Composer John Luther Adams talks to Brunswick’s Carlton Wilkinson about his early activism, his Pulitzer Prize for “Become Ocean” and his hope for the world’s future.
John Luther Adams, the composer known casually as JLA, hit a new peak of celebrity in 2014 when his orchestral work “Become Ocean” landed him a Pulitzer Prize. The work, commissioned and recorded by the Seattle Symphony, also won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 2015.
A resident of the Alaskan wilderness for most of his career, physically and culturally isolated from the mainstream art world, Adams was suddenly in the limelight. Did it change his life?
“No. Because I was 60 years old,” he laughed in a recent interview with the Brunswick Review. “I’ve just been doing what I do my whole life, living out of the way. Someone took notice, and it was wonderful. It’s great, but it didn’t change anything.”
Indeed, his daily routine remains what it always was. For 36 years in Alaska, he spent part of each day in a cabin in the woods that served as his studio. These days his home is an isolated spot high in the hills of the Chihuahua Desert that crosses between the US and Mexico.
JLA’s music is sensuous and often pictorial. Yet in its pursuit of the mind of nature, it is also abstract and selfless, retaining the spark of experimentation that marked his early efforts. Lately, in works such as the orchestral trilogy, “Become Ocean,” “Become River” and “Become Desert,” he uses the performing environment itself as a kind of metaphor for humankind’s relationship to natural landscapes, locating instruments around the audience to create an unrecordable experience of space. He makes use of every tool at the disposal of the contemporary composer, writing as eloquently for computers and electronic media as for more traditional ensembles. In each, he attempts to saturate the audience’s awareness.
Adams’ use of a structural, often mathematical rigor distinguishes him from others inspired by the natural world. A classic example of that is his “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” a sound installation at the University of Alaska Museum of the North that interprets into musical sound a live data feed from weather and geologic stations around the arctic. Visitors hear a never-repeating interpretation, on a human scale, of music made by the Earth and the environment, in a space completely redesigned by the composer to host the experience. His newest orchestral work, to be premiered in the spring by the South Dakota Symphony, is titled “An Atlas of Deep Time.” It draws its form from the Earth’s age: 4.6 billion years compressed into 46 minutes.
“The most preposterous orchestral work yet,” he says, laughing. “And I swear it’s my last.”
Adams is also the author of several books, including a recently published memoir, Silences So Deep, and articles in The Guardian, The New Yorker and Slate, among others.
Our conversation touched on his background as an activist, the influence of nature on his work and his discovery of birdsong—a phenomenon that has inspired musicians across the ages. He also spoke about the spiritual aspect of his work, and his ambition to overcome his own weaknesses.