No More Outsiders

[Ed. Note: Upon learning that John Luther Adams was named the recipient of the 2010 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, we were thrilled at the opportunity to ask him once again to write for these pages.—FJO]

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John Luther Adams
Photo by Don Lee, Banff Centre

When I first opened the e-mail telling me I’d been chosen to receive the Nemmers Prize, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. It just didn’t seem real. So I closed my laptop, walked out of the room, and asked my wife Cindy if she would read it. While she did, I stood as far away as I could, resolute in my disbelief.

In the days that followed, I struggled to absorb the impact of this lightning bolt. I’d never imagined I would be nominated, let alone selected for such an award. Of course I was thrilled. But I also felt a nagging sense of unworthiness.

While I could accept the recognition of the music, I recognize all too well the human failings of the composer, and I felt uneasy about this honor. But sometimes we need to separate the art and the artist.

In teaching I’ve occasionally found myself gently reminding a younger composer: “Remember, it’s not about you… It’s about music.”

Clearly, it was time to walk my own talk!

We Alaskans often refer to the rest of the world with a single loaded word: “Outside”. The world of music can be equally provincial.

For most of my creative life, I’ve worked in relative isolation. And I’ve always thought of myself as a musical outsider.

The Nemmers Prize is a heartening sign that my music seems to resonate “out there” in the larger world. At the same time, I’ve found myself wondering: Does this mean that I’m no longer an outsider?

Maybe so. But Conlon Nancarrow, Ornette Coleman, and Meredith Monk all received MacArthur grants. In recent years David Lang and Steve Reich have received the Pulitzer Prize. And just last month Pauline Oliveros received the William Schuman Award. All these composers were once considered outsiders.

My own musical mentors and role models Lou Harrison and James Tenney were quintessential outsiders. Neither Lou nor Jim gave much thought to making the “right” career moves. They always put music and life first. Despite years of rejection and neglect from the so-called “mainstream”, they tirelessly pursued their artistic visions, creating unique and richly varied musical worlds. In time, the rest of the world has caught up with them, and they’re now recognized as major figures in American music.

The irrepressible spirit of Lou and Jim endures in the music and the lives of Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Lois Vierk, Larry Polanksky, Chas Smith, Eve Beglarian, Paul Dresher, Jim Fox, and many other composers of my generation. And it continues to reverberate in the likes of Jim Altieri, Corey Dargel, Alexandra Gardner, Greg Davis, Todd Tarantino, and so many others of the next generation.

Music is one of the most powerful expressions of the human spirit. No matter where it comes from, no matter what it sounds like, when we make music and listen with open ears, we’re all insiders. Amid the vitality and diversity of music today, maybe there are no more outsiders.

But how do we make qualitative judgments about music? As an occasional panelist myself, I’ve given some thought to the way grants and awards are adjudicated.

The Nemmers Prize is made anonymously. I still don’t know who nominated me, who made the decision, or how. The formal citation from the Nemmers jury makes no mention of Alaska or the natural world. It doesn’t include the words “experimentalism,” “minimalism,” “environmentalism,” or any other terms that are often used in reference to my music.

This makes me smile. And it suggests a process of evaluation that considers music on its own terms, setting aside style, politics, academic credentials, and any considerations other than the music itself.

The Nemmers Prize doesn’t address a specific piece of music, but rather a larger body of work. This is a welcome confirmation of the work I’ve been doing for some forty years now. The recognition that comes with the Nemmers is extraordinary. Equally welcome is the financial support it affords the recipient time to explore new ideas and compose new music.

I’m a working composer. Ever since I quit my day job in 1989, I’ve relied on commissions, royalties, fellowships, grants and other unpredictable sources for most of my livelihood. This award will give me two or three years to pursue projects that might seem impractical or too risky for potential commissioners.

Already I’ve begun revisiting my sketches for a long orchestral work that no one is likely to commission. I’m looking forward to writing a new book, a kind of atlas of music and places in my life. After a hiatus of more than thirty years, I’m thinking about returning to my work with bird songs. And there will likely be other new projects that I haven’t yet imagined.

As we get older, we’re called on to pass along some measure of the gifts we received from our own teachers and mentors. One of the special things about the Nemmers award is that it encourages the recipient to give back, by engaging with students at the Biennen School of Music at Northwestern University.

Few things make me happier than working with young musicians, so I’m especially looking forward to my residencies at Northwestern. And since I don’t have a long-term relationship with a university, college, or conservatory, these residencies will provide institutional resources that aren’t always available for performances and recordings of my music.

In the days since the public announcement of the Nemmers, I’ve received a wonderful outpouring of phone calls, e-mails, and messages from all over the world. It’s open-minded listeners, my fellow composers, dedicated performing musicians, record producers, critics, editors, scholars, family, and friends who bring my work to life. You’ve kept the composer going and the music growing for all these years. Your love, faith and support mean more to me than I can find words to express.

The unexpected honor of the Nemmers Prize still has me feeling a little vertiginous, more than a little humbled, very grateful, and curious about where the music may lead me next.