe the wildfires spreading throughout the Alaskan interior in the summer of 2004:

Amid the flames and smoky light, the birds were still singing—the music of hermit thrushes surrounding us like the echoes of small bells, mingling with the murmurs of a stream rising from the darkness below. And another sound—first breathing, then sighing, then clattering like stones rolling down a talus slope—as a geyser of flames erupted from the crown of an ancient spruce. We walked to the top of a steep draw and found ourselves standing on the edge of an inferno. A searing wind roared up the slope, showering sparks into the sky above us. It felt like standing next to a waterfall, on the bank of a dangerous river. With one more step we could be swept away, consumed by the rising torrent of fire. We were frightened. But we didn’t move. The heat was intense yet somehow comforting, the sound ominous and mesmerizing. The fire continued to flow downslope, devouring the forest, moving inexorably toward the stream.

Every year, Adams writes, the wildfires increased in intensity and duration. It was one reason why he left the state he had called home for some four decades. With steady warming, a melting tundra, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge increasingly vulnerable to drilling, “Alaska was becoming too much like the country I had tried to escape.”

Adams may document our changing climate more viscerally than any other composer, but his music is less a grand lamentation for what was, and more an attempt at preservation, to document in sound a threatened, beloved landscape. In Silences So Deep, he tells us in no uncertain terms that he has no desire to be considered a political artist, and yet, as much as any composer working today, he writes music that transcends aesthetics, bearing witness to the fragility of our imperiled moment.

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