COMPOSER OF THE YEAR


The 2015 Honorees

By Alex Ross

His is a modern lesson in artistic tenacity: He moved to Alaska to find the music of the wilderness and began creating large-scale works in which the huge landscapes of his adopted state seem to become audible. In the process, he earned himself the Pulitzer Prize in Music.

Many artists are said to have spent years in the wilderness before reaching a position of respect and renown. In the case of John Luther Adams, the recipient of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, the metaphor approaches reality. For most of the 1980s, Adams, who was born in 1953 in Meridian, Mississippi, lived in a cabin in the Alaskan woods, with no running water or electric heat. As the temperature plunged to 40 or 50 degrees below zero, Adams would huddle near a wood stove, attempting to write music that carried on the grand American experimental tradition—the heritage of Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Lou Harrison. Although he wasn’t quite living in the wilderness—Fairbanks was a few miles away—Adams did get to know the genuine article: He had moved to Alaska to work for the Wilderness Society and other conservation groups, seeking to protect the northern parts of the state from development and despoliation.

“I wanted to come up here and help save the wilderness,” Adams told me when I interviewed him for a New Yorker profile a few years ago. “I also wanted to come up and find the music of the wilderness. And there was maybe a naïveté in that. There was certainly a long period of struggle, not just with the physical difficulties of living here but also with the sense that I had maybe made a wrong choice, that I had almost literally dropped off the face of the earth. And around 1984 it happened that this other guy with my name got really famous.” (This is, of course, John Adams of Berkeley, California, Musical America’s Composer of the Year in 1997.) “I thought I could have made more headway if I’d been in New York or Los Angeles. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have made any difference. I still wouldn’t have won the right prizes. And I probably wouldn’t have the music I have now. I needed to break away in every sense; I needed to cultivate my ignorance. Once, when I was turned down for a Guggenheim, Lou Harrison wrote me a wonderful letter saying that I was doing the right thing, because my work could ‘develop in real time, as the young people say.’ That letter was such an incredible gift. It kept me on the path that was ultimately, for me, the right one.”

Adams’s breakthrough came in the 1990s, when, after experiments in writing more conventional pieces for orchestra and instrumental groups, he began creating large-scale works of extraordinary slowness and stillness, in which the huge landscapes of his adopted state, with their gigantic natural processes, seem to become audible: Earth and the Great Weather (1990-93), a music-theatre work based on native Inupiaq and Gwich’in languages; Strange and Sacred Noise (1991-97) for four thundering, shimmering, and pummeling percussionists; Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1991-95), for a large, dark-hued instrumental ensemble; and, perhaps most representatively, In the White Silence (1998), a glowing C-major kaleidoscope for harp, celesta, vibraphones, and strings. The works were too large in scope and particular in their demands to make much headway in the repertoire, but they began to endow Adams’s name with a certain legend: Here, in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, was a man who was going his own way. 

Almost no national critics paid heed to Adams; one of the few who did was Kyle Gann, in the period when he was writing for the Village Voice. While I had several of Adams’s CDs on my shelves it took me a long time to find my way into his work. It is the kind of music that needs to come upon you in the right frame of mind, when you are ready to receive its stubbornly singular message. The turning point for me came in early 2008, when Gann and I served as co-curators of a small festival organized by the Seattle Chamber Players. Adams was one of the composers whom Gann selected; he brought with him a tape of a recent orchestral piece titled Dark Waves (2007), a typically obsessive 12-minute process based on accumulations of the simple interval of the fifth, building to a climax of enormous dissonant complexity and then  fading away. It was one of those listening experiences that had me sitting straight up in my chair, leaning forward tensely, reveling in the sense of hearing something absolutely new. When I got home, I took out the Adams CDs again—In the White Silence and the rest—and found that a fresh world had opened up for me. Almost at once, I set about persuading my editors to let me travel to Alaska and explore that world further.

It seemed as though many people found their way to Adams at around the same time. In the second decade of the new century, the composer began to be celebrated on national and international stages, his years of obscurity behind him. Inuksuit (2009), for up to 99 percussionists, was heard first at the Banff Centre, in Canada, and then at New York’s Park Avenue Armory, where none other than Mark Morris was seen gyrating in the gorgeous wave of noise. Not coincidentally, Adams later figured in Morris’s programs at the Ojai Festival. Dark Waves had a performance at the Chicago Symphony. Northwestern gave Adams the prestigious Michael Ludwig Nemmers prize. This past summer, Sila: The Breath of the World, for five overlapping groups of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings, and voices, filled outdoor spaces at Lincoln Center. But the most notable event was the premiere of Become Ocean, Adams’s first symphonically scaled piece for large orchestra, which the Seattle Symphony premiered in June 2013 and later played at Carnegie Hall, during the final Spring for Music festival, last May. Lush, even quasi-Wagnerian in its heaving expanded-tonal harmonies, yet fiendishly mathematical in the working out of its compositional process (the score is built from musical palindromes), Become Ocean embodies the rich contradictions of Adams’s world-view: his devotion, on the one hand, to a brainy experimental tradition, and, at the same time, his Romantic passion for grand natural vistas and grand spiritual themes.

Adams keeps a cabin in Alaska, but he no longer lives there full time; he also has an apartment in New York City and a home in the Sonoran Desert. The prizes and commissions that once eluded him now readily come his way. But the wilderness soundscape that he arduously mapped out in earlier decades remains embedded in his work; his path has not changed. Anyone who is looking for a modern lesson in artistic tenacity need look no further than John Luther Adams, a deserving recipient of this year’s Musical America citation for Composer of the Year. •

Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker. His first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007), won a National Book Critics Circle Award. A compendium of his writings, Listen to This, was published in 2010. 

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