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Outside influences

There is a lake on the campus of the University of Richmond, Virginia, and in the middle of this lake there is a small wooded island.

PHOTOGRAPH: Donald Lee
PHOTOGRAPH: Donald Lee

This is where the composer John Luther Adams chooses to do our interview. It's a hot Sunday afternoon in spring and Richmond is in full bloom, trees laden with cherry blossoms and inch worms. At first glance the setting couldn't be much further from the Alaskan wilderness where Adams lives and which inspires much of his work.

But there's a chance soundtrack that fits perfectly. From one side of the lake, the noises of a college baseball game drift across the water, Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline on loop over the loudspeakers. From the other side come the clanging of bass drums, sirens, hooting conch shells and an army of triangles. It's a rehearsal for Adams's Inuksuit – a piece named after Inuit standing stones and written to be performed outside by 99 percussionists. Adams is thrilled by the sonic clash. He is one of the true American maverick composers of today, an artist acutely attuned to the interplay between music and the natural environment. He is also an avid supporter of his local baseball team in Fairbanks, Alaska. "Welcome to my world!" he chuckles.

The music of John Luther Adams (he uses his full name to differentiate between fellow American composer John Adams) is the music of big landscapes. He has lived in Alaska since the 1970s and thrives on the wide-open spaces, ice flows, wild beasts and epic silences of the north. The idea of caging such sounds in a concert hall often feels claustrophobic, he says, so he writes music that's not only inspired by the outdoors, but designed to be performed and heard in the open-air. There's a reverence to his art that comes from a profound respect for the land that inspires it; he and his wife Cindy are life-long environmental activists, having met campaigning for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in the 1970s. And although Adams is suspicious of the term 'political art' – "it tends to mean bad art, bad politics" – his music embodies his ideals to its core.

This year the East Neuk Festival in Fife stages Inuksuit as well as one of Adams's earliest nature-inspired works, songbirdsongs. They were composed decades apart (1974/80 and 2009) but their common aesthetic and ideological stamp shows the strength of purpose Adams had from the start. "Songbirdsongs was my point of departure," he says, "and it's been wonderful to discover in recent years how that work led me full circle to Inuksuit. It's to do with their sense of time, which flows more like it does here-and-now in the natural world rather than the usual measured time of written music. These works are both what I like to describe as 'off the grid'."

Off the grid: it's a phrase that Adams uses repeatedly and which could be applied to much of his life. When he moved to Alaska from San Francisco he was running away, he says, "from the suburbs and from my family, but also from the commercialisation of the American landscape and from competitive careerism in the musical world. I could have gone to New York and tried to make it as a composer. Instead I chose to go to Alaska and save the world. The Lands Conservation Act protected massive swathes of tundra from development. I wanted to be a part of that, so I went north with my ideals and aspirations."

He lived out a Henry Thoreau fantasy in a cabin in the woods with no running water, worked as a full-time environmental campaigner, raised a family, played timpani in the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and composed music in whatever time he had left over. Did he worry about isolating himself from 'serious' music communities to the south?

"Yes and no. If I've ever seen myself in a tradition it's that of the so-called American mavericks: composers like Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Pauline Oliveros. Studying with James Tenney [at the California Institute of the Arts] helped me to understand that these heroes aren't just iconoclasts. They – we – belong to a uniquely American stream that goes all the way back to Charles Ives. It's a tradition of rugged individualists. Each composer creates his own musical world, but what we share is a common sense of possibility and roll-up-your-sleeves DIY.

"So I left behind the trappings of the lower 48 [states] and European musical history and started over. In a place like Alaska it was possible for an idealistic young artist to imagine that he might work outside of culture. Of course, in retrospect that's a blatantly absurd proposition, but what a wonderfully exciting and ultimately rich proposition it turned out to be – that I could go back to the tundra and the mountains as the source of inspiration for my music."

Since then Adams has explored a multitude of ways to channel that inspiration. Sometimes he uses the landscape quite literally: his 2009 installation piece The Place Where You Go To Listen translated Alaska's seismic and atmospheric activity into shifting patterns of sound and light. More often the landscape sounds less overt. Adams doesn't aim to replicate images of the places that have inspired him – he's not a romantic tone poet. Over the years his music has become less pictorial, less mimetic, and increasingly a world in and of itself. "It might be inspired by a landscape that is dear to me, but hopefully it captures an essence that is much more universal," he says.

Which means that a piece like Inuksuit can work anywhere. During the performance in Richmond I'm not so much transported to the Alaskan tundra as struck by the lush reverberance of the Virginian woodlands. When East Neuk stages the work next weekend in a Victorian walled garden at Cambo House on the east coast of Fife, "it will be about the air and the weather and the light and the plants and the birds and the people in that particular place," says Adams. He makes a careful distinction between music that is site-specific and site-determined (his fits the latter). "Inuksuit is many things, but it's not a tone-poem about Alaska. It's about hearing wherever we are now."

In general, Adams is wary about a tendency to pigeonhole his work as flaky earth music: it puts off a lot of listeners, especially British ones, and is perhaps why we've been slow to catch up with his music on this side of the pond (East Neuk's performance of Inuksuit will be the first in the UK). Although he has lived in the Alaskan forests for decades, Adams is no recluse and is increasingly involved in wider American academic and musical communities. He just finished teaching a semester at Harvard and the night before our interview gives a full evening lecture to the music students at Richmond. On stage he is slick and handsome and an excellent communicator, a combination of intellectually rigorous and openly heartfelt.

Which is what a lot of his music is like, too. His scores might conjure the essence of the wilderness, but they have a fearsomely mathematical underpinning. "Mathematics is another way of understanding the world," he says, "and mathematics is beautiful."

I admit to him that I've never been able to appreciate the beauty in maths: to me it's just numbers and logic. "Maybe what we're talking about is classical versus romantic. Apollonian versus Dionysian, intuitive versus rational. I've never felt like I have to choose – I want it all. I want music that is intellectually air-tight and at the same time sensually ravishing and overwhelming."

There's another point to the maths – one that goes right to the core of how Adams's music expresses his ideals as an environmentalist. Small elements within larger systems: surely it's a neat symbol for mankind's relationship with ecology?

"Absolutely. It's about interconnectedness between everything. When I moved to Alaska I thought I was running away from it all, but of course I discovered that I was running to something. I didn't know where home was but I found it there. I was running to a life's work that I might not have discovered anywhere else. It's impossible to overstate the profundity of the influence of that place on my life and work.

"I could run, but I couldn't hide. The ultimate expression of that truth has been climate change. I was involved in the Alaska Land Act, and my bit-part in that grand drama remains one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.

"We were doing nothing less than trying to preserve entire ecosystems. We thought we could protect them from outside influences for all time, but now these places are the first to be affected by climate change. As it turns out I ran into the fire."

Now he and Cindy are leaving Alaska, heading south to build a new home in the remote Baja strip of north-west Mexico. "I just turned 60 and I'm up for one more grand adventure," he says. "One more starting over. I love feeling like a beginner. This time we'll be beginners in the desert."

The move is also a conscious effort to distance himself from Alaska. "Years ago I stopped working with birdsong because I didn't want to become 'the bird guy'.

"Maybe part of leaving Alaska is that I don't want to just be 'the Alaska guy'.

"My music has been strongly tied to that place for a long time. Now it feels as though it wants to become part of a larger territory, and somehow to speak to that inescapable reality of the interconnectedness of everything."

The baseball game has long finished and the rehearsal is winding down. All that's left of our motley soundtrack is the birds in the trees and college kids chattering around the lakeshore. Adams takes off his shoes and socks and paddles his feet in the water.

Inuksuit (played by 30 percussionists led by Steven Schick) and songbirdsongs (performed by Red Note Ensemble) are at the East Neuk Festival on July 6. For details about this and other performances at the festival, see www.eastneukfestival.com

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