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Nature and Music: The Work of John Luther Adams

Bold Peak Chugach Mountains Alaska

I am probably one of the few who looks forward to my commute. Not because I get on far enough away to grab a seat on the train, or that my mind requires the extra hour of warm up to function properly; both are true, but more important is that the commute allows me to enter the world of radio podcasts. Daily I have time to listen to stories from CBC’s Ideas and Wiretap, and from This American Life and RadioLab. Steeped in narratives of art and science, psychology and philosophy, anthropology and history and everything in between, I find myself constantly awed by the power of voice and ambience to build imagery. I listen and feel inspired.

A recent Radiolab episode tuned me into the Pulitzer-winning work of composer John Luther Adams. Excerpted from a longer interview on another program called Meet the Composers, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich delve into Adams’ compositions – music that is more akin to a primal and elemental force. You can listen to the fascinating half-hour podcast HERE – I’ll be referring to timestamps throughout the piece if you would like to follow along.

An Incomprehensible Soundscape (4:00)

Stumbling across Edgard Varèse via quotes on Frank Zappa albums at an early age, Adams was both bewildered and bewitched by the composer’s work. Instead of rejecting them, he sought to understand the compositions, eventually discovering the patterns embedded within these alien soundscapes:

“We hear this desert, this ocean, these forbidding mountains of sound, and I remember thinking: I’ll never be able to know where I am in this. I don’t know what to hang onto.”

– John Luther Adams, referring to Edgard Varèse’s work

After school, Adams takes an interest in songbirds. Instead of simply recording birdcalls, he listens and notes down what he hears, incorporating his senses and the surroundings into the new creation. What Adams is interested in “is what gets lost in translation”, noting that “this is music … perhaps a language that we will never understand.” To me, this is a fascinating perspective – to regard music as something that exists outside of our minds, as a mysterious primordial tongue that humans can never fully grasp. Music as nature.

“Amazingly huge, sometimes serene, sometimes violent pieces – when I first encountered Looney Tunes – thump thump thump has an inherent meaning to it. Feels like falling – It’s the music of action, falling, bumping, tiptoeing, bonking. All of these things have a music expression. It feels like it’s a physical language we come into the world with and never had to learn.”

– Host Jad Abumrad, referring to Adam’s work and Looney Tunes (which I also adore)

Question:

  • Do you think music is solely a human creation? Or is it something that exists both within and outside of culture?

A Wide and Wide Space (10:10)

Raised in a world of concrete and skyscrapers, I found peace in the island countryside at an early age. Chatting recently with someone pursing a Masters in urban studies, she told me she was drawn to cities after growing up on a farm. Perhaps parts of us are drawn to the opposite of what is safe and familiar. Surrounded by suburbia, Adams discovered freedom and solace in Alaska:

“I hated Los Angeles. The whole time I was there, I felt lost, and not in a good way. It was such an interesting contrast because it was one of my most explosive periods of my life in terms of discovery, but at the same time, there was this inner gnawing. I just felt lost in the freeways and all that sprawl, and the city that seems to go on forever. It made me long for home, which I never felt I had had, because we moved all the time growing up, here and there, in equally homogenous suburban surroundings. So there was this deep inarticulate hunger to find a place where I could belong.”

– John Luther Adams, describing his longing for “home”

As Adams describes the sense of danger and insignificance he feels in Alaska’s wilderness, I recalled times spent in vast places free of visible human influence, and am reminded of passages in beloved works that depict worlds beyond culture, those places that are dynamic and enduring, majestic and desolate, beautiful and utterly incomprehensible.

“But the ice did not care how hard we worked. Why should it? Proportion is kept.”

– One of the my favourite lines from The Left Hand of Darkness

Questions:

  • Are you drawn to your childhood places? Or do you find that you seek their opposites?
  • Have you ever had those moments of feeling insignificant? Was it a pleasant or an unpleasant experience? Or both?

The Rock That Flew Away (14:00)

Snowy Owl takes flight

The white rock takes flight. Image by Erin Kohlenberg.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to stories, whether they be in the form of audiobooks, old radio dramas, or conveyed in-person. As a kid, I fell asleep to books on tape, and to this day I listen and relisten to digital formats of old classics before bed, feeling passages slip slide into my dreams. Like reading, I feel more engaged listening to stories than I do watching them. Perhaps it’s the active participation: One must supply the mental imagery that goes along with the words. But my admiration for a well-told yarn goes deeper – I can grasp the craft and trick of writing, being a dabbler myself, but the spoken word borders on black magic to me. Listening to these amazingly produced podcasts on a regular basis, I am constantly caught off-guard by the power of voice and sound to convey mood and tone.

“…The rock didn’t get any closer, so we kept walking… And then, suddenly we stopped, because the rock flew away…. The rock was a snowy owl, sitting on the tundra. You know, it could have been a twelve-foot outcropping of white stone.  You just lose yourself in your place, in that light, and in that endless space, and that’s why we wanted music.”

– John Luther Adams, describing his walk out on the Alaskan tundra

When Adams quietly recounts his arctic adventures, I am transported to where he stood, struck dumb by his mythic encounter with a rock that flew away. I won’t be forgetting that scene and the feelings the tale evoked anytime soon.

Questions:

  • Do you have a favourite story-focused podcast?
  • What makes a narrated story work for you? The voice? The pacing? The rhythm of the words?

Nature and Culture: A Useful Conceit (17:30)

Nature Music Painting

Nature depicted by culture. Image from wallpaper-download.net

I throw around the words “nature” and “culture” quite a bit on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve ever defined them. This is partly because Ekostories is my place to work that out for myself, but in the interview Adams comes close to articulating many of my thoughts:

“I’ve always imagined I may be able to work in a space just outside of culture. Of course, it’s patently absurd – there’s no way we work outside of culture, and these days, so many cultures. And yet, as my friend Barry Lopez says, ‘landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures.’… and I believe that everything we do, everything we think, everything we think we create, everything we are, derives from the world we inhabit. Our language, our music, our minds, everything is shaped by this incredibly complex and wondrous world that we inhabit. So ultimately this nature/culture dichotomy in a way doesn’t exist, but it’s been a useful conceit for me. To feel I’m after something that’s not part of the musical tradition. It’s not specifically cultural – it’s somehow more elemental.”

– John Luther Adams, exploring nature and culture

While “nature” is technically a cultural concept, I also still find it a useful term. Even though in modern times no part of nature – not even the Alaskan wilderness – is truly free of human influence, like Adams, when I write about “nature” I still feel like I’m capturing something beyond, conveying some aspect of what author David Abrams calls the more-than-human world.

On the other hand, I also believe this dichotomy of nature/culture, while useful as a distancing and reflective tool, is a construction that must be torn down from time to time.  We on occasion need to be reminded that we reside wholly within a larger nature, a nature as defined by the philosopher Baroch Spinoza as one that encompasses the totality of existence. It is only the abolishment of walls that we can realize the interdependence we have with the world, and that to diminish others, whether they take the form of different cultures or creatures, is to ultimately diminish ourselves.

Question:

  • What is your definition of nature?
  • How does your definition of culture intersect with that?

John Luther Adams: Becoming Ocean (22:30)

Mavericks Competition Pacific Ocean

Man Becoming Ocean? Image by Shalom Jacobovitz.

Towards the end of the program, Adams describes his latest composition, Becoming Ocean, as a message on climate change. I’ve written about the subject of using sound to convey the idea of climate change before, but what’s more intriguing for me here is listening to how Adams struggles with regarding his music as art or as political message:

 “This is a global warming piece – everything I do these days is in some way, addressing the state of the world, the delicate and precarious position we human animals are in the world. And also out of the other side of my mouth, I insist that it has absolutely nothing to do with current events, or politics, or activism, and that music must stand on its own as music. I’d like to believe we can have it both ways.”

– John Luther Adams, on music as art and message

George Orwell believed that “all art is propaganda”. While I resist that claim, I do struggle constantly to find that line between art and message. Earlier this year, I had a great discussion with a fellow nature blogger which left me with the following question: Does my wish to write and create come from wanting to capture a truth I see in the world, or does it come from a desire to persuade others to see things my way? As an artist and writer, I’m drawn to the former but fear that the work can become self-indulgent and inaccessible. As an essayist and environmentalist, successful persuasion would be great, but does that come at the expense of standing on a soapbox?

Adams seems to think that both elements can coexist – what do you think?

Related Ekostories:

Featured image by Paxson Woelber

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