The Music of Majesty

Gifted composer transcribes "outsider" music

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John Luther Adams is at times a challenging composer. An unabashed admirer of avant-garde music, Adams has crafted pieces during his decades-long career that ask a great deal of the listener. But the rewards are commensurate with the challenge.

Adams’ unique vision provides intrepid listeners with an opportunity to transcend the sounds he creates by inhabiting them fully, thereby connecting to something much larger than the notes and textures he selects. In many cases, the larger something that Adams seeks to conjure—often quite successfully in my humble opinion—is the great Alaskan wilderness. Listen to excerpts of his work. 

A fascinating profile of Adams in the New Yorker captures his ingenuous spirit in a description of a piece called "The Place Where You Go to Listen." The musical installation, hosted at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, uses a computer to gather real-time data from around Alaska (time of day, weather, earthquake activity, e.g.) that is then synthesized and translated into a continually shifting landscape of electronic music, itself a unique representation of the Alaskan landscape at any given moment. Now that might not sound like a pleasurable listen to everyone (I hear it’s actually quite remarkable), but it embodies the composer’s inventiveness and strong connection to Alaska.

Adams was first drawn to Alaska in the late 1970s, when he worked with environmental groups that were advocating for passage of the Alaska Lands Act, a law signed by Jimmy Carter in 1980 that protected more than 100 million acres of federal land in the state. He has lived in and around Fairbanks since 1978. His longstanding interest in environmental issues and love for the Alaskan landscape has had an undeniable influence on his work, and the dramatic challenges posed by climate change are no exception. In a recent interview, he said:

We’re living at a moment of unprecedented change, faster and more dramatic than any other in the history of our species. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Arctic. As the signs of climate change become undeniable, my work is expanding to a more global perspective.

Adams is right about the Arctic: the region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet; summer sea ice is retreating to alarmingly low levels; the global warming pollutant black carbon (a.k.a. soot) disproportionately affects the Arctic landscape. The trend of Arctic warming has profound consequences for the people and wildlife of the region, not to mention the rest of the planet.

Adams’ awareness of this issue is reflected in his latest work. Called Inuksuit, the piece is a largely percussive composition named for the stone landmarks used by the Inuit and other Arctic peoples for navigation. Adams purposefully composed the piece for outdoor performance, an intention that he discusses in an interesting video produced by the New Yorker (see below). Of the piece, Adams says: "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."

John Luther Adams’ music is a way to connect viscerally to the large environmental problems we face. At times, the politics of global warming become such a charade that the absolute necessity for widespread, decisive action gets lost in the theatrics of political posturing. Amid the static, his music helps reconnect to the beauty and profound importance of what many dedicated individuals and organizations like Earthjustice are working to preserve. At this point, that is nothing short of the planet.

Sam Edmondson was a campaign manager on air toxics issues from 2010 until 2012. He helped organize the first 50 States United for Healthy Air event. His desire to work at an environmental organization came from the belief that if we don't do something to change our unsustainable ways, we are in big trouble.