To say that John Luther Adams writes a kind
of eco-music would be fair enough, so long as the description
to suggest that his work is merely a kind of propaganda.
It is far more interesting than that.
Adams’ earliest musical involvement was with rock – as
a drummer. The music of Frank Zappa led him, in turn, to
that of Varèse, Cage and Morton Feldman. He grew up in a
variety of suburbs across the U.S.A., then studied music
in California, before beginning work as an environmentalist.
This took him to Alaska in 1975; he has lived there since
1978. “As a young man, I came to Alaska in search of home.
The moment I arrived I knew I'd found it” he said in a 2004
Adams’ music reflects the extremes of the landscape
in which he now lives, full of musical images of power and
space; it is also very much concerned with the human life
lived there – now and in the past – and with the interaction
of human and non-human. Luther Adams himself says that his
music owes much to that of James Tenney, with whom he studied
in California. Though it certainly draws on a range of avant-garde
influences – one might, for example, add Lou Harrison, Harry
Partch and Henry Cowell to the names mentioned above – it
has a distinctive character of its own. He couldn’t be confused
with the ‘other’ John Adams!
Earth and the Great Weather
by the Festival of Native Arts at the University of Alaska
at Fairbanks. It carries
the subtitle: ‘A Sonic Geography of the Arctic’ and in the
CD booklet is described, presumably by Adams himself, as ‘a
journey through the physical, cultural and spiritual landscapes
of the Arctic, in music, language and sound’ (see concert
The ‘sounds’ include Adams’ own recordings of some of
the natural sounds of the area, such as birdsong, running
water and the sound of the wind on small Æolian harp.
The ‘music’ includes three extended pieces for four
drummers: fierce, compelling and tightly structured, based,
we are told, on rhythmic cells derived from the traditional
dance music of two of the native peoples of Alaska, the Inupiat
and the Gwich’in. Elsewhere Adams writes for strings and
digital delay, in an idiom best described in the composer’s
own words: ‘This music inhabits a non-tempered harmonic world,
based on the first eight odd-numbered harmonics of a low-D
on the double-bass. All the sounds are produced either from
re-tuned open strings, or natural harmonics up to the 105th
the seventh of the fifteenth. It is an idiom which owes something
to the ideas and practice of composers such as La Monte Young
and Lou Harrison, but the result is highly individual.
The ‘language’ includes texts in four languages: Inupiaq,
Gwich’in, English and Latin. Most of these texts - elaborately
detailed in the CD booklet - are concerned with the various
names of plants and places, the seasons and the weather,
the results strangely evocative and resonant.
Earth and the Great Weather
attention - and fair
stamina – from the listener, but it rewards that listener
with passages of extraordinary beauty, with a sense of sublimity.
This is not picture postcard music, not cinematic or pictorial
in any obvious sense. Yet it evokes a place and a way of
living with remarkable power; it is, in a sense, the musical
complement to the work of the British poet Tom Lowenstein,
whose poetry engages with the life of some of the same Alaskan
societies - a recent volume is Ancestors and Species:
New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry
by Shearsman Books.
Like Lowenstein’s poetry, Luther Adams’ music has a
refreshing newness of perspective, alerting us to the parochiality
of many of our own standards and conventions, serving to
make us realise that that is just what they are – conventions
of our own society, not universal truths. Amongst other things,
music such as Earth and the Great Weather cleanses the ears
and the mind, makes us better listeners when we return to
other more ‘conventional’ music. Along the way it offers
us much that is striking and beautiful.