Discover more from The Honest Broker
The Brilliant Bad Decisions of John Luther Adams
He never finished high school, took demanding work outside of music, moved to a cabin in Alaska, etc. Can you really win a Pulitzer Prize this way? Well, yes. . .
Below is the latest installment in a series of articles on people I call visionaries of sound. These individuals demonstrate, in their lives and craft, that music is much more than mere commercial entertainment. Instead their songs possess profound power as transformative forces in human society.
In previous installments, I’ve written about:
Charles Kellogg, an eccentric master of transformative sound who could put out fires with his music.
Hermeto Pascoal, who has earned my praise as the “most musical man in the world.”
Raymond Scott, the eccentric and secretive inventor of the Electonium.
Layne Redmond, a percussionist who devoted her life to reviving the most ancient drumming traditions in human history.
Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, the honky-tonk nun of Ethiopia.
Paul Winter, a global ambassador for music as an art form beyond category.
Hans Jenny, creator of Cymatics, a science of sound as a creative force in organizing physical reality.
Therese Schroeder-Sheker, an inspiring harpist who has devoted a half century to playing music for the dying.
Many people wouldn’t recognize a single name on this list—which is terribly sad, given the rich body of wisdom possessed by these innovators and pioneers. Even knowledgeable music critics might only know about two or three of them.
But today I’m celebrating a more renowned musician, Pulitzer-winning composer John Luther Adams. He very much deserves a place among these visionaries—because Adams has done more than anybody to create large-scale soundscapes that bridge the gap between music and ecology. His compositions somehow manage to bring the larger environment into the concert hall—almost as if the traditional orchestras were channeling the sounds and scope of nature.
His music is one-of-a-kind. And so is his life story.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
The Brilliant Bad Decisions of John Luther Adams
By Ted Gioia
I’m fascinated with bad decisions that turn out for the better. I’ve made a few of them myself.
In my mid-20s, I was offered a very attractive position in New York, and even flew out to plan the move. But at the last minute I changed my mind. I just couldn’t pull the trigger.
It didn’t feel right. The energy in Manhattan was too overwhelming. I didn’t think I could survive there. I had confidence in my abilities, but worried that my daily demeanor wasn’t tough enough.
My first morning there I saw a pedestrian get hit by a taxi after he stepped into the crosswalk. The dude just went flying in the air—about eight or nine feet, before falling in a huddle on the sidewalk. My jaw dropped, and I even screamed something. But everybody else just kept walking along as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Then the victim on the ground got up, brushed himself off—and rushed off to do his business too.
Frankly, I still don’t think I’m tough enough for New York.
Instead I took a music job out West with a much lower salary—90% less than the NY job! Of course, this meant that I was giving up more than just money. I was also losing all those important connections I’d make in Manhattan. By any measure, this was a stupid move for someone with a calling in music.
But fast forward several decades. . . . I now believe that this bad decision to stay put in California was the single best career move I’ve made in my entire life. I must have had some inkling of all this at the time. Or maybe I was just lucky.
Then I consider the case of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, who made an even crazier decision in his mid-20s. Like me, he was in the very early stages of building a reputation in California, and decided to move to Alaska.
Alaska? Is there a music scene there?
Adams had every reason to go to New York. It was almost his home. After a childhood bouncing around from city to city because of his dad’s job with the “telephone company” (there was only one back then), the future composer’s father finally got transferred to AT&T’s downtown Manhattan headquarters.
Adams was developing his skills as a rock drummer at the time, and made full use of his new home base, gravitating to the local musician hangouts—buying drumheads and equipment at Sam Ash or Manny’s Music, listening to the eccentric street musician Moondog on 6th Avenue, and checking out clubs in the Village.
Then things took a turn for the worse—such a precipitous decline that, in retrospect, it’s surprising Adams ever recovered from them.
“One evening in 1968 my dad came home and announced that the company had transferred him to Macon, Georgia,” Adams recalls in his memoir Silences So Deep. “I felt as though the world as I knew it was coming to an end. Both my parents were alcoholic. In Georgia, their drinking escalated. So did my rebellion. . . . I never graduated from high school.”
There aren’t many good career options for a high school dropout in Macon, Georgia. Yet somehow, against all odds, Adams was able to convince California Institute of the Arts to accept him as a student.
It helped that Cal Arts was, in the minds of many, a new and unproven enterprise, one of the last visionary ideas of Walt Disney. The creator of Mickey Mouse had helped mastermind the merger of two struggling institutions—Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and Chouinard Art Institute—a marriage that led to the founding of this new school. After his death, others helped out; but in those days, it seemed less like a college, and more like an extension of Hollywood, where Adams lived during his student years.
Yet even this step forward proved short-lived. Adams’s father complained about his son’s choice of such a peculiar institution. When dad announced that he would no longer pay the bills for Cal Arts, it looked as if Adams would, once again, end up as a dropout. But he exercised his ingenuity and persuasive powers, somehow managing to secure a degree after only two years.
If he had just stayed in Hollywood, Adams would almost certainly have enjoyed a successful music career. I can practically hear those soundtrack albums playing in my head. Adams was already making his name, and showed tremendous promise. Lou Harrison praised one of his pieces. He won a small grant. He made valuable contacts with other composers.
But instead, John Luther Adams returned to Georgia for a while, then took a job as a ranch hand in Idaho.
Few would have predicted a glorious career of any sort for Adams at that juncture. He had already made too many bad decisions in his short life—and he was about make an even worse one.
Adams’s decision to relocate to Alaska at this juncture would be puzzling under any circumstances, but especially for a young man who had already experienced both New York and Hollywood. Some might make a case that he moved to Alaska as part of an artist’s personal vision, but even that would be stretching matters. He actually relocated to take a job with the Fairbanks Environmental Center. With this new career path in mind, he loaded up his pickup truck, and headed north.
Even at this stage, Adams had little grasp of his destiny. Was he a composer or an environmentalist? At the time, he had few doubts about how to answer that question. “In my twenties and into my thirties (in the 1970s and 80s), I was a full time environmental activist,” he notes. You might say Adams eventually learned how to merge both these sides of his life—yet he bristles at any suggestion that his music is an extension of his activism. “I refuse to make political art,” he asserts.
Yet even in politics, Adams felt stretched beyond his capabilities. “During my years as an activist I’d learned how to project a confident public persona,” he would later explain. “But it exhausted me.”
The composer continues:
“My relationship had suffered. My music had suffered. My health began to suffer. And in time I came to understand that, fundamentally, I’m an introvert. It became clear to me that I had to make a choice between politics and music. I chose music. Now I retreated to a cabin in the woods. . .”
Normally this is where the story ends.
I’ve met creative people like this. You probably have too. They start out their lives with high hopes, and a few experiences that excite their ambitions. But then they leave New York or Hollywood behind, and retreat to some place where there’s less pressure, no expectations, few contacts with others in their field. . . . And there they disappear.
I’ve heard others, more callous, call them “New York burnouts.” Or even “losers” or “failed wannabes.” But more often, such people aren’t called anything at all, because back in the centers of power and influence, they’re totally forgotten.
And consider the particulars of Adams’s situation. Even city life in Fairbanks, Alaska was too intense for him. Few introverts make such an extreme retreat.
Yet somehow, Adams defied the long odds. He not only made his name in music, but found a path, from that humble cabin, to renown as one of the most esteemed living composers. I’m not sure I can explain how he did it, or come up with rules others might follow to emulate his success.
But I have a hunch that the key here was how little John Luther Adams paid attention to trends or fads. Or pleasing grant-giving organizations. Or impressing his peers.
Instead, he listened to the world around him, and learned to find a way to put it into music. To some extent, this is the oldest compositional strategy of them all, but hardly a way to pursue stardom on the concert hall stage.
And it’s a difficult one to practice, at least in the contemporary music world, where you don’t hold the mirror up to nature. Mirrors are for preening or posturing or cutting coke, perhaps, but rarely for reflecting back the larger environment.
Adams’s early works aren’t often heard, but offer insights into the gradual construction of his mature style. They reveal a determination to broaden his sonic palette and develop a personal relationship to tonal language.
There’s no commercial recording of “Green Corn Dance,” composed shortly before his move to Alaska, on the streaming services. But this live performance reminds me of the gamelan and percussion works that were in vogue on the West Coast back then—for example, the so-called “American gamelan” projects pursued by Lou Harrison. A few years later, the first Balinese gamelan company, Gamelan Sekar Jaya, was set up in San Francisco, and I could easily imagine Adams moving in that direction.
But compositions written during the next phase of his development reveal a much more original conception. His first fully-realized work is Songbirdsongs, which shows as much influence from the natural world as it does with prevailing trends on the contemporary music scene. Adams was hardly the first composer to imitate songbirds, but the inspiration with which he does this is lovelingly fulfilled in various groups of piccolos, ocarinas, flutes, and percussion.
As with real birds, the instrumentalists are given characteristic phrases, which they are asked to perform in ways that match the actual singing patterns of the birds in their natural environment. This work still lacks the holistic sweep that will characterize the composer’s mature efforts—and even in within his ornithologically-minded corpus, Strange Birds Passing from 1983 is a better place to start. Even so, Adams had now crossed an important divide in his personal evolution, aligning his musical identity with his ecological values.
At a certain point, Adams upped his ambitions. The composer who had decided to learn his craft from nature now aimed to encompass the entire natural world in his compositions. What an amazing agenda—beyond anything taught in any conservatory.
Even the names and instrumentation of his works signaled the expanding aspirations that now prodded Adams in his vocation. In the 1990s, he composed Make Prayers to the Raven for flute, violin, harp, cello, and percussion. For In a Treeless Place, Only Snow he chose harp, celesta, two vibraphones, and string quartet. Five Yup'ik Dances (1991–94) was composed for solo harp.
The sound palettes were unconventional. But that’s exactly what Adams required. As the new century unfolded, he aimed at nothing less than capturing the sky, the waves, the wind, and the cosmos in his music.
How do you encompass the natural world in music?
Consider The Place Where You Go to Listen, an installation set up at the UA Museum of the North in 2006, which Alex Ross has described as an “infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time.” Or to be more specific: Adams “translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into an intricate, vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.”
Ross, who traveled to Alaska to experience this firsthand, describes his introduction to the installation:
“The first day I was there, The Place was subdued, though it cast a hypnotic spell. Checking the Alaskan data stations on my laptop, I saw that geomagnetic activity was negligible. Some minor seismic activity in the region had set off the bass frequencies, but it was a rather opaque ripple of beats, suggestive of a dance party in an underground crypt. Clouds covered the sky, so the Day Choir was muted. After a few minutes, there was a noticeable change: the solar harmonies acquired extra radiance, with upper intervals oscillating in an almost melodic fashion. Certain that the sun had come out, I left The Place, and looked out the windows of the lobby. The Alaska Range was glistening on the far side of the Tanana Valley.”
“Creating The Place required two years of work in my studio,” Adams explained. “Yet in a very real sense this work could only be completed in the final listening space itself.”
“The Place resonates sympathetically with the world outside. In turn, I hope it reverberates back into the world. . . . The music of The Place is produced by natural phenomenon. But this is not a scientific demonstration of natural phenomena. It is a work of art. The essence of this work is the sounding of natural forces interacting with the consciousness of the listener. This is not a simulated experience of the natural world [emphasis mine]. It is a heightened form of experience itself.”
That’s an extraordinary thing to say. Composers have been writing program music since time immemorial. They recreate the world in their music. But Adams wants the experience itself. In The Place he’s trying to bring the natural world inside an enclosed space. Or, even better, inside your head.
At some point, Adams found his music gravitating more to the most earthly sound of all: the drone. The drone sounds like a simple enough concept, but in the current aural culture it has taken on new life as a genre-crossing vision that manifests itself everywhere from soundtracks to jazz to choral music
These works impose a completely different listening experience. Time slows down. Your separation from the music erodes, you’re almost immersed in it, and that age-old divide between performer and audience—the greatest curse of our formal music traditions—finally starts to melt away. If we could apply actual lab tests in concert halls, they would show, I’m convinced, that brain waves, body chemistry, organic rhythms are altered by listening to the compositions of John Luther Adams, especially the lengthier ones.
You can hear Adams’s mastery of this sonic palette grow over time. In The Far Country of Sleep (1988), he develops his slow-moving orchestral textures over the course of seventeen minutes, but with occasional interludes (silence, fanfares, ominous drum patterns, etc.) to breakup the walls of sound. Adams describes this work, dedicated to the memory of Morton Feldman, as an evocation of “the distant dreamscapes of the Arctic and that ultimate wilderness, through which we all must pass.”
But by the time we arrive at In the White Silence, composed a decade later, Adams has upped the ante considerably. This is 75 minutes of music, immersive and free-flowing. But it’s broken up into 19 tracks on the commercial recording—a beginning section followed by 18 movements each defined by a letter of the alphabet.
In the White Silence is still a good entry point into John Luther Adam’s oeuvre, if only because the newcomer to his work still feels like they are entering it. In it’s fullest realization, most notably on his compositions from the last decade, Adams’s music enters you. Or perhaps a better analogy is getting thrown into deep waters.
I had an experience at around age eight or nine when I almost drowned, and even thinking about at this distance in time still overwhelms me. A first exposure to Adam’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work Become Ocean is hardly so frightening, but there’s still a similarity between the two experiences. Music of this sort is bigger than you, more powerful. If you really want to make it’s acquaintance, you have no other option but to surrender to it.
As is often the case with Adams, the names are more than labels. Become Ocean isn’t Water Music or Surf’s Up or any of those other tributes to sea and shore—the admonitory title already gives you a sense of urgency. How many classical music pieces have names in the second person, instructing the audience what to do? Maybe Adams’s background as an activist has come to the forefront after all. We are not just asked to listen to this music, but become part of it.
I’m tempted to call this composition a masterpiece, but that puts too much emphasis on the work itself, when what Adams has created is an immersive experience that masquerades as an orchestral work. Adams himself must have realized the extraordinary potential of this kind of music, because Become Ocean got expanded into a trilogy, that also includes Become River and Become Desert.
The latter work got released in a two-disc set, with an extra DVD featuring a surround-sound remix—created with the help of Dolby Atmos—and a looping slideshow of Adams’s desert images. I guess you can’t actually fit the desert into your home entertainment center, or even a concert hall. But you can’t say John Luther Adams didn’t try.
I have long been interested in the relationship between music and trance, one of the oldest connections in human history, but rarely acknowledged within music conservatories or symphony halls. Adams has changed that. This music not only allows a trancelike state, but demands it. Listeners are brought along on a journey far beyond what they may have expected—and one they are unlikely to forget.
Around the time he won the Pulitzer Prize, Adams himself embraced the desert, leaving Alaska and setting up a home in the stark Sonoran terrain of Mexico. He also spends part of the year in New York—more than a half-century after he left it on his life-changing journey. But at this point, John Luther Adams doesn’t need to network at the concert halls or cocktail parties that Manhattan offers.
They call it the Big Apple—so big that nobody can take more than a bite. But he’s found something even bigger.