Part of the Listen to This Audio Guide
Igor Stravinsky once spoke of the "violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking." The Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams, the subject of this chapter, quoted that line to me when he picked me up at the airport in Fairbanks, on an April afternoon in 2008. The great Alaskan thaw had begun quite suddenly the previous day, and the snow was already half gone:
The chapter begins with a description of The Place Where You Go to Listen (pp. 176-79), Adams's permanent installation at the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In the photo at the top of this page, the composer sits in the place he devised. Here is the building's titanium-clad, somewhat Gehry-esque exterior, followed by another shot of the room:
For a very rough sense of what the music is like, see this slightly silly YouTube video. For more about the installation, read Kyle Gann's NewMusicBox article. The composer / programmer Jim Altieri assisted in the creation of the piece.
Views from Adams's home, outside Fairbanks:
A brief video portrait of the composer:
You can also watch a teaser from a forthcoming documentary by Steve Elkins, in which Adams figures prominently. In a video made by Evan Hurd for the New Yorker's website, Adams discusses his recent piece Inuksuit, for nine to ninety-nine percussion players.
Adams, a rock musician in his youth, turned toward composition after discovering the music of Edgard Varèse, via a Frank Zappa record jacket (pp. 179-80). You can listen to Varèse's Poème électronique here and read about the original 1958 installation here. Zappa wrote about his reverence for Varèse in 1971. For samples of Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, and Morton Feldman (pp. 180-81), see the Chapter 14 audio guide for The Rest Is Noise.
One of Adams's earliest characteristic works is songbirdsongs, begun in California in 1974 and finished in 1980 (p. 181). Here is the beginning of "Morningfieldsong":
Stephen Drury leading the Callithumpian Consort, New England Conservatory; to be released next year by Mode Records.
In the transitional orchestral piece The Far Country of Sleep (1988), Adams comes close to the Americana style of Aaron Copland, although the slow-motion narrative presages his mature style:
JoAnn Falletta conducting the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra; New Albion NA061.
An excerpt from the 1998 work In the White Silence (p. 183):
Tim Weiss conducting the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble; New World 80600-2 (more excerpts here).
Ensemble 64.8, the resident percussion ensemble at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, performs "...and dust rising" from Strange and Sacred Noise (p. 183):
The California EAR Unit performs the 2007 piece The Light Within:
A section of the electronic work Veils (p. 183):
Adams's orchestral piece Dark Waves, in its entirety (p. 184):
A live recording of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, at the Saturday Matinee concert series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on December 15, 2007. Courtesy of the composer and the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. The Chicago Symphony will perform the piece on Oct. 28 and 29, 2010.
Here are pictures taken during our drive south toward Lake Louise (pp. 184-85):
The oil flows through the snow:
Lake Louise at dusk:
Out on the lake in the white silence:
The composer inspecting his "cormorant isle" (p. 185):
The author confronts a blank page:
Views on the drive back to Fairbanks:
While traveling the Richardson Highway, we stopped in at the cabin and outlying buildings where the poet John Haines lived in almost total isolation after the Second World War (pp. 186-87). Haines's book The Stars, the Snow, the Fire is a startlingly intense and vivid memoir of his time on the homestead.
John Haines recites lines from his poem "Return to Richardson, Spring 1981":