John Luther Adams: The Music of a True Place
A conversation with Molly Sheridan
February 18, 2011—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Edited by Molly Sheridan, Frank J. Oteri, and Alexandra Gardner
Audio/video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
John Luther Adams and I are sitting together on a rock in Central Park, well within earshot of the evening rush hour traffic that’s beginning to crowd Fifth Avenue. At this point, I have already spent the afternoon in his company and hours with his work, finding each experience to be a kind of lesson in listening—whether drifting inside the dream that is In the White Silence, getting aurally shocked and beaten by Strange and Sacred Noise, or simply walking along the park’s reservoir while observing him taking in the surrounding environment. Poetically, however, it is here, in a forest fenced in by honking taxi cabs, that he distills the journey of his work to date down to its fundamental revelation. “If we’re listening deeply, if we’re listening carefully, if we’re listening with our broadest awareness,” he explains, “both noise and silence lead us to the same understanding, which is that the whole world is music.”
In a complex, chaotic world, Adams is the best kind of sonic guide: a humble, innately curious man with an ear deeply immersed in study. Glimpses of what he comes to know are reflected back to us through his music. In many cases, the aural images can be directly traced to the powerful natural world that surrounds him in his home state of Alaska, a landscape that has undeniably left its imprint on his work. More broadly, however, Adams uses composition as a way to explore and understand the world around him, regardless of borders real and imagined.
His openness to the new and unexpected has served his music well. He also welcomes the insights of those around him into the push and pull as the music finds its footing. A case in point: when a graduate student suggested an outdoor performance of Strange and Sacred Noise, a work that uses the constraints of the concert hall to rattle its audience to the bone, Adams heard how easily the sound blew away in the wind once the walls came down. Inspired, he made Inuksuit, a work designed to be played outside. Once again, however, his original intentions were allowed room to morph when eighth blackbird and the Park Avenue Armory in New York asked to bring the piece back under a roof so that 78 musicians (the majority of them percussionists) could gather in the venue’s expansive drill hall and bring it to life in the heart of the city. As the Armory performance began, I saw Adams, tall and delicately built, standing among the more than 1,300 people who had gathered to experience it. His eyes were closed, and I wondered how conscious he remained of the crush of people that surrounded him. When a smile suddenly crossed his face, I suspected that he was once again off following the sound running out ahead of him.
Adams has a careful, considered way of speaking which, by all indications, is quite similar to the way he works in the solitude of the small cabin he calls his composition studio in Alaska. In a pre-concert discussion before Inuksuit was performed, Adams noted that it wasn’t a site-specific work, but rather a site-determined piece. Listeners are invited to find the music in the space, wherever that may ultimately be. This takes his work beyond the idea that it is music that is about place and makes it music that is place. As an audience, we are invited to listen with him, hearing the world through his ears and also our own.
Molly Sheridan: I know that you’ve begun work on a book that looks back on your career, a kind of memoir. As you’re engaged in that kind of reflection, what things about your life in music are revealing themselves to you?
John Luther Adams: I hesitate to call it a memoir because it’s always struck me that memoirs are written by truly famous people: politicians or movie stars or people who have done something extraordinary. I don’t feel that I fit any of those descriptions, so it’s a little uncomfortable for me, but the idea came up in a conversation I had walking across a frozen lake in Alaska with Alex Ross. Alex just very casually said, “You know, you’ve led a pretty interesting life. Have you ever thought of writing a memoir?” And my answer was, “No.” But several months later, the idea came back to me, and a few months after that it came back, and it kept coming back. It occurred to me that it might be useful to try to remember things and begin to create a kind of map of where I’ve been, where I think I am now, and where I might be going. I’m thinking of it more as an atlas of a life. A working title is Not Down In Any Map, which is stolen from a line in Moby Dick where Melville writes, “It is not down in any map. True places never are.” So I began at the beginning and have been gradually working my way north from my childhood in New Jersey and in the South, school in California, a kind of bucolic period on a farm in Georgia, and then a time on the Nez Perce reservation in Idaho, just before finding my true home in Alaska. It’s still early in the process and I’m not sure what I’m learning yet, but I’m enjoying it. I don’t really fancy myself a writer, and writing is a slow process for me. I’ve written two other books, and it wasn’t that much fun. But this one is kind of writing itself and I’m just along for the ride.
MS: In comparison with composing, is it a very different process for you?
JLA: Yes, it’s very different, and I value it because of that. Writing about my primary work, which is the music, usually after the fact, is really informative. It helps me understand in a different way what the music is about and where it’s leading me.
MS: There are a number of other people writing about your work right now, as well. Bernd Herzogenrath is in the process of editing a collection of essays and David Shimoni’s doctoral dissertation is about your music. Reading what other people have to say about the music you’ve written and looking into that mirror, what has that experience been like?
JLA: It’s curious to read other people’s ideas and understanding of the music. It’s very useful and informative and sometimes surprising. When someone discovers something in the work that I didn’t know was there, it doesn’t get any better than that. Whether it’s a performer finding something in the music that the composer doesn’t realize is there, or a writer who’s considering the music in an analytical or philosophical way and says, “Here’s a connection,” I read it and I think, “Hmm, I never thought of that.” That’s great because it means that the music has a life, that it engages other people in a direct and vital way. Other people are making the music their own. What more could a composer ask for?
MS: Do you think you would have always been open to hearing that kind of feedback? I can also see that being a tension and those surprises might not have been welcome at a certain point or to certain people.
JLA: When I was younger, I imagine I thought I knew what the music was about, so I might not have been as open to other people’s ideas about it. Now I just delight in it. Maybe the timing is really good. I’m so happy when they argue with me! David Shimoni will say, “Well, no, that’s not what you’re doing in this passage. No, look, this is how it works.” Well, yeah, maybe so. That’s one way of considering it. And I love that.
MS: Beyond the fact that you chose to make your home in Alaska rather than a major urban hub, though likely because of it as well, you’ve held a kind of outsider position in the music scene. In fact, it’s been something of a calling card and a listener only had to look at your catalog to see that association on display. In the past year or so, however, there has been something of an explosion of attention surrounding your work, including new recordings, major performances and awards, films, teaching positions at Harvard and Northwestern. Is that having a perceptible impact on your music or your relationship to it?
JLA: Without sounding flippant about it, I want to say no. It’s wonderful and I’m thrilled. Yet it really does seem in a way somehow separate from me and from my real life, if I can say that. My primary relationship with the work is still very much an introspective, lonely, solitary experience. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’ve always had this kind of bipolar life, but it’s a matter of keeping the internal and the external lives in balance. I can’t get enough of these wonderful performances by these incredible musicians, and it’s nice to occasionally get paid now for doing my work. It’s lovely that some people are taking note and writing about it. But I think as far as the rhythm of my life goes, the balance needs to be very much sort of 80/20, you know, solitary versus extroverted.
No one ever told me that I could have a career as a composer. No one ever told me I couldn’t. I just didn’t think in those terms, and I made all the wrong choices every step of the way. I made all the wrong career choices and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think the music knew where it wanted me to go. By a series of happy accidents, and a few conscious choices and maybe the peculiarities of my own psyche, I kept making all the wrong choices, and that’s turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened for the music and for the composer. If I’d come to New York as a kid and had been that hotshot young composer, I think that would have been a bad thing for me. So it’s great that the music is getting some love and attention now, and I’m eating it up. But at the same time, I feel a certain detachment from it, and that’s good.
MS: Looking back at that time when you were “making all the wrong choices,” artistically what were you going through? What do you consider some of the milestones of that period and the hallmarks of the sound that you were discovering and developing?
JLA: The voice, somehow that happened very early for me. I don’t know exactly how, but I can tell you where and when. It was after graduating from CalArts and studying—lucky me—with James Tenney and with Leonard Stein. I retreated into the woods, and I started listening to birds. I listened for six months, learning the strange syllables one by one before I began writing things down. That for me was the beginning of the life’s work that’s continued ever since. That would have been 1974; I was 21.
As I’m teaching at Harvard now, and I’ve been teaching at Northwestern, I’m starting to understand how unconventional a path it’s been. I wasn’t aware of that because it’s just my life. And I still don’t know what I’m doing, and I hope I never do. When I find that I know what I’m doing, I’ll know I’m doing the wrong thing. For me, it’s this continuing process of discovery and exploration and taking on new things, following the curiosity, the fascination, and occasionally the wonder of creative work. I don’t think that’s something you understand while you’re doing it.
MS: You say you felt like you found your voice quickly. Do you think that taking that time alone to reflect is what allowed you to do that?
JLA: Yes, somehow. I’m actually a very slow learner. I’m a slow worker. I have to chew on things for a long time, and I’ve learned that I can’t rush that process. Some pieces are quicker than others, but none of them are fast for me. I have to trust that. I have this need—it’s not just the desire, it’s an actual need—to feel as though I’m always beginning again, that each time I’m starting from scratch. That’s not a very efficient way to work, or to live, but that’s what works for me.
MS: There seem to be some fundamental things that you have carried throughout your career, though. In what respects do you feel that you’re starting over?
JLA: I’m not changing anything in the music; music is changing everything in me. Maybe it’s fascination—maybe it’s that word again. Curiosity. Wonder. It’s that energy that moves around. Early in my life, it might be in bird songs, and then I start listening to the habitats in which the birds are singing, and that becomes an obsession with landscape. Then I’m exploring the landscapes of the Arctic and starting to understand a little bit of the history and to feel a little bit of the presence of the people who have lived in the Arctic for countless centuries. It becomes sonic geography, a piece like Earth and the Great Weather. Then somehow I’m listening and making field recordings in the Arctic and my ear, which has been tuned to animal calls or bird songs—the more poetic dimensions of the soundscape—becomes fascinated with the noisier, more complex elements: wind, waterfalls, ice sounds, thunder. That becomes an obsession. Through that fascination with noise, somehow I stumble into chaos theory and complexity theory and I wonder how the forms of fractals might sound. I put that together with noise and out comes Strange and Sacred Noise. Then I hear Strange and Sacred Noise and inside of that howling noise I hear voices, these sort of disembodied voices that have an almost human quality to them, and I want to hear those alone. So I begin sculpting noise and trying to extract pure tone out of complex noise, and then we have The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies. One thing leads to the next, leads to the next, and each time there’s something that carries forward from the previous work, but there’s also some new element that feels like the essential core of the new exploration.
MS: Though you make a practice of careful listening to your environment and frequently draw inspiration from that, your music is not a literal recreation of a true-to-life sound world. What are you actually listening for? What translates over into your music and how do you find yourself using these experiences?
JLA: Even when I was just beginning with the bird songs—unlike Messiaen, who prided himself on the accuracy and, as he put it, the authenticity of his bird settings—that was never my objective. Quite frankly, I think it would be impossible. But everything we human animals do—everything we think, everything we speak, everything we are—derives from the world in which we live, and the deepest, most inexhaustible source for my work is the world in which I live. And yet, I’m not trying to reproduce anything that I hear or experience in the world. I’m more interested in the resonances that a bird song or a peel of thunder or the dance of the aurora borealis or the noise of the traffic on Central Park West might evoke in me. That meeting of my listening, my consciousness, my awareness: that’s the music that’s happening around us all the time. For me, that’s where it is. So these pieces, even the very earliest pieces when I was involved with a kind of tone painting, it was never about representation or reproduction. It was always somehow about finding in music an equivalent to the experience of hearing a bird song, or being on the tundra, or being inside of an installation work by James Turrell. It’s about experience. I can use the word authenticity, but in a different sense perhaps than Messiaen. For me, it’s about authentic personal experience, about the primary experience of being there and paying attention.
MS: Should we as listeners take it as anything more than just where you go to find your creative inspiration?
JLA: I don’t know because I can’t separate my music from my life. Music is not what I do; music is how I understand the world. I hope that if I find myself in a singular place: wilderness, urban, indoors, outdoors, real, imaginary—doesn’t matter—if I find myself in a real place, a true place, and I am paying attention, then maybe I hear something that becomes music. If that happens, then I hope the music floats away, takes on a life of its own, and becomes something else to you when you hear it. What I may have experienced, what I may have been reading, or looking at, or listening to, or thinking about when I was in that place working on the music really doesn’t matter. What matters is the music and how it touches you.
MS: Are you always listening with that kind of intensity, or is it more like a well that you go to when it’s time to write another piece of music?
JLA: Pauline Oliveros is a samurai; I am not. Pauline has taken as her life’s discipline a very simple formulation that is exceedingly difficult to practice: Always to listen. I’m not that strong, but that is an aspiration wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, to really be there and really pay attention. For me, and I bet for Pauline too, as for all of us, there are moments, there are places, and there are times when you just know, this is it. I’m here, right now, and something magical happens. I don’t live for those experiences—that would probably be a mistake—but I do my best to be in the right place at the right time. Maybe it’s realizing that every place is the right place, and every time is the right time. For me, those are peak experiences.
Composing is slow, arduous, sometimes painful for me, but it has to begin with some primary experience of that magic. Then all the grunt work can follow, but I’m not one who can sit down and just sort of make it up. I admire anyone who can do that, but that doesn’t really interest me. I’m much more interested in being part of this larger dance.
MS: Can you file that kind of thing away, make some notes in a notebook or process it in some way and save it for later, or do you have to take it right to the studio, that impression and that energy?
JLA: It couldn’t be more inefficient. I carry notebooks and I’m always making sketches. I have a little music notebook and a little words notebook, and I carry them both with me and am constantly jotting down little things. Again, I’m a slow learner, and I’m sometimes amused when I see the same image or the same idea cropping up again and again over a period of several years until finally I begin to understand what it wants to be, or what it wants of me.
MS: Is there any piece where that was particularly a part of its development?
JLA: All of them are slow, but Strange and Sacred Noise is on my mind right now because Len Kamerling has just made this new film of a performance out on the tundra in the Alaska Range. That’s a piece that evolved slowly and sometimes painfully over six and a half years, and it involved many, many sketches—jottings of thoughts, little sketches of geometric shapes, ideas for instrumentation, and draft after draft after draft. That’s just one example of a piece that took a long time and involved a lot of sketching. I’ll bet half my catalog fits that description, really. I worked on In The White Silence non-stop for a year and a half, but that was once I had the basic material: the instrumentation, the basic harmonic and melodic elements of the piece, and a sense of the overall shape. That was just a process of putting one foot in front of the other, day after day, and just letting this expansive landscape emerge. It’s a very different process from composing Strange and Sacred Noise.
MS: The way that you’re talking about it might seem to imply that all of these pieces are epic in scope and length, and some of them truly are. But some of them surprise me. In my memory it seems that they surely go on for an hour, but in reality they’re closer to 13 minutes. This condensing of time, is that an intentional detail on your part or is that just my personal experience of this music?
JLA: There must be, in the back of my mind, a purpose or purposes for making these shorter pieces. One obvious answer would be that they’re more practical. In the White Silence is one of my, I guess I would say, signature pieces, but the performance next week in Chicago will be the second live performance since the premiere 13 years ago. Apparently, it’s quite a commitment to program—let alone rehearse and perform—a 75-minute orchestra piece. Who knew? So doing these 13-minute pieces has a practical aspect to it. But I also think there’s a more centrally musical question that I’m exploring in pieces like The Light Within. White Silence is this vast tundra landscape. There’s a lot of sound in it, but the sound takes a long time to happen. The Light Within has just as much sound as that 75-minute piece, but it’s compressed into a 12-minute temporal space, and the tonal space of the piece is saturated from the lowest lows to the highest highs pretty much throughout the piece. So there’s a different exploration of saturation which, in some of these recent pieces, is more about density. If White Silence is a series of Robert Ryman white paintings, a mural of multiple panels, then these recent pieces are more like Richard Serra sculptures. They’re very heavy and they command the time and the space with a great deal of weight. Maybe they’re more earth than they are air.
MS: Do you have a favorite child among your pieces?
JLA: Well, there are two answers. Do I have a favorite child? Absolutely not. There’s not even a piece that I think, “Oh, that’s the really good one. Now my life is over.” And it’s not really my job to worry about that stuff. The other part of the answer is, “The piece I’m working on now.” Always. Like the whiskey I haven’t tasted yet is my favorite.
MS: Why is that?
JLA: That’s what it’s about for me. It’s about following the music because it’s my life, and it knows more than I do. It tells me where we’re going and, if I’m lucky, maybe after the fact, what we were doing. To me, that’s not just the fun, it’s the core of why this is my life’s work. It always knows more than I do.
MS: Do you actually like the writing more than the performance then? The process of making the work, exploring it, as opposed to sitting in the hall and hearing it come back to you?
JLA: Well, I’m with Morton Feldman. You know the WBAI conversations, John Cage and Morton Feldman—incredible, incredible series of unscripted conversations. At one point, John asks Morty, “Do you like composing or hearing the music?” And Morty, without missing a beat, says, “I like hearing the music.” And I’m with him. That’s the best. But it’s all great, even when it’s painful.
My other favorite part of it is the very beginning when there is no music, or I can’t hear it yet. It’s vague, and I’m not sure it’s even there. I have no idea what it wants to be, or where it’s going to take me. I try to avoid writing anything down for as long as I can because I found that somehow that helps clarify and distill that energy. Then, when I can’t not write, I start. So I love it all. The pre-compositional phase, then I love the composing—most of the time. I love rehearsing, I love learning from the performers. I love hearing it. And, call me crazy, I love recording.
MS: Let’s talk about recordings and how what you make translates to the document that it represents. Do you find that the recording or the live performance more often captures what you envisioned as “the work”?
JLA: I think it’s all the work. We can talk about the CD that we finished yesterday, which we expected to finish two months ago. It has a new piece for piano, mallet percussion, and electronic sounds. It was commissioned by Stephen Drury, the incredible pianist, and Steve and Scott Deal, percussionist, recorded it at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory in Boston. It’s called 4000 Holes and, believe me, I’ve counted every one of them several times. We’ve been working on the mix for two months, daily, and in the process discovering the piece. It’s a new piece, and nobody knew how it actually went. Steve Drury and Scott Deal know it much better than I do, in a certain sense, because they learned how to play it, and it’s very hard. I know it in a different way because I worked on it for two years and went through I don’t know how many drafts. Then Nathaniel Reichman, my audio producer, knows it in a completely different way. And it was in the process of working with Nathaniel, putting the pieces together—the piano tracks, percussion tracks, the electronic tracks and trying to get it all to come into focus—that we really discovered the piece. I had my idea about the piece, but at a certain point, the music takes on a life of its own, and I can’t push it around.
Especially in the process of making a recording like this, I become kind of another performer. I was already a performer in the sense of making the electronic tracks, but then we had to learn how to play the piece in the studio to make the recording. I have the great good fortune to work with these superhuman performers: Steve Drury, Steve Schick, ICE, Doug Perkins, the Percussion Group Cincinnati, eighth blackbird, you know, these incredible musicians, all of whom understand the music better than I do and are dedicated to it and to sharing it with their listeners. But it occurred to me in the past week that the foremost interpreter of the music of John Luther Adams is Nathaniel Reichman, my audio guy who’s been working with me for 15 years and truly knows better than I do how things go together. So I love the process. I love the solitary part—I still regard that as the primary work—but I thrive on the social part. The collaborative part working with these gifted musicians who bring their skills and creative intelligence and generosity and good will to the music. That’s wonderfully gratifying and just fun.
MS: How much of their imprint ends up on the music then?
JLA: A lot. The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies would just simply not have happened, at least not the way it did, were it not a piece for Steven Schick. Percussion Group Cincinnati is deeply embedded in Strange and Sacred Noise. I don’t know that anyone else would have had the courage or the patience to work through that bizarre piece, to accompany me every step of the way and try out these different drafts of it. Al Otte and Jim Culley and Stuart Gerber and Rusty Burge—their personalities, their musical intelligence is inextricable from that piece of music.
You could name any number of examples of pieces that were made with and for specific musicians, but then there’s another way in which the musicians’ identities become part of the music, and that’s when musicians who weren’t involved in the first performance—maybe musicians who haven’t even worked with me—pick it up and make it their own and find a new take on it that I couldn’t have dreamed of. Recently I had that experience with the earliest works in the catalog, the songbirdsongs—little pieces from the mid ’70s for piccolos and percussion and a few other assorted instruments. There’s a new recording of those pieces after all these years, and it’s Steve Drury’s group, Callithumpian Consort, at New England Conservatory. I went in for the recording sessions, but I hadn’t coached the group at all. And here are these early 20-somethings, incredible musicians—I expected that—but what I wasn’t prepared for was how they got the music. Not only did they know how to do it the way I knew how to do it from my experiences performing with my own little groups back in the ’70s, but they knew how to do it in ways that I never imagined. Sure, they had Steve Drury there to work with them, and he understands my music profoundly, but there’s something else that happens, too. I’m not sure if it’s a zeitgeist thing, but somehow this music that we’re all involved in gets into the air, and people start to learn how to hear it. The first performances are difficult. Then, a generation goes by and suddenly people just know how to play it.
MS: It seems like you’re getting at something that’s more than a technical consideration.
JLA: I think it’s absolutely more than technical. Clearly the technical proficiency of musicians, like the technical accomplishments of athletes—without performance enhancing substances—continues to increase, but that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s something truly musical.
MS: To what do you attribute that?
JLA: The music—maybe it’s hard to get it out the first time. It’s hard to find it for the composer; it’s hard to get it on paper. It’s hard for the poor people who have to wrestle with it the first few times and figure out what the hieroglyphs mean: how it really sounds and what it wants, to get the composer out of the way and get it into the air and get it to our ears. But then something happens and the music teaches us all how to hear it and how to play it, and I love that.
Lou Harrison was the first person to encourage me in that regard. I was interviewing Lou—it must have been in the early ’80s—for a weekly radio program I did about new music. Somehow we got onto his Fugue for Percussion from 1941. It’s a short piece for percussion ensemble in which he wanted to make a fugue, but not a fugue in which the entrances and the relationships are in harmonic terms, but in purely rhythmic terms and tempo relationships. He got together with John Cage who helped him a little bit with the math, with its “is-tos and as-tos,” as Lou put. He wrote this exquisite and challenging piece for percussion, and he gave it to Stokowski, who was a proponent of his music. Stokowski said, “This is not performable—yet.” And he was absolutely right. Now it’s regularly performed by college percussion ensembles and even high school ensembles. What happened? Who knows! But people learned how to see it on the page, how to hear it, how to play it, and that’s a beautiful thing. There’s a way of listening and a way of playing that’s implicit in new music. Sometimes it takes a while to figure that out. We all have to kind of figure it out together.
MS: You’ve been teaching at Northwestern and Harvard. Teaching is not a new experience for you, but in these particular environments, what do you find yourself passing on and what are you taking away?
JLA: As you say, I have been at other schools in the past: at Bennington College and at Oberlin and occasionally at the University of Alaska. But I began my seminar at Harvard with a series of disclaimers. I remember the first time I heard e.e. cummings reading his six nonlectures—I was still a teenager—and there is this recurring refrain. Again and again he says, “I’m an artist. I’m a man. I’m a failure.” And I found myself standing there at Harvard for the first time invoking cummings and feeling very much the same way. I’m not an intellectual. I’m not a teacher. I write a little bit, but I’m not a writer. The only thing I really know anything about is my own work as a composer. I’m an artist. I’m a man. I’m a failure. So there I am at Harvard, and the students are wonderful. And there I am at Northwestern, and the students are wonderful. And I think I must seem a little bit like the joker in the deck. Perhaps some of them are still trying to figure out what I’m doing there, but it’s a very interesting conversation for both of us. I’m so curious about what aspiring young composers are listening to and thinking about and reading and, most of all, what they’re writing. No, even more than that, what I’m fascinated with is the questions that they’re asking. They’re asking questions not only about music, but about what they’re doing with their lives and what meaning music and art have in this world of ours that is so crazy and mixed up right now. It’s profoundly reassuring to me that there are these brilliant young people who are not only struggling to dedicate their lives to music, but are also struggling with questions about what that means in the larger sense.
MS: What about questions that you struggle with? I’m thinking specifically about the fact that often you are not only John Luther Adams, but you’re John Luther Adams from Alaska. It was a fair connection to make considering how open you have been speaking about the role that place, and particularly your home, has played in your work. Yet I imagine that the weight of that association at a certain point becomes an issue. At the point you are in your career now, how are you carrying that aspect of who you are?
JLA: That’s an interesting question and one I am asking myself a lot these days. I’m in the middle of a nine-month period that is the longest I’ve been away from Alaska in 35 years, and it’s good. It’s kind of an extended camping trip, an adventure. Alaska is my home, and it always will be. Alaska gave me not only a life, it gave me a life’s work. I went there with the idea that I might be able to find a new kind of music there. Maybe I did, and I’m always grateful for it.
Alaska is home, and will always be home, but there comes a time when we have to leave home, and that’s where I am right now. I’m traveling around and having new experiences and exploring new places, both geographically and artistically. I’ve written extensively about my relationship to Alaska, my music has been directly influenced by Alaska, many of my pieces are about Alaska in some sense. One of them, The Place Where You Go To Listen, you might say is Alaska. It’s the installation work that’s at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, and it’s controlled in real time by the weather and geomagnetic activity, the aurora borealis, seismic activity, all these things that are happening all the time, right now, in that place.
MS: How did you come to make that work specifically? I’m curious because for a composer who points to place as a driving inspiration, that’s a more concrete version of the place where you are than any work that you have made?
JLA: It was difficult because it was a new medium. I’d never done an installation work before, a purely synthetic work. It was difficult because I’d never worked with raw data streams as source material for music. It was difficult just because it was the biggest and most ambitious piece I’ve ever attempted. And, in addition to all the abstract dimensions of the piece, it’s very, very physical. I not only had to design the instruments—the virtual orchestra that makes the music—and compose the music, I had to design and build the room in which it’s heard. So it was a huge and all-consuming process for three or four years.
After all these years of making music about place, and then trying to make music that somehow is place, this was the most concrete opportunity I’ve ever had to work with place not only as a metaphor, but as an actual, physical reality. So I really was thrilled by the opportunity and thought about it for a couple of years. One beautiful fall morning, we were flying out of Fairbanks—to go to Oberlin, actually, I was teaching there that fall—and it was an absolutely cloudless morning. The sun had just risen, and we were flying over the Alaska Range, and I felt this intense, almost erotic love for that landscape. It’s the landscape of my soul. Sitting next to this poor person on the plane, I’m looking out the window and I start weeping. For the next two and a half hours, I just sat there and started writing down these ideas for The Place. It kind of came to me in this flood of inspiration, but inspiration mixed with longing. So that love and that longing became The Place Where You Go to Listen.
MS: Why would you feel that as longing, though, since you have been able to make your home physically in a place where you have also found a profound spiritual connection? What are you longing for?
JLA: Well, I was leaving home, and that probably had something to do with it. Though my wife, who is very wise, has observed on several occasions that she’ll hear a piece of mine and she’ll say, “Oh, there’s so much longing in that music.” And I think she’s right. Sometimes I experience that longing in a beautiful landscape. I’ll be out in the mountains or on the tundra somewhere and just overwhelmed by the beauty and the power and the all-encompassing presence of the place. At the same time, I’m filled with this love for it. But also there’s an element of wanting to know it or become part of it even more completely. Yet, there it is, there I am, and what’s missing? Maybe it’s something that we’re always longing for in our consciousness. To be more fully present in the moment, wherever we are. Nostalgia for the present moment.
MS: Is that a state you find yourself in a lot?
JLA: Yeah, I’m kind of goofy that way.
MS: Is the piece that you envisioned when you were looking out that window really what the piece ended up being? Did it stay pretty true to that original vision?
JLA: Yes and no. I think the overall vision of it didn’t change, but of course the sounds, the moment-to-moment details, the texture, the colors of the piece, I couldn’t imagine at that moment. I had to discover that over the course of the next few years while working it out.
MS: We’ve covered a lot of ground here and spoken about pieces that led you to new ideas and the creation of the next piece of music in your catalog, but to bring it up to the present and the most recent chapter of your music-making, what are the hallmarks in that work?
JLA: For years I’ve felt that there are two, apparently opposite, sides to my work. There’s this very spacious, beautiful, suspended-time atmosphere, and then there’s this muscular, almost violent side. In part, I think that did grow out of my own experience of living in the subarctic for most of my life. It’s dark all winter, and it’s light all summer. It’s pretty extreme that way; there’s never equilibrium. You swing from one extreme to the other in the rhythms of the season, in the rhythms of night and day. I’ve always been drawn to extremes and not been too much about the middle, so that rhythm of going from one extreme to the other feels natural to me. Without my being consciously aware of it or trying to put it there, I think it found its way into my music.
Another way of thinking about those two sides or two sound worlds: let’s take In The White Silence and Strange and Sacred Noise, two landmark works of mine that appear to be completely opposite. White Silence is 75 minutes of sustained and lyrical and unabashedly beautiful music for strings. Strange and Sacred Noise is 75 minutes of relentless noise for percussion. So you might say that one side of my work originates in silence, and the other side originates in noise. We usually think of noise and silence as being opposite extremes, but in recent years as my work has evolved and in a way expanded, those two extremes have started to converge. Again, take those two pieces. In the White Silence is 75 minutes of continuous music for a small orchestra. There’s not a second of silence in the piece. Strange and Sacred Noise is 75 minutes of loud, physical, even violent percussion music, which contains several minutes of composed silence. So what’s that about? Did I just get my titles transposed? I don’t think so. I think there’s something deeper going on. There is a point at which noise and silence are the same thing. If we’re listening deeply, if we’re listening carefully, if we’re listening with our broadest awareness, both noise and silence lead us to the same understanding, which is that the whole world is music.