Fairbanks: A Long Ride in A Slow Machine

Kyle Gann
Kyle Gann
Photo by Nicole Reisnour

The immense new wing of the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North is intended, I’m told, to resemble icebergs. It’s certainly towering and extremely white, but for me its out-of-kilter crescent shapes evoke Native American art of the Northwest’s indigenous tribes. Perhaps that’s a chicken-and-egg argument, but it’s a fine building. (“The only piece of architecture-as-art in Alaska,” UA Museum Director Aldona Jonaitis proudly assured me.) And if architect Joan Soranno was aiming, as rumored, at something Frank Gehry-esque, what she achieved was warmer, more inviting, and more snugly fit to its environment than the Gehry buildings I’m acquainted with. This concludes my undistinguished career as an architecture critic; what drew me to Fairbanks, of course, courtesy of the museum, was their new permanent sound installation, The Place Where You Go To Listen by John Luther Adams, which has generated a remarkable amount of national buzz for any work of that genre, let alone one so distantly regional.

The Place Where You Go To Listen is a translation for Naalagiagvik, an Iñupiaq place name on the arctic coast. Jonaitis talked to Adams, Alaska’s most visible composer, about creating a permanent installation for the museum before ground for the addition was even broken. At about twenty feet by nine or so, the space allocated turned out to be smaller than anticipated, but it serves as a meditation room directly upstairs from the main entrance. You walk in, separate yourself from the world directly outside, sit on the bench, and slip into the red-and-violet, or blue-and-yellow, moods of the five glass panels in front of you. A continual hum greets you, and after a moment you begin to sort out the strands of the complex tapestry that the hum turns out to be. There are sustained chords, an intermittent rattle of deep bells overhead, and an irregular boom of extremely low frequencies that you have to focus on to remain aware of. It’s a complex net of heterogeneous sounds, and though the ambiance is relaxing, taking everything in is a challenge for the ears.

What makes The Place—as Adams likes to refer to it—different from other sound installations is that you can’t just drop by for half an hour and take it all in. La Monte Young’s Dream House is a similarly complex acoustic experience, but it doesn’t change from one day or hour to the next. And most installation artists sort of plan around the presumed length of the average gallery visit. The Place changes radically from night to day, from winter to summer, from season to season.

First of all, those sustained chords: one is called the “Day Choir,” the other the “Night Choir,” and the former follows the sun around. Literally: there are fourteen speakers around and above the room, and from the listener’s perspective the day chord is centered on the direction the sun is at at that moment. Relative strengths of the day and night chords vary with the sun’s location above or below the horizon. In Fairbanks, which is less than 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, this means a strong seasonal difference as well, the night chord being far more prominent in winter. Add to this that the Day Choir is based on an overtone series, the Night Choir on an undertone series, and you get an association of light and dark with major and minor, and an eerie blending of the two during Alaska’s leisurely twilights. Nature is not always soothing; neither is The Place.

The Place
Seen but not heard:
The Place Where You Go To Listen at midnight
Photo by Kyle Gann

Another tone, less easy to isolate, follows the phases of the moon through a month-long glissando. The booming low frequencies indicate seismic activity. The computer that controls all this is receiving real-time data from seismological stations around Alaska, which is an unusually earthquake-prone region. There’s something going on almost all the time, and people were speculating that an actual earthquake would create quite a noise indeed.

But the really romantic association, and not only for us lower-48ers, is that between the bell sounds and the aurora borealis. The bells emerge from the speakers in the ceiling, and they’re driven by streamed data from five Alaska geomagnetic monitoring stations, arranged north to south and mirrored that way in The Place. When you see the aurora borealis playing in the sky, as I did on my first night, you know plenty of bells are going to sound in the installation; likewise, if you hear lots of bell activity late in the afternoon, you know that the aurora is revving up for a colorful night. If you walk in and there are no bells, you can be as momentarily disappointed as you might be on an aurora-less night but then pay attention to the subtler harmonies you might otherwise miss. And if it’s cloudy, you can hear the aurora even when you can’t see it. Passing clouds affect the overall sound as well, muting the brightness you’d hear on a sunny day.

So you sit in this room, on the bench, or lie on the floor as some did, and through a kind of conceptual prosthesis you become aware of the earth’s activities, including some things you could see for yourself outside, but many others that you couldn’t see and at a detail not available to human senses. As with many sound installations, there is a left/right-brain split involved, but perhaps one unprecedentedly mammoth in its impact. That split was quite apparent in the reactions of the listeners at the March 21 opening (timed to coincide with the equinox). Some wanted to learn about the scientific workings of the piece in exhaustive detail, and to isolate each sound and know what was caused by what. Others fiercely resisted explanation and simply wanted to soak up the sensuous ambiance.

Of course, neither pure state is really sustainable, a contradiction that is part of The Place‘s charm. Reduce it to the meaning of the seismological and geomagnetic data, and you miss all the months of fine-tuning that Adams and his programming assistant Jim Altieri put into making exactly this complex of scales and harmonies, all tuned to a G that matches the rotation period of the earth. Merely listen as a meditative experience, and you miss the super-large scale of the piece and the logic of its nested periodicities. The poetry exists in-between: savoring the slow-changing forms with their rich detail of surface activity, being conscious of their relation to global processes, and learning to appreciate the time-scale, the lumbering sense of syncopation, of the planet on whose surface you scratch out your humble existence.

Of course, as the eternal explainer of such music I never have ignorance as an option, so Adams opened the hood and let me peer inside. The entire piece is a humongous, multilayered Max patch, augmented by software programs that, for example, chart the relative position of the sun and moon. The starting point for all of the sounds is pink noise, meticulously filtered into minute pitch bands capable of being combined into timbres. Not wanting to fall into what one might call the usual Max sounds, Adams worked out his tones on alternate software, and then assigned Altieri—a former student of his at Oberlin, a double-major in composition and geology, and a programming superwiz—the task of replicating them in Max. Unconventional tuning is a large part of the piece, and the different layers demanded heterogeneous solutions. The Day and Night Choirs fused into mere timbre when tuned to an actual harmonic series (one of the difficulties of writing polyphony in just intonation), and so a tempered tuning was sought, the most flattering of which turned out to be the good old 12-pitch equal scale. The aurora bells, though, are tuned to prime-numbered harmonics from 2 to 31.

By zipping through some time-lapse data in the Max patch, John could zip me between summer and winter, night and day, fine and inclement weather, and show me The Place‘s range. (An internet demonstration by Roger Topp available in the lobby, soon to be marketed on DVD at the museum’s gift store, provided a similar function for the less privileged tourists.) Contrasts were indeed stark—the piece’s center of harmonic gravity, so to speak, shifting over a four-octave range. In real time, most of the drama happens over a languorous time curve, which means that the real audience for The Place isn’t us tourists who fly in through Seattle for a week (imagine getting to hear only ten measures of the Eroica Symphony), but the locals who check in every month on their regular visits to the museum. They’re the ones who’ll get to experience The Place in fair weather and foul, November, March, and July, quiet moonlit evenings and invisible geomagnetic storms. (John’s a little concerned that the midnight sounds won’t get heard much, since the museum is closed, but there are some plans to keep it open for special events like solstices.) They’ll learn and cherish its moods, habits, and anomalies. Perhaps no other sound installation has ever so justified, by vastness of time scale, its permanent place in a museum’s architecture.

In that respect, The Place is the culmination of Adams’s output to date. His long, long orchestra works—In the White Silence, For Lou Harrison, and Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing—work with Morton Feldman’s expansive sense of scale, but also, within that, with a sense of periodicity almost too large to take in. Adams is one of the few composers around who still talks about, and yearns to evoke, that 19th-century attribute called the Sublime, inspiring awe, attraction, and fear all at once. One could surmise that his love of the sublime was inspired by contact with the panoramic harshness of the Alaska landscape, but I suspect that, rather, he was born with a yen for that feeling and moved to Alaska decades ago in search of it. Like Feldman’s For Samuel Beckett, Adams’s 75-minute In the White Silence enwraps you in sensuousness but makes your human attention span feel picayune and inadequate. The Place Where You Go To Listen zooms beyond even that to a potential eternity that you’ll have to go back to again and again to fully appreciate.


Kyle Gann is a composer, music critic, musicologist, and Associate Professor of Music at Bard College. His music, which frequently uses microtonal scales, has been released on Cold Blue, Monroe Street, and New World Records. He maintains a blog on ArtsJournal and is the author of three books: The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press, 1995); American Music in the Twentieth Century (Schirmer Books, 1997) and Music Downtown (University of California Press, 2006).

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