Jeremy Pataky | Silences So Deep: A Conversation with John Luther Adams

A slightly shorter version originally appeared in the Anchorage Press, here.

photo credit: Pete Woodhead
call John Luther Adams from my cabin near McCarthy. He’s maintained his 907
area code, though I know he’s relocated to New York City after 40 years in
Alaska. My spot in the woods seems more akin to his former habitat than the deep
urban place where he answers the phone. I’m picturing Adams inside his old studio
cabin nestled in calm, subarctic boreal forest, as documented by filmmaker Bob
Curtis-Johnson before Adams left. Afterimages of that short—and completely silent—film clash with the intermittent city sirens that whine through the
phone. They’re an odd soundtrack to our conversation about art, purpose, and living.
is a composer. He’s also an author, presently finishing up his third book,
called Silences So Deep: A Memoir of
Music and Alaska
, recently excerpted in Alaska
Quarterly Review
and forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press.
his life and work are deeply rooted in the natural world. Adams was awarded the
2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic work Become Ocean, and a 2015 Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary
Classical Composition”. Inuksuit, his
outdoor work for up to 99 percussionists, is regularly performed all over the
world. He’s won a number of other prestigious awards.
in 1953, John Luther Adams grew up in the South and in the suburbs of New York
City. He studied composition at the California Institute of the Arts, where he
was in the first graduating class (in 1973). He became an environmental
activist in the mid-1970s, campaigning for the Alaska National Interest Lands
Conservation Act and then serving as executive director of the Northern Alaska
Environmental Center.
has taught at Harvard University, the Oberlin Conservatory, Bennington College,
and the University of Alaska. He has also served as composer in residence with
the Anchorage Symphony, Anchorage Opera, Fairbanks Symphony, Arctic Chamber
Orchestra, and the Alaska Public Radio Network.
his recognition stems almost entirely from his musical career, his book Winter Music: Composing the North placed
him on my radar a dozen years ago. His work has been a steady presence for me
also admired his depictions of two other Alaskan artists, the poet John Haines
and conductor Gordon Wright. Adams has written evocatively of his friendship
with them. Adams’ anecdotes about how he and Wright would hoot at each other
and a visitation from an owl after Wright died came to mind the night before
our interview. I was prepping for our conversation when a Great Horned Owl flew
passed the cabin and landed in a spruce. I went outside and it stayed put for
minutes, bobbing its head and watching me. It was the first owl I’d seen since
spring. Adams’ joked: “That was probably Gordon. He always wanted to be my
press agent.” 
You first came to Alaska in 1975 and stayed for forty years. You
said you came to Alaska instead of going to grad school, and that your time
playing timpani in Fairbanks was more valuable than graduate school could have
been. How exactly did Alaska educate you?
Because I was in
Fairbanks, I had opportunities that just wouldn’t have been available to me
perhaps anywhere else…. I was immediately hired as the timpanist. I’d never
played timpani in my life, but I was a kind of lapsed percussionist. I had the
most important qualification for employment in Fairbanks in those days, though—I
was there. It didn’t hurt that the conductor was my best friend. By the time I
finished I was probably at the best I ever played anything.
As timpanist and composer
in residence at the Fairbanks Symphony, I had the opportunity to learn things
that I probably wouldn’t have had anywhere else. I got to get inside of
orchestral music of all sorts and learn it from the inside out. I learned about
orchestration from inside the orchestra, from hearing the different sections
practice different passages and then hearing how things went together. I always
got the score for everything we were playing so I was not only learning my part
as the timpanist, but I was learning the score. Previously, I’d had little or
no interest in the canon of western classical music. In my youthful rebellion,
I had thrown that baby out with the bathwater. But because I was the timpanist
in the Fairbanks Symphony, I came to terms with that music and learned it from
the inside, and it was incredible.
In time, you know, part
of the devil’s bargain that Gordon [Wright] made with me was “Okay, you play
timpani in my orchestra and I’ll play your music.” So really, as I used to tell
Gordon, I got the better end of both sides there. I got to write things and
hear them played. I got to learn how to compose for orchestra by doing it, not
just by reading about it, and I got this incredible education about the history
of orchestra music that I probably wouldn’t have gotten any other way. It was a
win-win for me.
And for us. You’re primarily identified as a composer, but
you are also an author. You’ve corresponded or collaborated with some fantastic
writers in addition to composers, musicians, and producers. What artistic
obligations span your twin practices of composing and writing?
You know, I didn’t answer
the phone when you first called because my editor was just leaving. We’re
ploughing through the third draft of a new book, which is the story of my life
and work in Alaska. But it’s funny—I try not to think of myself as a writer; I
still talk of myself as a composer who sometimes writes. Maybe that’s just
superstition, but… I want to keep it fun. Composing is difficult.
There was a pitcher—I
can’t remember who it was, but it was a major league pitcher a number of years
ago—who was also a pretty good hitter. Someone said to him “You know, you’re a
good pitcher, but you’re a pretty good hitter, too,” and he said “Pitching is
hard. Hitting is fun.” I sort of feel like that about writing. I know better,
but composing is hard and writing is fun, at least by comparison.
You write quite a bit about the ideas and process behind your
music. Has it felt important to “explain” yourself as a composer through
Well, I’m usually writing
for the same person for whom I’m composing—that is, myself. When I’m composing,
it’s almost as though I’m composing home. I’m trying to hear something I
haven’t heard before. I’m trying always to discover new sonic territory, new
musical territory. If I’m lucky, I get hopelessly lost in those strange new
landscapes. And, of course, that’s what I want for myself, but it’s also what I
want for you, the listener.
As a writer, I write
primarily to figure out what the work wants of me. The great painter Barnet
Newman once quipped—he was a pretty fair writer himself—that the artist
sometimes writes so he’ll have something to read. I think I know what he meant.
I think I understand that. I write sometimes before, sometimes during, and
sometimes after the process of composing to try and figure out what the music
wants from me. It helps me understand the work and where the work wants to lead
So this book I’m working
on now is the story of my life and work in Alaska. I really found home in
Alaska, and it is home in the deepest sense and it always will be. I really
came of age, as an artist and a man, in Alaska.
So now that I’ve left
home, I’m trying to figure out what it was that drew me there in the first
place, what I discovered there, what I thought I was doing, and what it might
have meant, and ultimately why the time came for me to leave. So once again,
I’m writing a book as a process of discovery for myself, and then I hope to
make it a good enough story that somebody else is going to be interested in
reading it.
And you’ll be reading from that new manuscript soon in
Yes—I haven’t decided yet
what I want to read. It’s sort of carrying coals to Newcastle, bringing this
story home, because everyone in the room will have their own Alaska story, but
I’m excited about it.
You’ve written at length about the impact of creative
collaborations and conversations with fellow artists, the conductor Gordon Wright
and poet John Haines. How has your creative process changed in their absence
and your own maturation as an artist?
John and Gordon are two
of the three most important people in my life. The dedication in the new book
is to Cynthia, Gordon, and John. Cynthia, of course, is the love of my life, my
soulmate for thirty nine years, now. John and Gordon are not absent in my life.
They’re still with me every day in so many ways. You know—I shared with those
three people a life and a vision of how the world is and how the world might be
that still sustains me every day in everything that I do.
Did their passing help prompt or even permit your own choice
to leave Alaska?
Absolutely. The short
version is that when Gordon died, I knew the time was coming, and when John
died, I knew the time had come.
As a poet, I was interested in how you describe Gordon Wright
eventually learning that “sound rather than syntax was the key to making sense
of [your] music,” and that it was Haines’s poetry that helped Wright realize
that. Can you comment on how your
experience of poetry and music have informed each other, or how they might
Ya, when I was an
adolescent, like all of us, I wrote bad poetry. I read a lot of poetry and
literature and I might have been a writer, I might have been a poet instead of
a composer. I’ve always had that frame of reference or sensitivity to language.
In addition to John Haines, one of my other dearest friends is Barry Lopez.
Barry and I delight in the feeling that we’re doing the same work in different
forms. We take no end of pleasure in discovering not the differences but the
parallels between our work in different artistic media. So I would say in a way
that as a composer I’ve learned as much—probably more—from writers and from
visual art than I have from music and other composers.
Interesting. I know you’ve endorsed Walter Pater’s notion
that “all the arts constantly aspire to the condition of music,” so it’s
interesting to pair those thoughts.
Well, I’m slumming,
right? [laughs] I think all the arts aspire to be whole. I think all of human
intelligence and our human senses—we want to be whole, and we’ve become so
divided—from ourselves, let alone from one another. We’re at a time in a
culture in which human consciousness itself is dangerously fragmented and I
think part of what we’re trying to do through poetry, through music, through
the science of ecology, through all forms of creative thought… and good science
is every bit as creative as good art… is to re-innovate ourselves, to make
ourselves whole again, to find, as Gregory Bateson would say, “the pattern
which connects.” And in feeling more fully integrated as individuals, hopefully
we feel more integrated with one another and this whole miraculous world we
inhabit, and all the forms of life with which we share this world.
That speaks to the condition of music and its relevancy
across the arts and other disciplines.
Look, I’ve devoted my
life to music and still I have no idea what music is. Music doesn’t care. Music
can be whatever it wants to be. Sure, it can tell a story. Sure, it can express
emotions, but it can also be a place or weather or it can be things that we
haven’t yet imagined or understood. Ultimately, for me, as a composer—and I say
this often—music is not what I do, music is how I understand the world. And the
flip side of that is the whole world is music.
That certainly calls to mind The Place Where You Go To Listen, which was installed ten years ago
at the Museum of the North. The Rasmuson Foundation just announced plans last
month to fund a $104,000 upgrade. How has the meaning of The Place for you has changed over the course of its first decade?
That’s a great question.
I’m amazed that The Place is still up
and running ten years later. It’s a complex piece with a lot of moving parts, you
know, a lot of hardware and a lot of software. I’m delighted and a little
astonished that it’s still running. You know I wrote a whole book about The Place Where You Go To Listen and its
evolution; in my body of work—and maybe in a larger sense— The Place Where You Go To Listen is unique. Within the context of
my work, it’s both a point of arrival and departure. In some ways, it’s my most
Alaskan work and if you want to experience The
Place Where You Go To Listen
you can’t download it on the internet, you can’t
buy a CD. You have to go to Fairbanks and you have to sit in that room and
wait. And listen. And wait. And listen. And wait. And listen. It’s all about
being there in that place.
You could have just been describing, in a way, your creative
process itself over the last forty years. Your description of how one could
experience The Place Where You Go To
also describes, in a way, your approach to the world itself.
Ya, I think that is
astute and generous of you to say. I think that’s right. It’s profoundly
satisfying to me to know that there are people like you—that you can go to The Place Where You Go To Listen and sit
in silence and deep attention and feel as though you’re in tune with, in touch
with, the forces of the world, this music that is swirling around us all the
time, some of it just beyond the reach of our ears.
None of the forces that
actually create the music, none of the forces behind the sounds in The Place Where You Go To Listen, are
normally audible to us. It’s driven by seismic activity, by the photoperiod, by
the phases of the moon, by geomagnetic weather, the solar winds, by the rhythms
of night and day. These are things that we’re not usually able to hear. So you
go there, and they’re transposed into the reach of your ears. You go and you
sit in The Place Where You Go To Listen
and feel as though—even though you won’t recognize a single sound—that somehow
it’s real, it’s alive, and it’s connected to the larger world, and you are
there, alone, in the center of the world. That’s what I want for myself. It’s
what I want for you, the listener, in all of my work.
I’m curious how indigenous people have responded over the
years to your work.
Generally speaking… I’ve
not worked directly with native music. There is one piece from many years ago—Earth and the Great Weather—that is
subtitled “A Sonic Geography of the Arctic”. That’s grounded in the geography
of the eastern north slope—what we now call the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge, which of course is the home country of both Iñupiaq people to the north
and Gwich’in Athabascan people to the south. So in that piece, I worked very
closely with four native performers and even so, I didn’t borrow directly from
native music.
I tried to translate what
I had experienced as the energy of—the spirit of—native music into my own
musical world. I think the profound influence of native culture on my life’s
work has been through—what would I call it?—the wisdom of native experience.
The deep and ancient experience of that place as home. The knowledge that the
whole world has intelligence. The Yupik people talk about the spirit in all
things. That really is close to the heart of my own faith, my own belief
system. Everything in the world—everything in what we call “nature”—has
presence, and dignity, and awareness, and everything in the world is in
counterpoint with everything else, and in some way influences everything else… which is a fundamental principle of
ecology, isn’t it? So that’s probably the deepest influence of native culture
on my work.
Is there anything else you want to share in advance of your
trip to Alaska?
I’m very, very excited
about coming home. I miss Alaska every day, and as I said earlier, it’s home
and it always will be, and I can’t wait to be home for a while.
photo credit: Donald Lee
John Luther Adams will
read from his new book Silences So Deep:
A Memoir of Music and Alaska
in Anchorage at Cyrano’s at 6 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 1
On Friday, Sept. 2 at 7
p.m., he will give an artist’s talk at the Anchorage Museum titled Music in the Anthropocene. A reception
at 8 p.m. will occur in the atrium adjacent to the auditorium. The talk will be
simulcast at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks,
site of his installation The Place Where
You Go to Listen
From 6 p.m. to midnight
on Sept. 2 and 3 the Museum will present the six-hour-long Veils and Vesper, a series of electronic pieces composed by Adams
in 2005. The Alaska Humanities Forum is a sponsor of Adams’ visit. 

Jeremy Pataky is the author of Overwinter (University of Alaska Press 2015) and the
Interim Executive Director of 49 Writers, Inc. He splits his time between
Anchorage and McCarthy.   
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