As a Southcentral Alaskan kid in the early ’90s, I was unaware of the composer patiently crafting his strict and sensuous body of work 600 miles to the north, close to the Arctic Circle. In 2013, after living, studying and composing for a decade on the Eastern Seaboard, I co-founded a new music project in Southcentral Alaska, and have since presented and performed the music of John Luther Adams there and elsewhere. I spoke with the composer over the phone on September 13. Referring to our shared identity, he quoted an old friend: “There’s no such thing as a former Alaskan.”

VAN: I’m reaching you in New Mexico, right?

John Luther Adams: I like to say, “An undisclosed location in the Chihuahuan Desert.” We’re way down by the Mexican border.

I’m calling you from Berlin. 

You know, believe it or not, I’ve never been to Berlin. And God knows if I’ll ever get there now that I’ve reverted to my Alaska cabin hippie ways. I’m really a hermit. But I hear so much about it and it seems that every time I speak with anyone—I’ve had a number of interviews in the last few years and also meetings, conversations with people who are performing my music in Germany—and every time I get off one of those, I look at Cynthia and I say, “You know, we really should move to Germany.”

It’s a fascinating moment, because you find some of the strictures or the heaviness of Neue Music are changing, especially in Berlin. But also I feel much more self-consciously American than I ever have before…

When I was closer to your age, going over for performances and such, I felt very, very American. Although, so much of my life I felt like… well, I remember the line from my beloved friend, John Haines: “I felt something wrong / with my life, like a man / who has marched for years / under an enemy flag.”

I’ve never been a flag-waving patriot kind of guy, and especially in recent years, I’ve really struggled with the question of what it means to be an artist in what we, with characteristic hubris, call America. I’ve now lived in Mexico and Chile, and—wait a minute [Laughs.]—there’s more to America than the U.S.A.

I just read Walter Zimmermann’s Desert Plants interviews, and I was struck by the fact that here I am facing eastward toward Zimmermann, who is himself looking westward, trying to find out exactly what the salient features of this “American” attitude are?

There’s a kind of cultural arrogance, even in Walter’s title. I mean, I love that book. Those are some great conversations. But just the idea that we are desert plants—here I am speaking to you from my undisclosed location in the Chihuahuan Desert and I am a total tundra hound and desert rat—but this idea that somehow we’re unnourished is a very Eurocentric view. And it feels to me that in the “Americas” (let’s use Peter Garland’s title or Varèse’s piece [“Amériques”]) somehow we’re a little closer to the earth—even as we used the earth more horribly than people in Europe do—and there’s this sense of being able to imagine a different kind of music.

Articles like this, straight to your inbox

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

That’s a very positive way of looking at the possibilities, but of course there’s a pathological dimension to this, a kind of cultural amnesia: the notion that we tuck away everything unsightly at our convenience. The presence of so much land gave us more places to hide our dirty laundry.

And we can’t hide from it now! You know, there are too damn many of us and we live far too heavy on the earth and we have all these guns and we are a nation founded on genocide and slavery. It’s impossible! What I try to do somehow is hold both visions, hold that reality and hold the vision that I had as an idealistic young person—I guess that I still have as an idealistic old person—of how we might recognize our history, mourn, and begin to imagine how we might move beyond it.

“Bearing witness” might be another way of saying it. Not to dwell on it, or to despair, but to bear witness. And that creates spaces for opportunity.

Absolutely, and more and more I have to check myself; I find myself using that kind of almost religious vocabulary. It’s hard not to lapse into those kinds of phrases, but in fact, as my dear friend, the late Barry Lopez, always would say, our work is our prayer.

John Luther Adams composing (Photo: Lucian Read)

I wanna shift a little bit to the new record coming out, “Sila: The Breath of the World.” The recording of “Inuksuit” might be regarded as a kind of translation or a trace of that outdoor experience, recorded in Vermont with the environmental sounds in. “Sila” exists in a much more pristine sonic environment, exquisitely recorded. Of course, partly that’s due to the pandemic conditions. So should listeners bear in mind the performance practice of the piece, or do you consider the recorded “Sila” to be essentially a different piece from the live outdoor piece?

Every recording is a different experience from live performance. It’s not the same thing; it can’t be. And I celebrate that. I hate rehearsals of my own music because I’m useless. All I can do is sit and worry. But I love recording sessions because that’s the only place outside my studio where I feel useful. And I love mixing. Although I’ve been lucky to work with the same audio producer—Nathaniel Reichman, a recovering Alaskan—since he was 19. So, by now, he understands what the music needs better than the composer does. That’s a great relief for me and it’s a joy to come into a mixing session and be able to contribute what perhaps only I can contribute.

But I want to go back to your connection between “Inuksuit” and “Sila,” because the way you make the connection is very astute. It is a composer’s observation. In a way, “Sila” maybe lends itself better to recording. As you say, it’s a pandemic recording, but it’s not a pandemic piece. In fact, it’s not a piece, it’s pieces, comprising five independent instrumental and vocal ensembles, and it can be performed in any combination. It really lends itself to recording the way we did: it was recorded in a recording studio, it was [also] recorded in a beautiful concert hall in Ann Arbor, one ensemble at a time, and then assembled and mixed as a recording.

So Nathaniel and Doug [Perkins, co-producer] brought me this beautiful mix, and we were in Dolby studios in New York, and I sat back and I listened to the first ten minutes or so, and it sounded like Bruckner or Tibetan Buddhist monks; it was just this wonderful kind of primal….rumble, roar, rising toward a howl, and I loved it! Very different from anything I’d heard outside with “Sila,” but I thought, “OK, this is a recording.” 

But after about 20 or 30 minutes, I started to fatigue and to miss what I knew was in the music from hearing it mostly outdoors. And so what I did was to orchestrate each cloud in the recording. We recorded the full “Sila,” the symphony of a thousand, and then I went through for the recording and orchestrated it. We drop brass out, [etc.]… I think percussion and strings are always there.

So you’re exerting considerably more control than you would in any live circumstance. “Sila” is no longer like R. Murray Schafer’s “soniferous garden”… 

Oh absolutely more, and really more than I usually exert in recordings. Because, as you surmised with your initial question—whatever the hell that was—this is a tricky one to record. When I first heard it, I was knocked out and then, like I say, I was kind of knocked down and I thought, all right, now I’ve gotta…not compose the recording, but orchestrate the recording. 

I recently released this sleeper of an album, which I love, called “Houses of the Wind.” It’s a set of five electroacoustic pieces that are all composed entirely from a ten-minute recording of an aeolian harp that I made in the 1980s on the Arctic Coastal Plain. I’m very, very fond of that recording, as I am of the earlier piece, “The Place We Began.” You know, people aren’t as familiar with that side of my music. It’s also easy, I think, for folks to say, Oh, this is the ambient or something. Well, it’s not. Not even close.

I am hoping to do more electroacoustic music with more of the field recordings that I made over the course of a couple of decades in Alaska.

“The Place Where You Go to Listen” is a sonic room generated entirely by electronic sound, “Veils and Vesper” is an electroacoustic work recently presented with the intermittent human performers that you had been imagining for some time. “Sila,” in all of its possible combinations, is an acoustic work.  Is it important that we know that what we’re hearing is acoustically generated? When you have a recording, it could be processed in any number of ways; it could have your electronic “aura” in…

I don’t really have a ready answer for that. I’m all over the map in terms of media. I guess that’s because I’m a glutton, just for the sheer sensuous beauty, power, and mystery of sound itself.

There’s no processing at all on the recording of “Sila.” Although I love using those tricks in the studio to make a recording bring out the music more clearly. It’s not any kind of purity stance on my part. I guess the only artificial aspect of recording, which I enjoyed, was orchestrating the recording. It’s a purely orchestral piece, but if anyone thinks maybe it’s electronic sounding or something, that of course is because it’s not equal temperament. It’s acoustically perfect tuning, grounded in the harmonic series. That gives it a different quality, harmonically, and in terms of timbre.

Do just intonation and microtonal tuning play a central role in your current thinking or is tuning rather a corollary concern in structure for you?

I used to say, in answer to a question like that, that I love acoustically perfect tuning. I mean, I studied with James Tenney. Lou Harrison. I have studied and admired the music of La Monte Young for years. Let’s go back to the American thing—this is something that happened over here, more profoundly, earlier on [than in Europe]. It’s funny: a young composer said to me, decades ago, “John, you should check out the spectralists. I think you’d like their music.” And I said to him, “What do you think I am?”

You just didn’t have the pedigree, right?

I didn’t have the manifesto or the label and I don’t want one. I’m a hermit in the desert, what are you gonna do? And I would still say about your question that I love acoustically perfect tuning, but I love musical colors. I love timbre and harmony and I love being on the cusp of not being quite sure of what you’re hearing. I use equal temperament. I use acoustically perfect tuning. I use some odd nonstandard tunings that are kind of hybrids of both… I love tunings, but that’s not what it’s about, for me. 

You’ve spoken in the past of the difference between rhetorical surprise and sensual surprise, giving up big rhetorical sleight of hand for a kind of gradual, sensual awareness or a new way of listening. Or working like James Tenney, giving us the form from the outset so that all there is to listen to are the “microacoustical details.”And you have some works which are very mathematically fixed, but you have other works where you mess with the algorithm.

Yeah. I just feel that I can now. I guess I trust myself. I always used to say that I observed this formalism to protect the music against the bad taste of the composer. And I still stand by that, but maybe the composer’s taste isn’t quite as bad as it used to be, because he’s lived in this musical world for so long.

Are there circumstances where the form is so blatant that it paradoxically distracts you from the microacoustical details?

Certainly some early process music, which was so exciting in the 1970s, really does come to a boredom now—not the kind of boredom that people who were bored in the ‘70s thought they were bored with, but a different kind. And so I’m increasingly more about ambiguity, but I’m still a rigorous formalist. I still love my mathematics.

But if push comes to shove—I don’t have to choose, but if I had to choose between the formal and the sensuous—I would choose the sensuous.

I used to describe your works as sort of intricate constructions with all the people gone, like Michael Heizer’s “City” or James Turrell’s crater project, but that doesn’t really seem quite right to me anymore. Especially in regard to pieces like these outdoor works, which invite us to consider how communities form or how they might embody ecosystems. And then there are also, from time to time, little songs on John Haines poems, such as “Little Cosmic Dust Poem,” where there’s a singer and a text.

I just wrote my fifth John Haines song. I wrote it to “If the Owl Calls Again,” his first published poem. [Laughs.]

"I've always been this kind of misanthropic, reclusive, cabin guy, sort of taking Thoreau to extremes." John Luther Adams in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

So does the human element play a changing role in your music?

Yeah. Look, I’ve always been this kind of misanthropic, reclusive, cabin guy, sort of taking Thoreau to extremes, right? Thoreau was there, what, two and a half years, and walked to town for dinner. I’ve kind of taken it too far. In the old days, I would’ve thought of my music exactly like Heizer or Turrell or the [Smithson] “Spiral Jetty,” but I don’t tear up land to do it, which is nice… [Laughs.]

And there was this moment of epiphany around “Inuksuit.” I think it began to dawn on me when I was composing it. There I was, alone in my wood-burning studio, composing this piece about these isolated stones out in the middle of nowhere in the tundra (of course, the stones were put there by people). But I thought I was composing a piece about solitude, and then I heard the first performance of “Inuksuit” at Banff in the Canadian Rockies [in the summer of 2009] and I saw people listening alone together. I heard them talking about it afterwards: “Now I heard this,” and “I was over there,” and—oooh—suddenly my whole idea of community changed.

So I have a very different sense of my work in the last 15 years. And now, as I approach my 70th birthday and I’m losing friends left and right, and I’m beginning to feel the signs of my own inevitable mortality, I’m thinking about these things in a different way. And it’s good. It’s sometimes hard. It’s sometimes dark. These are dark times.

What keeps me going is my belief in the culture that will rise from the rubble that my generation is leaving. What keeps me going is my love for and faith in the next generations. 

There’s nobody in these pieces because there’s no protagonist. It’s not me. It’s not a story… You used the word “surprise.” I would use the word “discovery,” which is a different thing. “Surprise” to me is like entertainment. But that’s not what this is about. This is about walking on the mountain, or what’s gonna happen next in that thunderstorm. It’s about paying attention and maybe being a little bit disoriented, even frightened and discovering something that you didn’t know was there.

My two examples with your music would be: I heard “Strange and Sacred Noise” in Toronto. I was almost alone in a church and I found myself weeping during the air raid sirens movement because the physical sensations were just so shocking to my expectations. On another occasion, I was wandering around the [Park Ave] Armory with a friend, completely ignorant of the dress rehearsal of “Inuksuit” that was taking place. We stumbled into the drill hall. I had a very special experience with that piece because it wasn’t supposed to be happening; it was just there. This is the kind of thing that you’re alluding to, “discovery,” or a real shock to your expectations, not “surprise” in an entertainment sense. Is it harder to do that in the concert hall?

You’re asking these questions that people haven’t asked me before. And it’s fantastic, because you’re giving me something to think about. I don’t really know. But I think it might be harder to do that in a concert hall. In Murray Schafer’s The Soundscape, he was reviewing the rise of the concert hall in European culture, saying, When music can no longer effectively be heard outdoors, it moves indoors. That’s a completely different way of listening. And I love that way of listening.

But I began to wonder, right about the time I did “Inuksuit,” whether the reverse might be true: When music could no longer be effectively heard indoors, was it time to move outdoors? A piece like “Strange and Sacred Noise” is meant to saturate the performance space and to provoke the kind of experience that you had. I mean, when you were talking about your experience in Toronto, I got chills, because that’s what I want for myself. But, after all those years, trying to evoke that and hitting the limits of the concert hall, with “Inuksuit,” I decided it was time to move outdoors.

Of course, I’m still doing concert pieces; I’m on my tenth string quartet! So I’m working in both worlds and trying to have it both ways, in both places. But I think the short answer to your question is, it probably is more difficult to do that indoors.

I haven’t given up on the concert hall because the world is so acoustically loud, that I find it’s such a relief—my blood pressure drops—when I sit in a quiet place. And very often that’s a concert hall.

We have that need to have them, just like we have for churches and sanctuaries, even if we don’t believe in God.

What about your sanctuary: Do you miss the extreme seasons of Alaska or do you find the more subtle seasonal cues of the desert to be an invitation to sharpen your perceptions?

Yes and no. We’re in a funny location: We live at 6,000 feet, at the extreme northern end of the Chihuahuan desert. Lechuguilla is the agave that is the indicator species of the Chihuahuan Desert, and the last Lechuguilla is, like—I’m looking at it. We’re at this odd intersection of these different climatic and biological zones. And we actually have five seasons here. We’ve got three summers, one very dry and windy, one very wet and hot, and we have the one we’re in now, which is, like, perfect. But we get single digits and howling winds and snow. And we lived for two years in Chile, in the Atacama desert, at 8,000 feet. So I’m still kind of living with extremes.

Now it may not be about light, but instead it’s about these very strange and particular seasons.

Exactly. There’s nothing like those extremes of light and dark in the summer. And I do miss those. There’s a quality to that arctic and subarctic light that I’ve never seen in any place else. And of course there’s the aurora. We don’t have that here, and I miss that. It was a decade or so before I realized that that had so deeply permeated my consciousness. My music was, like me, drawn to extremes. ¶

Subscribers keep VAN running!

VAN is proud to be an independent classical music magazine thanks to our subscribers. For just over 10 cents a day, you can enjoy unlimited access to over 650 articles in our archives—and get new ones delivered straight to your inbox each week.

Not ready to commit to a full year?
You can test-drive VAN for one month for the price of a coffee.

Conrad Winslow

Conrad Winslow is a composer whose musical forms are fiercely committed to legibility and broad expressive bandwidth, often combining precipitous edges with graceful shifting syntax, “…provoking questions...