John Luther Adams: We Become Ocean
“Once there was a little boy. And he went outside.” – Harry Partch
We hear a lot of talk these days that technology is changing everything. It may be. The promise of new technology is great. It has the potential to help us hear sounds we haven’t heard before, to expand our perceptions, and to imagine new possibilities. But, ultimately, technology is just a box of tools. And what matters most isn’t our tools. It’s how we use them.
(As a wishful thinking aside, I like to imagine that, before long, some brilliant young person will invent a new technology more flexible and more transparent than the electromagnetic loudspeaker. Is it too much to ask that this take the form of a spray-mist sound transducer that also reduces greenhouse gases?)
As a composer, all I really know is my own music. Yet even in my own musical world, I’m continually surprised by the unexpected places the music leads me. No matter how well I think I understand it, the music always knows more than I do. It’s my life’s work and one of my greatest joys to follow wherever it may lead me.
Much of my recent music is purely electronic, or a mix of electronic and acoustic sounds. I now use the computer more than I use the pencil or the piano. Yet just as a carpenter chooses the appropriate tool for the work at hand, I try to use the right technology at the right time. And I always try to be aware of how the tools I use influence the music I make.
Technology itself isn’t going to bring about either the music or the world we imagine. If we really want a new music in a new world, we need more than new technology. We need to change ourselves. We are the instruments of change.
Music embodies creative thought. Music is a sounding model for human consciousness and culture, an essential dimension of what it means to be a human animal. And eventually music may prove vital to our survival as a species.
Despite the siren calls of our iPods, we can’t afford the luxury of retreating too deeply into our own private musical caves. While we explore our personal musical passions, we also need to renew our awareness of the music all around us all the time, in the larger-than-human world, out there in what we call “nature”, where we’re challenged to integrate a broader range of sensations than inside the concert hall.
Recently I’ve been wondering: How can we learn to carry the heightened expectations and concentration that we bring to the concert hall out into the larger world? And, in turn, how can we bring the sense of receptivity and wonder that we feel in nature back into the enclosed spaces in which we usually experience music?
In my own work, I find myself increasingly interested in hearing and making music outside the concert hall. After years of creating music rooted in the outdoors but heard indoors, I’m now composing music intended specifically to be performed and heard outside.
This summer solstice at the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies, Steven Schick will lead the first performances of Inuksuit – a concert-length work for nine to ninety-nine percussionists. In Inuksuit the performers are dispersed and move throughout a large, open area. The listener, too, is encouraged to participate actively in shaping his or her own experience, by finding their individual listening point, or by changing locations throughout the performance. This work is intended to expand our awareness of the never-ending music of the world in which we live, transforming seemingly empty space into more fully experienced place. It’s my hope that the experience of preparing, performing and hearing this work might raise larger questions: What does it mean to act creatively with and within our environment? Can we listen and hear more deeply the field of sound all around us? How does where we are define what we do and, ultimately, who we are? And how do we understand the brevity of our human presence in the immensity of geologic time?
Inuksuit is inspired by the stone sentinels constructed over the centuries by the Inuit in the windswept expanses of the Arctic. (The word “Inuksuit” translates literally: “to act in the capacity of the human”.) This work is haunted by the vision of the melting of the polar ice, the rising of the seas, and what may remain of humanity’s presence after the waters recede.
Despite the dark waves rising all around us, our world is still miraculously beautiful, and we live in a time of astonishing musical creativity. We can no longer speak confidently of a central current, a so-called “mainstream” in music. This is a cause for celebration. In culture as in biology, diversity is resilience. Now and in the future, the more diverse voices we have in music, the better off we’re likely to be.
I have an idea of where my music is leading me right now. Beyond that, I don’t have much insight into the broader future of music. However, I am confident in the brilliance, idealism and imagination of young composers, performers, writers and thinkers about music.
The countless interwoven streams of music today remind me of John Cage’s description of Lou Harrison’s music as a river in delta.
Listening, Cage wrote, “We become ocean”.
John Luther Adams is a composer whose music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of Alaska where he has lived since 1978. Over a dozen recordings of his music have been released on a wide variety of labels including Cantaloupe, Cold Blue, Mode, New Albion, and New World Records. He is also the author of Winter Music: Composing the North and The Place Where You Go To Listen. He served as President of the Board of the American Music Center and has contributed 32 essays to NewMusicBox.