Steve Wildsmith reflects upon the grandiose beauty of John Luther Adams’s music and how it is shaping his quarantine experience for Blank News. Reposted with permission.
In these uncertain times, I want nothing more than to gather my people and retreat to some far-flung patch of wilderness, where the nearest human dwelling besides my own is miles away and the immediacy of my concerns has more to do with the amount of firewood stacked beside the cabin than it does a virus named COVID-19.
Reality makes that an impossibility, however, and so I’m required to strike a balance between accepting the things I cannot change and finding the courage and willingness to change those that I can. It’s not always an easy distinction because the inundation of virus-related news from both near and far seems to grow to monstrous size, until its towering scope reminds me of the mythical ship-destroying rogue waves found in the farthest reaches of the Pacific.
That, I think, is as good a segue as any into the music of John Luther Adams because one of the choices that’s very much within my ability to change is to spend a little bit of time in meditation and reflection, with the television off, the social media apps shut down and a selection by Adams to bring some stillness to my otherwise racing thoughts.
You may remember Adams from his stint as the composer in residence of the 2016 Big Ears Festival, the loss of which for this year because of coronavirus has many music fans from around the world still in mourning. I had the honor of interviewing him that year, and we spent a great deal of time discussing how his love of wild places informed his contemporary classical composition. It was in the spring of 1974 down in Stockbridge, Georgia, that his world changed, he told me.
Although he spent his formative years in a suburb of New York, his father’s job meant many moves, and after graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, he set out to plant the roots he never felt he had growing up. He would eventually sink them deep into the dark earth of Alaska, but the summer before, he landed in Stockbridge, working as both a farmhand and a part-time librarian. It was there, he said, that the natural world, the vibrations and textures of forces unseen and creations untamed first captivated him.
“Every morning, early, and every evening, I would take these walks in the woods, and I became captivated by this music I heard, always deeper and deeper in the forest,” he told me at the time. “I would try to find the singer, and I never could, but somehow I figured out that what I was hearing was the wood thrush. It turns out that was the favorite birdsong of Henry David Thoreau, and that was kind of a point of departure for my life’s work. It just awakened in me this deep, inarticulate hunger to feel at home in what we call nature.”
He was 21 years old at the time and already a budding composer, having studied with James Tenney at CalArts; in Alaska, he found the home he’d long sought. He became active in environmental and preservationist causes, but it was the staggering beauty of that wild place that stirred him musically.
“It was the space, the stillness, the light, the elemental violence of glaciers catting into the sea, of a wildfire raging through the forest,” he said. “To be a young person in Alaska, especially in those days, was an exhilarating and intoxicating and thrilling time and place. It felt as though anything was possible: that we could save the wilderness, that we would create a model society showing the rest of the world how to live in harmony with one another and with the places we inhabit – and I still cling to that.
“My romanticism has been gouged again and again and again, by things like global climate change and war and terrorism and overconsumption and overpopulation and being a part of a species that seems to be on the brink of extinction, but I still cling to that vision of how the world might be – and, really, at some level, how the world really is, in spite of the internet and Hollywood and living our lives in automobiles and hermetically sealed environments. The world is full of magic, and for me, a life in art, a life in music, is a way to be more deeply in touch with that.”
It’s not a label he hangs around his own neck, but Adams is a seeker of harmonic experiences in the natural world that he distills into works of sublime beauty. “Become Ocean,” his symphonic work that garnered both a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music and a 2015 Grammy award for best contemporary classical composition, is the perfect example. It ebbs and swirls like the dizzying currents of its titular namesake, and in parts both sedate and crushing, the listener can almost feel the enormity of it surrounding them. It’s both grand and intimate, and while a recording is a poor substitute, it’s still a sonic distillation of the majesty those wild places have impressed upon Adams over the years, and in filling my home and head with the beauty of those sounds, I am transported.
It is, in effect, a panacea for worry and trouble. It is an emotional doorway out of the now and all of the cacophony of COVID-19 and into places of grandeur and beauty, from the deep oceans to the vast expanses of sky and sand captured on last year’s “Become Desert,” recorded by the Seattle Symphony. A year earlier, writing in The New York Times, Adams wrote of his latest masterpiece, “You begin to feel that this music you had thought was suspended in time is slowly leading you somewhere, pulling you somewhere. It continues upward, rising with inevitable force, like the wind or the light.”
And that, I believe, is what we need: a force greater than ourselves, pulling us out of the quagmire of this viral darkness, into a place where rock-scrabbled rivers of the Brooks Range wash us clean or the wind-blown sands of the Sonoran Desert scour us free. It’s an experience that we can become a part of, a transcendent work of art that provides a balm for troubled souls beyond many things I’ve ever heard.
“That’s what I live for: the process of discovering the music and letting the music compose me,” Adams told me. “That sense of wonder and gratitude and mystery – that’s what I want for myself and what I want from you. Really, that’s the spirit behind most of what I do. I want to lose myself in something bigger, deeper, vaster and older than I can fathom. I want to get lost in that place.”