Saturday, May 16, 2015

Artist's Profile: John Luther Adams, Composer

"Classical music is singular among major art forms in its bondage to the past"-Alex Ross, The New Yorker, May 13, 2015.

Believe it or it or not....there are composers in our world today, this very moment, writing music. Classical music. Sadly, I know very few of their names, and will hear little of this music. So much remarkable music was written between 1653 (I'll start with the year Corelli was can certainly go back even farther) and 1937 (the year Gershwin died) that one can forever listen to only music of that time frame. Who needs "new" music?
I believe the answer is...WE all need it. I certainly do. And late last year a good friend introduced me to an amazing "new" work by composer John Luther Adams. It is called Become Ocean, and it won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music, and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Become Ocean swallows you....whole. It is a work of delicate beauty, power, and sublime emotion. Mr. Adams has been writing music for decades, and I have begun exploring his other works which I have also enjoyed immensely.
I spoke with John Luther Adams on March 26, the same day as Pierre Boulez' 90th birthday. Maybe this was just a coincidence, but it really seemed appropriate as I listened to a great retrospective about Boulez on NPR later that same day. Both Adams and Boulez write music which is both trans-formative and that challenges the listener to hear it with a different frame of reference than we were programmed with. In his book Modern Music and After, author Paul Griffiths states, "the thing is, we're all brought up with this huge education in the harmonic system that governed Western music for so long. And that music has taught us how to listen to that music and it hasn't taught us how to listen to other music".
I feel very fortunate to have been able to talk with John Luther Adams and I am excited to share our conversation with you.

TH Where are you right now? Are you in Alaska?

JLA I’m in New York City

TH I heard in a recent interview you gave that you are “homeless” at the moment…between homes that is. Are you still living in Alaska, and are you still and Alaskan?

JLA I’m still an Alaskan. I’ll always be an Alaskan. Alaska is home in the deepest sense, and always will be. But after 40 years living full-time in Alaska, my wife Cynthia and I decided that we were ready for a new adventure. We both went North in our early 20’s, and now here we are in our 60’s and we decided “let’s do something crazy…let’s have a big adventure again”. We kept my studio, a cabin with five acres in the woods outside of Fairbanks and that place is still for me the navel of the universe. But we sold the house that I designed and built and we are now traveling a great deal. But we are dividing our time between the wilderness of Manhattan and the desert outback of Mexico.

TH So…that sounds wonderful!

JLA It’s pretty exciting.

TH I’m a marathon runner, and there is a place called the Copper Canyon in Mexico that’s talked about in a great book about the Tarahumara Indians and their epic running skills. Is the “outback” you visit in Mexico close to this place?

JLA No, we are farther South and West. But I've read the book and I am a runner also.

TH Born to Run.

JLA Yeah.

TH That book messed me up for a while!

JLA How did it mess you up? Did it start making you run barefoot?

TH That’s what I started to think…maybe I need to give up shoes! Maybe I’m doing this all wrong, you know?

JLA I’m a little skeptical, but I do know from hard experience that the right shoes are essential. I had a bout with Plantar Fasciitis a few years ago that was brought on by the wrong pair of shoes. And then alleviated by the right pair of shoes. And so I think you've definitely got some points about footwear. And when we are in Mexico, occasionally I am able to run on the beach without shoes and it’s wonderful!

TH Nice! My running friends are going to be excited. They’re not necessarily classical music fans…I don’t even know if they read my blog…but they’ll think it’s cool that a famous person that I got to speak with is also a runner. That’s cool!

JLA I’m not a runner the way you are…I’m not a marathoner…but as a kid I played a lot of different sports, but my best was track ‘n field. I was a jumper...a long jumper and a hurdler. But I was also a good sprinter. I was good enough to place in the dashes and be on the relay team. So I've always been a runner in some way. It’s like the highlight of my day whether I’m in New York, Alaska or Mexico, my afternoon run is very special for me.

TH I did read something about you…that even in the cold months in Alaska, you always tried to get outside every day for some kind of exercise?

JLA I got outside everyday…for years it was all walks. I started running again in my fifties. I've been really lucky because I didn't run all those years, and knock on wood, my joints…my knees and hips and everything…seem to be good because they don’t have a lot of miles on them. So I’m enjoying it for as long as I can and I intend to keep on running.

TH Good for you. Me too. I kind of came to it late. I just turned 50 and I've put a lot of miles in, but most relatively recently so I hope that means I can keep going well into the future too.

JLA Good for you!

TH OK, so on to music now. A good friend of mine is a famous sailor. His name is Webb Chiles and he has completed 5 circumnavigations of earth, 2 of them solo, and is currently on his 6th (also a solo). He actually lives with his wife Carol in the Chicago area when he is not sailing, and I had dinner with him over the Holidays while he was home between legs of his voyage. After dinner we sat down to listen to music and have a scotch (Laphroaig). We exchange music suggestions frequently and share a love of classical music in particular. So we sat down and he said he had a new piece of music that he thought I might like. It was called Become Ocean by….YOU of course. So we listened to it and I immediately loved it, and I knew I wanted to talk to you…to learn about how this amazing work came to be. How it came to life. Were you involved in the recording process and production?

JLA It was recorded in Seattle by the Seattle Symphony with conductor Ludovic Morlot. They commissioned the piece and premiered it and gave the first 5 performances. They did it 3 times in Seattle, once in Portland, OR, and once in New York City at Carnegie Hall. I was, as I always am, actively involved in the mixing of the recording. I was not there for the recording sessions. In fact I wasn't there for the premiere. I had a medical emergency. We were home in Alaska a few days before we were supposed to go to Seattle for rehearsals and for the first performances of the piece. I woke up one morning and said to my wife…"something is really wrong. I think I have a detached retina”.

TH Oh no….

JLA And in fact I had a detached retina. So instead of flying to Seattle we flew through Seattle and came back to New York. The day Become Ocean premiered I was on an operating table here in New York having my eye repaired. But it’s a happy story in that I was not necessary…the piece…the orchestra….they did not need me at all. It doesn't often happen, but I was recovering from my surgery a week later…face down. After you have this retinal surgery you have to keep your head down. So you’re sleeping on your stomach, or trying….it’s awful. So I’m lying there, sleep deprived and miserable… worried about my eyesight, and here came the delivery guy with a CD from Seattle, and I put it on and it was a recording of the second performance I think. And I was just so happy because it sounded exactly as I imagined it would. That doesn't always happen. There was not a note that I would change in the composition and there was nothing about the performance that I would change. It was really a wonderful experience. And it was comforting to know that I was completely unnecessary.

TH So many composers are tormented by the need to revise and change their compositions over and over.

JLA I’m right there with them. I’m a chronic reviser. But for some reason, this piece just came out right from the get go.

TH So they recorded several performances…and did they then edit the best of each together into one final version?

JLA No, they actually did a recording session several months later. They were very smart. They lived with the piece for a while…they let me live with the piece for a while…and then they recorded it. I could not get to the sessions, but I knew I was in good hands. And so then I was intimately involved in the mixing of the recording, which is something that is very important to me. I was born in 1953 and really came of age…my generation was probably the grow up with virtually the whole world of music available to us through us through recordings. It’s something we all take for granted now, but it was a new thing and it was very exciting and an essential part of my musical education. So I’ve always been deeply committed to making recordings. And in fact recording sessions and mixing sessions are among my favorite parts of my job. I like recording sessions much better than I like performances. Maybe it’s because I’m working, whereas in a performance I’m just sitting on my hands worrying. In making a recording you’re taking a piece that’s usually conceived for live performance and you’re translating it into a different medium. It’s not just a matter of making a document to me; it’s a matter of making a new work in some sense. The mix is very important to me. When we mixed the recording, I had only heard the piece live once. I had not been in a rehearsal. The Seattle Symphony came to New York and they played it in a concert at Carnegie Hall and I was present at the concert. And it was one of the great nights of my life. It was wonderful. BUT, it also was a little bit incomplete. Carnegie Hall is so big, and so warm and so round in its sound that I missed…. at least where I was sitting on the main orchestra floor… I missed a good deal of the detail of the piece. I missed the harps…there are 4 in the recording…and the percussion, piano, and celesta. ..I missed, if you will, the “foam on the waves”….the little detail of all those arpeggios and those beautiful rolling figures. They got “mellowed out” by Carnegie Hall. So when we got in the studio for mixing the piece, I was delighted with the tracks we had. They did a terrific job not only performing it, but also recording it. And then I was really able to focus in on making a recording that sparkles and works as a solitary listening experience as well as a social listening experience.

TH What label released it?

JLA It’s on Cantaloupe Music.

TH How did they mic this recording? Was it a traditional classical set up with a few well-placed mics for the whole orchestra, or did it involve more than that?

JLA It was done as a traditional classical recording with a couple of stereo pairs and then we used spot mics on individual instruments as well. We were able to really sculpt a mix that has the feeling of being in a real concert hall space but has a sort of hyper reality to it…a little more presence than just a straight documentary recording.

TH It’s perfect. With headphones it was incredible. The balance, voicings, and detail are stunning. I feel like I am on…or in…the ocean.

JLA Great….as you know it was nominated for Grammy's in 3 categories and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition this February.

TH I have to be honest with you….and I shared this with your wife in an email before we talked…and then I decided I had to share this with you…I didn't know until December (2014) that there was a composer named John Luther Adams! So while trying to learn more about you and your other compositions, I stumbled on the fact there is another contemporary composer named John Adams, whose work City Noir was recorded last year by the St. Louis Symphony with David Robertson, and they also won a Grammy this year. So 2 different John Adams’ were part of the Grammy's this year. How come I had never heard of either of you (laughing)??? Are the two of you friends?

JLA I've known John since 1976 when we were both just “John Adams”. Our paths cross from time to time. We’ll share a conversation or an email now and again. We’re friends and colleagues. Although, as with so many friends and colleagues, we don’t see one another very often.

TH Nature and the environment are central themes in your work. And I’m aware of many other composers from Ravel to Mahler to Debussy who also drew inspiration from nature. Do you feel any particular kinship to these other composers?

JLA There are so many aspects to that question and topic. I don’t feel so much kinship with Mahler. I feel a deep kinship with Debussy. I’m an American composer, and I feel that I’m part of a uniquely American lineage that goes back to say….Charles Ives. I think Ives is really the great-granddaddy of us all. And other composers like Ruth Crawford, Henry Cowell, Edgar Varese right up through Lou Harrison, John Cage, Morton Feldman and Pauline Oliveros… these are my people. I feel much more of a personal and direct connection with these composers whose music sounds nothing like mine, but with whom I share a certain attitude of independence and exploration. We’re sometimes called experimentalists…I don’t know what to call it…I just want to say without in any way rejecting the great European tradition that I feel more directly related to this American tradition. Another aspect to your question has to do with the influence of the natural world…of what we call nature…and the expression of that influence in our sounding music. I would say that when I was younger I painted landscapes in music. I made, in some way, “programmatic pieces”. But I haven’t been interested in that for a long time. So Become Ocean, although it has deep connections with the natural world… I don’t think it really depicts nature. There’s a famous episode where someone accosted Jackson Pollock and asked him, “Mr. Pollock, don’t you ever feel the need to paint from nature?” And Pollock snarled back, “I am nature”.  And you know…we are all nature. I get what Pollock was saying and that’s kind of an aspiration of my own for the music to be a place…to be a landscape of its own that has something like the wholeness and the complexity of a real place. So I guess I’m saying I believe in the power of music to be itself. ..and in fact I would say if it’s not itself…if music doesn't stand on its own as music, then nothing else is going to save it. Picturesque titles, programmatic notes, extra musical associations…..they mean nothing if the music doesn't move you or touch you or ravish you or terrify you or sock you in the belly…..MOVE you in some very direct way. Ultimately, there’s a third dimension to this that I’d interject. Everything that we human animals do…everything that we are…everything that we think and everything that we imagine that we create ……ultimately derives from this miraculous, complex, intricately interconnected world that we inhabit. We are inseparable from nature. So how could we do anything but make music from nature.

TH That’s a great perspective! Do you like sacred music? Are you a person of a particular faith? Have you written any sacred music? Do you consider what you've already written sacred? Weigh in on that if you will.

JLA I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. I've never been a practitioner of any established faith. As a young man searching for meaning, I investigated…dabbled in various things here and there. Ultimately, my faith is in the earth. It’s in what the Yupik people of Alaska call the “spirit in all things”. Which, of course, is an idea that is present in virtually all of the world’s religions in one way or another. I understand that somebody might say “you’re an animist”. Well…..maybe. I think I’m an animist in the way that a particle physicist is an animist. That is….we understand now not only through religion or art, but we also understand through science that the universe is more like music than like matter. That everything is vibration. That everything is in constant flux. And everything is inextricably inter-connected and this is true at the level of the cosmos and its true certainly as essential elements as the science of ecology. The Butterfly Effect. So I think that applies not just to what we regard as the physical aspects of the world, but also as what we might refer to as the spiritual dimension of existence. I don’t think there’s much difference. I think they’re the same thing. So the question of sacred and profane?? Music is my spiritual practice. In a sense…music and the earth…are my faith and my religion. And I would say that much, if not most of what I do is, in a sense “sacred music”. Some of it more overtly than others. There’s a piece with sacred in the title…Strange and Sacred Noise. It’s a concert length piece for percussion quartet. It’s visceral. It’s violent. It’s elemental. And yet at the same time it aspires to a certain kind of trans-personal experience that we might call the sacred. I’ve recently written a concert-length choral work called Canticles of the Holy Wind and there is no text…just the sounds of the wind and the songs of the birds…my transliterations of those languages that I don’t speak and won’t ever understand. We love to chop things up in Western culture. We love to categorize and separate our senses into 5 different categories. And really, they are all part of the same whole. I was at the messenger feast in Barrow. It’s a traditional ceremony of the Inupiaq people of Arctic Alaska. It goes on for 3 days in a series of dances and ceremonies for lack of a better word, culminating in this very powerful dance called the “Box Drum Dance” which involves wooden drums suspended from the ceiling…and elaborate masks and headdresses and songs and dances. It’s an unbelievable thing to experience. But I was at the messenger feast (Kivgiq it’s called in the Inupiaq). This ancient tradition and very power cultural and spiritual event happens, of course, in the school gymnasium because there is no big church. So already we’re having what we would think of as a sacred event in a secular space. And so you've got this serious business happening…it’s the center of attention…and then a little grand-child might run though the space and his grand-dad, who might be part of the ceremony, will reach down and pick up the child to wipe his nose. Then he’ll set him down and return to the ceremony. There’s this easy back and forth between the sacred and the secular. I think it’s a really healthy way to view things and “to be”….to realize that every moment and everything we do is sacred, and everything is very much grounded in the earth…and in the moment.

TH After hearing Become Ocean, I began exploring some of your other works such as The Light that Fills the World, Songbirdsongs, Dark Waves, Four Thousand Holes….I’m hooked!

JLA Outstanding!

TH Do you think about what key to write in when you are composing? Are there certain keys that provide a better voice for your music perhaps?

JLA No…and really I don’t think of keys at all. My music sometimes passes through harmonic territories that can be described in traditional tonal terms. But that’s just a passing moment…an incidental thing. For me, I work in non-tempered tunings…extended tunings that don’t exist on the piano keyboard. I work in percussion works that have no tuning whatsoever…they have complex a-periodic sounds…noise rather than tone. And then I work a lot in the familiar 12-tone equal temperament of Western musical tradition. But I don’t think about keys…and I work freely with all these different tonal resources and all these different sounds. And for me, I think of it more like working with different colors or palettes. So different pieces require different colors.

TH I remember hearing how Pete Townshend was working on the project that that eventually resulted in classics like Won’t Get Fooled Again and Baba O’Reilly…he had the idea that every note vibrates a certain way and each one of us is sensitive to this in our own way, and react individually to these vibrations accordingly. You had to score Become Ocean for the Seattle Symphony and I wondered if certain notes carry a thought or emotion differently than others in your “palette” so to speak.

JLA I’m sure that’s true. I have no doubt that that’s true and it might be true a different way for different people. But I don’t think about emotions when I work. I certainly don’t think about a narrative. And as I get older, and the music takes me continually into these strange and beautiful new places, I’m often less interested in telling you or even suggesting what you the listener should think or feel. Or hear in a piece. In fact, nothing makes me happier than when you think or hear or feel or experience something that I, the composer,  didn't anticipate or didn't understand was present…was implicit in the music. That is very exciting to me. Look, the music always knows more than I do. And the reason I do this…the reason we dedicate ourselves to music and the reason music is so essential to our lives is that it’s bigger than we are. It’s deeper….it’s like the ocean. There’s not just one current or one stream. There’s this ocean of possibility. I revel in that. I’m not trying to say anything. I’m just listening and trying to hear something I haven’t heard before, and then my job is to try and make that audible so you can hear it too. What it means is up to you.

TH My reaction to your music has been deeply emotional. When I heard The Farthest Place, as well as Become Ocean, I found myself reacting on such an emotional level. I wasn't thinking about anything in particular. I was just responding emotionally. So from this listener’s perspective, I find your music profoundly emotional.

JLA That’s great…that’s fantastic. That makes me very, very happy. But I guess my point is if I set out to do that, I wouldn't be as successful (laughs). I think it’s more powerful because it’s not as though I know something that I’m trying to tell you. I’m just trying to discover this.

TH And that’s the beauty of music whether it’s John Luther Adams, or Charles Ives, or JS Bach….the way we each perceive it versus what Adams, Ives or Bach thought of when they were writing it…they should be distinctly separate. It should not be a didactic experience. It wouldn't work.

JLA Well, speaking of Bach. Years ago, over dinner somewhere…some gathering with idle dinner chatter…there were two composers at the table and a bunch of other folks, and somebody asked the desert island question…you know, the question if you could only have one composer, who would it be?

TH That question was on my list too!

JLA And now, I don’t know what my answer would be, but then, I surprised everyone at the table including myself …the other composer said Mozart, and I don’t get Mozart at all…I never have. And that’s my problem, not Mozart’s. Mozart just doesn't do it for me. But JS Bach never fails. Just something about Bach that I can get lost in and it seems to be inexhaustible. You can inhabit that music.

TH Quick question, which Glenn Gould recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations is your favorite...the 1955 or the 1981?

JLA I love them both, and I've actually vacillated, and I haven’t listened to them for a while so I’m not sure. I was so familiar with the 1955, so it took me a while to get used to the one from the ‘80s. But in recent years I've liked the late one.

TH Me too. But what great bookends to a fabulous career.

JLA Yes, what a gift.

TH I read you like to drink whiskey? Any favorite brand?

JLA No, it’s like music…my favorite whiskey is the whiskey I haven’t tasted yet.

TH Lastly, I did read that you are a big baseball fan. Did you watch my Royals in the World Series last October?

JLA That’s what speed do!! We were rooting so hard for those guys. We were completely charmed by the Royals. They won our hearts. Here they are, an American League team playing classic National League baseball.

TH I agree with you…even growing up with the Royals, I hated the DH and I would scrap it in a heartbeat if I was the Commissioner.

JLA I’m afraid we are going the other direction. We’re going to get it in the National League at some point.

TH So I understand you’re a Mets fan?

JLA Yeah, I am. And I think this is going to be a good year to be a Mets fan. People are drinking the Kool-Aid. Anything can happen as you guys learned last year. But I will be very happy if the Mets have a winning season, which the Mets haven’t had in 7 years. They've got some very exciting young pitchers as you know, and I’m all about pitching. When I played baseball as a kid I played every position except pitcher and catcher. For me it was all about the dramatic catch, the triple, the stolen base…..But now as an older baseball fan it’s all about that 60 feet 6 inches….the highly compressed space between the pitcher and catcher. I’m all about pitching now.

TH Me too. I’d rather watch a well-pitched game than a 10-8 slug fest.

JLA  Absolutely.

TH Have you been to Kansas City before?

JLA I have not!

TH We have so much great stuff going on. Baseball, barbecue, and a world class symphony in a world class performing arts center.

JLA I would love it!

TH Thank you so much for your time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JLA It was a pleasure.

Here is a link to John Luther Adams' Website:


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