In Search of an Ecology of Music
by John Luther Adams

The science of ecology is a study of patterns. Ecology examines the intricate patterns that connect organisms and the environments in which they live. Beyond the particular patterns themselves, ecology considers the totality of patterns and the larger systems they create.

An ecosystem is a network of patterns, a complex multiplicity of elements that function together as a whole. I conceive of music in a similar way. For me the essence of music is not the specific patterns of harmony, melody, rhythm and timbre. It’s the totality of the sound, the larger wholeness of the music.

The central truth of ecology is that everything in this world is connected to everything else. The great challenge now facing the human species is to live by this truth. We must reintegrate our fragmented consciousness and learn to live in harmony with the larger patterns of life on earth, or we risk our own extinction.

As a composer it is my belief that music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding. By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture. Over the years this belief has led from me from music inspired by the songs of birds, to landscape painting with tones, to elemental noise and beyond, in search of an ecology of music.

The songs of birds first awakened in me a profound longing to feel at home in nature. From that longing grew the vision of a music grounded in deep attention to the natural world, a vision that has been at the heart of my work ever since. In the songbirdsongs – a collection of pieces for piccolos and percussion composed from 1974 through 1979 – I worked without the aid of recordings. I was determined to learn this music directly from the birds, through firsthand experience listening in the field. In time I found myself listening more and more closely to the music of the field itself.

For more than a decade I composed musical landscapes. My experiences in wild places inspired choral and orchestral works such as Night Peace (1977), A Northern Suite (1979-81) and The Far Country of Sleep (1988). In Earth and the Great Weather (1990-93) I combined the Native languages of the Iñupiat and Gwich’in peoples with drumming inspired by their dance rhythms, string music inspired by an Aeolian harp, and my own recordings of natural sounds, to create a “sonic geography” of a sacred place ­ the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Beginning with Dream In White On White (1992) my music became less pictorial as I aspired to evoke the experience, the feeling of being in a place, without direct reference to a particular landscape.

The light in northern latitudes embodies colors and textures that I’ve experienced in no other place. After living in Alaska for many years I came to wonder whether I could somehow convey in music these special qualities of light. In a series of works for small ensembles, beginning with The Light That Fills the World (1999/2001) and including Dark Wind (2001), The Farthest Place (2001-02), The Immeasurable Space of Tones (2002) and Red Arc/Blue Veil (2002), I pursued a music composed entirely of floating fields of color. Yet even as my music became more abstract, it continued to be haunted by landscape.

In a trilogy of concert-length orchestral works, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1991-95), In the White Silence (1998) and for Lou Harrison (2003-04), I aspired to evoke those intimations of the sublime that we sometimes feel in a beautiful landscape. But just as we can find transcendent peace in the beauty of nature, we can also discover a different kind of transcendence in the presence of elemental violence.

Inspired by my encounters with calving glaciers, raging rivers, wildfires and extreme weather, Strange and Sacred Noise (1991-98) celebrates the primal forces of nature, in music composed primarily of noise. In this extended cycle for percussion quartet I discovered more than I had imagined. Deep within the complex sounds of snare drums, tam-tams, tom-toms, bass drums, bells and air raid sirens, I began to hear voices. These voices had a haunting, almost human quality to them. And I wanted to hear them alone.
My desire to distill the voices of tone from fields of noise led to The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies (2003). I began this work by composing and (with percussionist Steven Schick) recording eight pieces for percussion quartet. Then, selectively, I erased them. Through digital processing I removed most of the transient noise from the recordings to reveal the essential tones, the inner voices of the instruments. Into these “auras” of tone I then reintroduced the noise of the instruments, through independent parts performed by a solo percussionist. Heard together, the “live” instruments and their recorded auras create rich composite sonorities of noise and tone.

Encouraged by the discoveries of Mathematics, I continued my explorations of noise. In the Veils (2004-05), I began with pure synthetic noise. Each of these three sound sculptures is composed from long strands of pink noise that rise or fall slowly over the full range of human hearing. Shaping a counterpoint of these lines, I then layered them into multiple choirs, each moving at its own tempo. Finally I passed these veils of noise through a series of “harmonic prisms” – banks of filters tuned to prime number harmonics (from 11 to 31). The resulting fields of sound fill the air with many tones sounding at any moment. But it’s often difficult to distinguish one tone from another. They tend to meld together into rich, ambiguous sonorities in which the higher tones sound like harmonics of the lower tones. The timbres are clear and slightly breathy, like human voices mixed with bowed glass or metal.

Each Veil lasts for six hours. They can be installed separately or together. Heard sequentially or simultaneously, they saturate physical, tonal and temporal space. But rather than overwhelming the listener with sound, I want to seduce the listener to enter into the sound and remain there for extended periods of time. The melding of rhythm, pitch and timbre creates unified fields of sound. My objective is to leave these fields as untouched as possible, letting them fill time and space with forms and colors as simple and as beautiful as they can be.

My discoveries in the Veils led me to embrace synthetic noise at the prima materia for my largest work to date, and to contemplate the larger poetics of noise.

The Breath of the Wind

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise.
When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.

– John Cage, “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937)

Most music begins with tone.

In acoustical terms, tone is periodic sound. Tones are produced by regular oscillations. They have relatively simple waveforms.

In perceptual terms, tone is pitched sound. Tones have easily recognizable identities grounded in specific frequencies. Tones can be precisely tuned. They can be arrayed into scales and chords, and used as building blocks for musical constructions.

Noise is not so easy to control. It is the sound of chaos.

In acoustical terms, noise is aperiodic sound, sound produced by irregular vibrations with complex waveforms.

In perceptual terms, noise is unpitched sound – a diffuse band or field of sound, elusive to focus by the ear.

What, then, is the meaning of music that begins with noise?

In Papua New Guinea when a Kaluli songmaker searches for a new song, he may camp by a waterfall or a running stream. All the songs in the world are contained in the noise of the water. The songmaker listens carefully, sometimes for days, until he hears the voice of his new song.

Whenever we listen carefully, we come to hear that music is around us all the time. Noise is no longer unwanted sound. It is the breath of the world.

If music grounded in tone is a means of sending messages to the world, then music grounded in noise is a means of receiving messages from the world. Noise takes us out of ourselves. It invites communion, leading us to embrace the patterns that connect us to everything around us. As we listen carefully to noise, the whole world becomes music. Rather than a vehicle for self-expression, music becomes a mode of awareness.

After years composing music grounded metaphors of space and place, my music has now become more tangibly physical, in a small architectural space that resonates within a larger geographic place. The Place Where You Go to Listen (2004-06) is a sound and light environment housed at the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. This is a space for hearing the unheard music of the world around us. The rhythms of sunlight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the seismic vibrations of the earth and the fluctuations of the earth’s magnetic field all resonate within this space. Streams of data derived from these geophysical phenomena shape the sound and light of The Place, which are synthesized and modulated on a computer, in real time.

Locus ex Machina

The most important musical instrument of the 20th Century may well have been the microphone. The most important musical instrument of the 21st Century may prove to be the computer. Just as microphones allow us to hear sounds that aren’t readily accessible to the naked ear, we can use computers to transform inaudible forces of nature into audible sound.

The computer is the primary instrument with which The Place Where You Go to Listen is created. This new instrument allows me to hear and to give voice to visible, tactile, invisible and inaudible vibrations of earth and sky. But the most sophisticated technology is transparent. Although The Place is created entirely with electronic technology, the medium is not the message. The primary presence in this space is not the instrument. It is the music of place.

It’s perhaps ironic that this imaginary world intended to celebrate our connections to the natural world could not have been created without the machine of the computer. Machines allow us to modify energy, matter and information in ways that would be difficult or impossible without them. The machine as a metaphor has created the dangerous illusion that we can manipulate the living world in any way we choose. And increasingly powerful machines haven given us the ability to wreak destruction on a planetary scale. Yet in spite of their destructive powers, we can also employ machines as creative instruments, to extend the reach of our senses and engage us with the world in new ways.

Real Time

For almost two decades now the computer has been one of the tools I’ve used in my work. Over the years it’s become more and more integral to my process of notating, recording and creating sounding models of my music. But The Place Where You Go to Listen is the first music I’ve made in which all the finished sounds are produced by the computer. This was also my first experience working in so-called “real time”.

I remain skeptical of this term. It seems a bit like double-speak, or an oxymoron. Isn’t all time equally real or unreal? What exactly do we mean when we say “real time”? I’m still not sure. But I can say without hesitation that this new medium has changed my way of working. It may even have changed my fundamental conception of my work.

Composing an instrumental work in conventional musical notation, I usually spend a lot of time in pre-compositional thought. On paper I sketch out instrumentation, forms, harmonies, tempo relationships, rhythms and lines. Then I test my sketches – sometimes at the piano, sometimes on the computer – and rework them based on what I hear. The intellect ratifies and refines the perceptions of the ear. But the final proof is the sound.

Working in real time I find the ear leading the mind a little more. This new medium offers instant feedback. Of course this is also true for the piano or any other musical instrument. But unlike a single-voice or single-timbre instrument, real-time synthesis presents an orchestra of open-ended possibilities directly to our ears. Instead of playing a sound on one instrument and imagining another, or listening to a recorded sample of the intended sound, I can hear the actual sound itself. And I can modify the sound in a variety of ways and hear it change immediately.

As a result I find myself devoting less of my time to imagining and more of my time to listening. The more I listen the better I understand the nature of the sounds and the responses they evoke. As I’ve always done, I listen. I make modifications. Then I listen again. But time is now so accelerated that it almost seems to disappear. In a sense time becomes less real. The process of composing becomes more like sculpting, working and reworking a malleable substance of sound, space and time.

While the real-time medium can accelerate the process of composing, it can also slow down the experience of listening. In The Place Where You Go to Listen events unfold in the same tempos as in nature. The omnipresent atmosphere of sound and light is shaped by the rhythms and curves of day and night. The fields of tone and color are always changing. But since things happen in real time, the rate of change is usually too slow to be perceived. Yet over the course of hours, days and months the changes are increasingly dramatic. From day to night, from winter to summer, The Place Where You Go to Listen may look and may sound like two very different places.

The Place also encompasses the distinctive sounds of virtual “drums” and “bells” that resonate with earthquakes and with fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field. But there can be long periods, hours, even days, between perceptible seismic or geomagnetic events. During such times the sounds associated with these forces are silent.

Real time is an essential element in the composition and the experience of The Place Where You Go to Listen. This is not a sequence of musical events and lighting scenes. It is a dynamic system of visible and audible forces interacting in a constantly changing environment; a self-contained world connected to and resonating with the real world.

Any time a listener walks through the door, I want the sound and the colors to be beautiful, mysterious and implacable. Like a place in the wilderness, The Place Where You Go to Listen requires the visitor to enter into it, to take things on its terms, to pay attention and to find our own way.

Working in Place

“…simple observation is my most important formal device… The interrelation of observation, analysis, and memory become, so to speak, the tools of the trade.”

– Richard Serra

As a composer I often work far removed from the time and space in which the music is eventually heard. Much of my work is done in the solitary space of the studio, creating the imaginary space of the score. Once the score is complete, rehearsal, performance and recording follow in other places. This is the way I’ve worked for years.

But The Place Where You Go to Listen demanded a new way of working. In this new medium there is no musical notation, no score, no tangible instruments and no performing musicians. This has led me to a process grounded in direct observation, listening within and listening to the physical acoustical space of the work. As much as a process of composition, my work on The Place has been a process of design.

The specificity of this work comes from the specificity of the setting in which it is experienced. Creating The Place required two years of work in my studio. Yet in a very real sense this work could only be completed in the final listening space itself. Once construction of the room was complete, it became my studio. Much of the creation of The Place could only happen from inside the space.

The Place Where You Go to Listen is a nexus between the architectural space in which we listen and the larger geographic place with which the work resonates. The Place originates in sunlight and darkness, the electromagnetic weather above us, and the movements of the earth beneath our feet. We perceive these phenomena within the visible and audible space of the work. Yet the boundaries of the work exceed the physical boundaries of the space in which we experience it.

The Place resonates sympathetically with the world outside. In turn I hope it may reverberate back into the world. We enter with our everyday perceptions of the world around us. Inside The Place we hear and see things differently. When we leave, perhaps we carry some of these new perceptions with us.

In a real sense the music of The Place is produced by natural phenomena. 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. It is a heightened form of experience itself.

Two Minds

For me composing is a process of discovering and revealing the fundamental unity between the formal and the sensual, the interior and the exterior. I want my music to embody both the objectivity of form and the subjectivity of the sensual.

Formal structure – the mathematics and geometry of composition – gives the music a sense of objectivity independent of the composer. Sensuality of sound invites the listener to enter into the enveloping presence of the music.

Searching for this unity of sound and form requires the composer to move back and forth, into and out of the music, with two different minds. One mind stands just outside the music, regarding it carefully with a mixture of curiosity and detachment. The other mind stands fully inside the music, immersed in the sheer sensation, the wonder of the sound. To be whole, the music must integrate both these minds.

Art and science also embody two minds, two ways of understanding the world in which we live. Yet these two minds share a more fundamental unity than we sometimes recognize. And they have much to say to one another, especially in our times.

Historically science has aspired to objectivity. Art has been a domain of more subjective experience. Science, we tend to think, examines the external world while art expresses the inner world. But artists and scientists know better. Scientists speak eloquently about the role of intuition and imagination in their work. Artists speak with similar clarity and force about the centrality of observation and analytical thinking in their work.

Both art and science spring from curiosity, which is a fundamental characteristic of the human mind. Science employs this innate curiosity to advance our cognitive understanding of the world. Yet reductionism in scientific thought has also led us to regard ourselves as apart from the world, rather than a part of the world. This fallacy has led us to dominate life on earth to the extent that our own survival is now threatened.

Art employs curiosity to advance our intuitive understanding of the world. It also fultills the fundamental human need to express our feelings. But art grounded exclusively in self-expression can indulge our conceit that we stand above and beyond the rest of life, exacerbating our sense of alienation from the earth and other species. Overpopulation, over consumption, pollution, deforestation and widespread extinction are both symptoms and results of this alienation. Perhaps its ultimate manifestation is human-caused climate change.

The overindulgences of artistic romanticism and the mechanistic worldview of Newtonian science were two sides of the same mind that led us to our present predicament. Still, art and science can teach us to transcend ourselves, guiding us beyond our anthropocentric obsessions to a more complete and integrated relationship with the earth. Science reminds us of the miracles of the larger world (and the universe beyond) to which we belong. Art reminds us of the essential connections of the spirit that we share with all beings and all things.

Science examines they way things are. Art imagines how things might be. Both begin with perception and aspire to understanding. Both science and art search for truth. Whether we regard truth as objective and demonstrable or subjective and provisional, both science and art can lead us toward broader and deeper understanding of reality. Even as they augment our understanding, science and art heighten our sense of wonder at the strange beauty, astonishing complexity and miraculous unity of creation.

We live in a time of great exploration and discovery. But unlike previous eras, the most important explorations of our time are not new places. The most important discoveries are not new phenomena. The great learning of our time is of the endlessly complex and subtle interrelationships between places and organisms, between everything in nature from the subatomic to the cosmic.

With characteristically radical elegance John Cage defined music as “sounds heard”.

The idea that music depends on sound and listening might seem as self-evident as the idea that we are an inseparable part of nature. But both these simple truths challenge us to practice ecological awareness in our individual and our collective lives.

Cage’s definition of harmony was “sounds heard together”.

Listening to the multiplicity of sounds all around us, we learn to hear the marvelous harmony they create. Hearing this harmony we come to understand our place within it, how our human voices fit into the larger, endless music of the world.


This essay is the first chapter of JLA’s book The Place Where You Go to Listen.