Always Rising: Art and Activism with John Luther Adams

by Nathan Poole and John Luther Adams Issue: Fall 2017 Special Issue on Extinction

"If we stop and pay attention, we can feel the wound. In the wound lies the hope."
                        Paul Kingsnorth, The Axis and The Sycamore, Orion Magazine.


A recipient of the Heinz Award for his contributions to raising environmental awareness and a Pulitzer for his symphony about the Anthropocene, John Luther Adams is a composer whose life and work are deeply rooted in the natural world, and in defense of that world. John has also been honored with a 2015 Grammy for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition” as well as the Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University “for melding the physical and musical worlds into a unique artistic vision that transcends stylistic boundaries.”

Earlier this year, I fell hard for a set of John’s string compositions titled “The Wind in High Places,” a body of work that revisits mountain tops and passes through a collection of notes called the “harmonic series.” The music sounded entirely new to me, yet there was nothing manic, disjointed, or even monotonous about it—three qualms I often have about many contemporary compositions. I’m not a professional musician, so forgive me as I try to go here, but what I mean is that there was something deeply coherent about John’s music that surprised me, and that, even more surprising, the source of unity wasn’t necessarily melodic—not a repeated motif or phrase holding the composition together, as one might expect with popular and classical music through the romantic era. This was something else, some connection the music made to the landscape around me. It was unlike anything I’d heard before.

It wasn’t until I listened to John’s symphony, “Become Ocean,” that I encountered the larger purpose that holds his music together. “Become Ocean” has been described as elemental, tectonic, and unstoppable: three orchestras playing with one another, and at other times into one another, crashing down over the audience in long crescendos, deep waves. You can imagine why it might make one feel small listening to this music for the first time. But just as important, the symphony reminds us that the planet is in an uncanny state, a groaning and timorous time. It wounds our human pride, this music, and yet, as Paul Kingsnorth writes, in the wound lies the beauty, the hope. That’s what I’ve discovered and loved about the music of John Luther Adams. What follows is our conversation about how he got there.


Nathan Poole: Your music often reminds listeners of natural phenomena, and you once said that you think of compositions as “profoundly physical things.” I’m thinking of a story the violist Nadia Sirota told in which she mistook one of your percussion compositions for an actual earthquake. It seems to me that this rendering of the natural world is pretty radical. It goes beyond the impressionism of Debussy or Stravinsky, something closer to dictation. Do you think this is a fair interpretation of your music, that it attempts to go beyond representation, that it seeks to actually enter these physical spaces?

John Luther Adams: Yes, and I often say that music is not something I do, it’s how I understand the world. I’m not interested in painting pictures or telling stories or even expressing myself in music or through music. Music for me is a way to engage more deeply with this miraculous world that is the only home we will ever know. Over the years I’ve found music in the songs of birds, in the sweeping expanses of tundra, mountains and deserts and sea, in rock formations, in inuksuit—those stone sculptures that the Inuit have built for countless centuries in the Arctic. I’ve found music in rain fall, in meltwater dripping, in the sighing and tinkling of embers in a fire, glaciers falling and exploding into the sea, in wildfires, in waterfalls and tsunamis, in the resonant stillness of 40 below zero, and in the roar and hum of traffic on a city street. I find it all around me all the time, and I always have.

I went to Alaska as a young man with a lot of high ideas, but one of my ideas was that in Alaska, far removed from cosmopolitan culture, I just might be able to work on the fringe of culture, or even outside of culture. Which is of course an absurd, a ridiculous proposition. But that ridiculous proposition has served me well for almost 50 years now.

NP: Yeah, wow.

JLA: Well, I learned by listening. By listening to the music of other composers, whose music touches me deeply and in powerful ways. And I learned by listening to the birds. It's a story that I tell often—that really, for me, it began with birds. It began with the song of the wood thrush.

NP: I feel bad moving us from bird calls to punk music, but I have to ask, you started out playing music in a rock band called “Sloth.” Let’s just get that out there. And it seems that your early rebellious days never quite left you.

JLA: Yeah, I started out playing in a number of garage bands that got progressively better over the years. And my last band was a trio, get it? Sloth?

NP: (Doesn’t get it until later. Laughs anyway.) Got it... Okay.

JLA: That was the end of rock and roll for me. We no longer played dances. We gave concerts. And we were listening to everything we could get our ears on, and rapidly losing interest in the conventions or restrictions of most rock music. We were listening to Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane, Frank Zappa. Through Zappa we discovered [Edgard] Varèse. Varèse lead to [John] Cage, and so on. Pretty soon I found my real music family, my people. After that, you know, the backbeat and the three chords and four-bar phrases no longer held my interest. But you’re right. I still think in some ways like a punk. I’m sixty-four years old now, but I still have a chip on my shoulder. That’s not always becoming of a guy in his sixties, but there’s something about that attitude of rebellion, or now I guess a better word is resistance, that’s never left me.

I think there’s also something in the music itself, not just in my bad attitude, not just in the chip on my shoulder. But in the music itself there’s something that I still crave—something that I got from rock, and still do from the very best of any kind of music—and that is the sheer exhilaration and power of sounds. I hope my music has a sensuous and visceral power, and that probably goes back to my days as a rocker.

NP: I can hear it. I wonder if you would tell us a little bit about this new piece of music you’ll be premiering this year, Everything That Rises. It has a literary title, reminiscent of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the “Omega Point,” and it also reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s second story collection. Has literature inspired this new music? What’s up with this title?

JLA: No. This is certainly stuff I’ve read in my past and is somewhere in my memory, and I’m sure I stole the title from O’Connor, but it has nothing to do with that story. This title is quite literally a description of what the music does in this piece. A lot of my music rises, relentlessly. And that’s certainly true of this new string quartet. It traverses the same harmonic territory as a larger piece called “Sila: The Breath of the World.” It’s an orchestral piece, really five different pieces for five different ensembles that can be performed concurrently or successively. "Sila" is a piece that I wrote several years ago that spirals upward over the course of an hour through a series of 16 rising harmonic clouds. In “Everything That Rises” I’m traversing a similar territory but more melodically. I’ve always been an avid reader and have taken inspiration and courage from poetry and literature, and I read a lot of non-fiction. Most recently I’ve been reading the cartographer Denis Wood, a book called Five Billion Years of Global Change and, as the title suggests, it’s a deep history of the earth that attempts to locate us as human animals within that vast history. And also a better-known book by Denis Wood called Rethinking the Power of Maps, which traces the history of maps as tools of the nation state, as tools that nations use to control the earth and other people. I’m also halfway through James Perrin Warren’s new book about John Haines, the poet, essayist, and memoirist who was one of my closest friends. And this is the first book-length study of John’s life’s work.

Link to Sila

Link to John Haines book

I’ve also recently been revisiting a couple of books I read back in the, geez, back in the '80s. Because I spend a lot of time in Mexico and in Latin America, I’m re-reading Eduardo Galeano’s poetic Memory of Fire trilogy. They’re really extraordinary. And not too long ago I re-read a very radical book that still seems as fresh and pertinent as ever – Thinking Animals by Paul Shepard. So you know, that’s the nature of my reading. I don’t read any fiction. I read this kind of stuff.

NP: Yeah, and how does that relate to your writing. I know you mentioned in the New Yorker you were working on a memoir. How does this love of well-crafted language relate to your process with music composition? Is there a connection there, or are those two separate worlds?

JLA: In a parallel life I might have been a writer, and I figure that’s my fallback plan if I lose my hearing or something. I’ll dig in and do some more serious writing. But I consider myself a composer who sometimes writes, and like Barnett Newman, the great abstract painter once said, I write so that I’ll have something to read. There are times when an artist is working deeply on something that maybe isn’t articulate, and we write in order to understand in a different way what the work is asking us. My primary job is to pay attention to what the music wants to be and to try to stay out of its way. But there are times when words help me understand what I’m trying to do.

NP: Ah. That’s so interesting. I understand.

JLA: I steal titles from literature. I get big ideas from reading. I get an occasional text setting, especially from poetry. But I’ve had writer friends my whole life, most notably Barry Lopez and John Haines. They’re among my longest and deepest friendships. And there’s this wonderful sense in those friendships that we’re doing the same work in different disciplines. And in a way, it’s sometimes easier for me, contrarian that I am to understand the work that I’m doing through a fellow artist in another discipline than it is from a fellow composer.

NP: So there’s a kind of dialogue between disciplines that is inspiring to you. I love that.

JLA: It’s a wonderful thing. Barry Lopez and I have this shorthand. He’ll say to me, every now and then, or vice versa, “Just knowing that you’re over there in your studio working keeps me working in mine, here.” That we’re engaged in the same big work, we’re just doing it a little differently.

NP: You know, before encountering your music, to be honest, I held the notion that literature was the premier art form of place, of nature, of landscape. I had superior feelings I think about what literature could do when it comes to rendering the landscape, and then after encountering your music, I felt thrown off my high horse suddenly, you know? I was thinking, well, I can’t claim this anymore. I hadn’t encountered music that engaged place in such a direct way.

JLA. Thank you. That means a lot to me. And it is of course what I aspire to, so it’s good to know it delivers the goods. But you know, despite the old saw that all of the arts aspire to the condition of music, we should give credit where credit is due. It’s from writers—from Gary Snyder, from Barry Lopez, John Haines, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and other writers—that I’ve found encouragement and resonance. But I’m fortunate that I have music.

I often say that I’m no longer interested in evoking place. I want to create place. My pieces now have become places. The physical, volumetric, geometric and geographic space has become a fundamental compositional element for me. And I think what I have been doing all my life is composing home. I’ve been all over the United States, all over the world I found my true home in Alaska. But there comes a time when we have to leave home. And the work itself has now become a kind of home for me.

NP: It’s a pretty wild home, your work. There’s some wilderness in those sounds.

JLA: Well, I’m an Alaskan, and I guess always will be. And so it comes from experiences I’ve had in wild country. And now I’m finding similar experiences in the Sonoran desert of Mexico, or in South America. I have an almost promiscuous relationship with wild landscapes. I’m a very faithful husband and partner, but I’m quite promiscuous when it comes to landscapes.

NP: Ha. So the phrase “stepping out” is quite literal for you.

JLA: Indeed.

NP: You mention the Sonoran desert. I’ve heard that your Pulitzer-winning symphony on climate change, “Become Ocean” was written in that desert. Is that true? It seems like quite the paradox.

JLA: It’s not as much of a paradox as you might think. It is true. It was composed entirely in that desert, in the Baja, where we lived on the Pacific Coast. One of those rare places on earth where we have desert by the sea. “Become Ocean” is part of a trilogy, which began as “Become River” and I’m now just completing with…wait for it… “Become Desert.”

NP: Well, hopefully, this won’t be a spoiler. But while we’re on the topic of “Become Ocean”, that symphony seems to be a trip forward for the listener, a chance to experience the possible aftermath of this new age we’re in, the Anthropocene – a world without us in it, after our extinction. Radiolab even went so far as to call this piece a “soundtrack for the end of the world.” But the music is so beautiful, it’s hard to think of this piece as “bleak” or “apocalyptic.” Perhaps a world without us in it doesn’t seem so bleak or forbidding to you? Or perhaps this isn’t the end for you?

JLA: The world is full of forces, elements and events that are at once terrifying and beautiful. In the old days they used to call that “the sublime” – when we find ourselves on that razor’s edge between beauty and terror. I’ve been there a few times in my life, and I’m grateful for it, and whether we’re in the presence of major wildfires, calving glaciers, or earthquakes, the world is full of these forces that put us in our place, that terrify us, and that exhilarate us. For me, the apocalypse is beautiful. Painfully beautiful. And our presence in the face of those forces, what we call nature, is all the more beautiful when we realize that nature couldn't care less. But this whole idea of the apocalypse is really another narcissistic human notion. We don’t care about the end of the world. All we’re talking about is the end of us. We think if we’re gone then the world is over. But you know what, it’s not. And it’s entirely possible—well, inevitable—that we’re going history at some point, and it’s looking like we’re rushing to that point as rapidly as we can. But no, that is not the end of the world.

NP: I wonder if you would speak to this music and whether you see it or strive to make it groundbreaking in this particular way—that it embraces a world that does not hold us as sacred. It seems to me that your music is the music of the Anthropocene. It is music that allows us to enter wild spaces, to enter nature, without it being what we might call in the literary world a pathetic fallacy—that we don’t need to personify nature to make it beautiful or terrifying or anything. Do you strive for this kind of quality as an artist, or do you see yourself in a tradition with this music?

JLA: That’s a great question. You know, I have a talk called “Music in the Anthropocene” where I try to grapple with this, and ultimately we need to leave it to the geologists to determine what this epoch is. But there can be no doubt that we have become, as a species, a force of nature, and that our own survival is threated by our uncontrolled actions, or arrogance and unbalanced relationship with a world that is our only home. So I hope my music is an invitation to listen to the larger, deeper, older forces of the world. And to be more fully present. And maybe a bit humbled in the presence of those forces. Is that groundbreaking? I don’t know. What I’m really concerned about is whether it’s useful. And whether I’m being true to it, because this is the only thing that is my salvation, that redeems my failings as a human being, the failings of my life. This is my best gift to a troubled world.

When I was young I was an activist. I was marching in the streets at 16. In my twenties and thirties, I was a full-time activist. And there came a moment where I had to make a decision, to stay in politics or to rededicate myself to my art. I choose art. And implicit in that choice—it was kind of a leap of faith—was the idea that, in its own way, art can mean every bit as much as politics. And I’ve been trying to make good on that leap of faith ever since. Like all of us; I’m more concerned than ever about the state of politics, not only in the States, but in the world at large. And more concerned than ever about the future of our species. But when I search my soul, I come back to that leap of faith, and I believe now that art and music matter more than politics, and that my best contribution to my home and all other forms of life with which we share this planet is to compose music that just may give some solace or strength or insight or inspiration to someone, probably someone much younger than I am, who may actually change the world.

You had asked about Thoreau, and like me, he was an introvert, a misfit, a deeply flawed man. But he also just happened to change the world. Each in our own way, we do the best we can, make our best contributions. You know, it’s a little self-aggrandizing, but I can dream, that maybe my music, coming from the flawed vessel I am, just might inspire a new Gandhi or a new Martin Luther King…someone who will take something from it and really change the world.


Nathan Poole and John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams, born in 1953, grew up in the South and in the suburbs of New York City. He studied composition with James Tenney at the California Institute of the Arts, where he was in the first graduating class (in 1973). In the mid-1970s he became active in the campaign for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and subsequently served 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. The music of John Luther Adams is recorded on Cantaloupe, Cold Blue, New World, Mode, and New Albion, and his books are published by Wesleyan University Press.

Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction, Father Brother Keeper, a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize and long-listed for the international Frank O’Connor Award, and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, a novella selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. His stories have appeared in various national journals, including Ecotone, The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Image, The Chattahoochee Review, and The SaturdayEvening Post. He has been awarded the Narrative Prize, a Milton Fellowship Seattle Pacific University, a Joan Beebe Teaching Fellowship at Warren Wilson College, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Sewanee Writers Conference. He holds degrees from the Warren Wilson MFA program for Writers and the University of South Carolina and is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Alabama.