Oregon Cultural Trust

John Luther Adams: Become Nature

Chamber Music Northwest and the Oregon Bach Festival present the world premiere of a new work for percussion ensemble by one of the most lauded living American composers

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John Luther Adams. Photo: Kris Serafin.

In 1989, John Luther Adams reached a career crossroads. For more than a decade, the 36-year-old musician/environmentalist had led a double life: as an activist whose leadership contributed to the passage of one of America’s most important ecological laws, the Alaska Native Lands Act; and as a composer inspired by the same natural treasures he worked by day to preserve.

It was too much. With his health, relationship, and music all in turmoil, he thought about quitting his day job to devote himself to composing full-time. His boss offered him the opportunity to continue working half-time.

As he often did, Adams called his friend and mentor, Portland-born composer Lou Harrison, for advice. “As usual,” Adams remembered, “Lou spoke directly to the situation:’There are no half-time jobs, John. Only half-time salaries.’ I promptly quit my job and never looked back.”

Wise choice. Since then, he’s become one of the world’s most admired and original composers. His immersive music isn’t so much heard as experienced. Adams uses a wide range of expressive media — electronic, percussion ensemble, orchestra, string quartet, choral, and more — to realize his music’s vast breadth of feelings and sounds, from formidably abstract to lush to ethereal to overpowering, and, especially lately, glowing with a grave beauty, shadowed by undertones of grief for civilization’s looming self-destruction. 

Adams’s music doesn’t aspire to merely depict or describe nature — in its very form, it  embodies oceans, deserts, landscapes, spaces, which he uses as compositional elements. I’ve heard it played live by orchestras, percussion ensembles, string quartets, and more, indoors and out, and no matter the medium or setting, his music sounds like, feels like, no one else’s.

“For me, the great power of music is its ability to touch us in ways that language cannot, and root us in our bodies, in the ground on which we’re sitting or standing, and in our awareness of the ground beneath our feet and the world around us,” Adams said in an interview with Aspen Public Radio.

A decade ago, the quintessential outsider composer was finally embraced by the establishment when his magnificent orchestral work Become Ocean won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in music, and its Seattle Symphony recording won a Grammy award. 

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This week, two of Oregon’s major classical music institutions, Chamber Music Northwest and the Oregon Bach Festival, present a major event in Oregon music: the world premiere of a brand new Adams composition, Prophecies of Fire, performed by one of world’s finest percussion ensembles, Sandbox, best known here for their vivid performances of music by their friend Portland composer Andy Akiho. And it owes a lot to Adams’s Oregon connections. 

In the Name of the Earth

For decades Adams labored in the wilderness, both figuratively and literally. After migrating with his family from Mississippi to New Jersey to Georgia during childhood, he made his way to Los Angeles to study at California Institute for the Arts, and eagerly embraced the maverick West Coast tradition — Harry Partch, the great Portland-born composer Lou Harrison (whom he later befriended), John Cage, his teacher James Tenney, et al. 

Adams also began his long career as an environmental activist there, and ever since, more than for any other composer past or present, nature has deeply informed and inspired his life and music. Both his work to protect the environment from human depredation and his nature-inspired music arise from the same impulse, he’s said: “adoration of the Earth.”

“Music is not what I do; it’s how I understand the world,” he told The New York Times and others in recent years. “Everything that we do, everything that we think, and everything that we think we create ultimately derives from this incredibly rich and complex and diverse world that we live in. It’s impossible for us to separate who we are from where we are.” 

After graduating from Cal Arts, the 22-year-old Adams settled in Alaska in 1975 to work on pro-environmental causes. “I went north with big dreams: to be part of the campaign to save the last great wilderness in North America, and perhaps to help create a model for a new society,” he wrote. “In Alaska, I also imagined that I could leave the world of contemporary culture behind, to search for a new kind of music drawn directly from the Earth.”

But after a decade of important environmental policy activism, including as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Adams knew he had to choose, not just between careers, but also between lifestyles. He’d long navigated conflicting impulses “between my desire to help change the world and my impulse to escape it,” he wrote. With Harrison’s advice, he withdrew from political work to focus on creating music.

Adams (l) with Lou Harrison (r) and Harrison’s life partner Bill Colvig. Photo courtesy Microfest.

“I look back on that [environmental work] with this deep sense of satisfaction,” Adams told me. “I would not trade that for anything. But there came a time when I realized that I couldn’t have the temperament or the courage, quite frankly, for a life in politics. I came to the conclusion that someone else could probably carry on my role in the environmental crusade, but no one else could discover the music that I might be able to find. So I rededicated myself to my art. I did it in the belief that music could matter as much as politics, maybe more so. In recent years I’ve come to believe that music matters more fundamentally than politics.”

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Adams’s environmental concerns certainly permeate his music, and he’s written about the connection. “Yet I don’t make political art, I don’t make political music,” he insisted to ArtsWatch. “To my ears and mind, political art fails as politics and fails as art, and to be at of greatest use to us, art must be itself first and foremost. In times like these, it’s impossible not to think about the turbulent state our world. As [his best friend, the late Oregon writer] Barry [Lopez] always said, I want my work to help. But art can go deeper than politics. And to be of help, art must be true to itself. If the music doesn’t move you as music, then all the poetic titles and program notes, all the essays I might write or interviews I might give mean nothing. The music must always come first. My music can derive from the world we inhabit, the only world we have — and at the same time exist as music.”

In the White Silence

Adams lived much of the next decade in “my own private Walden” — a remote Alaska cabin that lacked running water — toting wood for the stove and water each day, a mile from the only road in the area. He followed the example of Harrison, who at a similar turning point shunned academic positions, artistic trend centers, grant opportunities and other careerist moves in favor of relatively impoverished rustic isolation in the Central California coastal mountains.

Adams avoided graduate school and study with well-known composers who might have advanced his career, preferring to blaze his own musical trails in relative isolation from artistic centers. “More than anyone else, Lou was my role model for making the wrong decision which was the right decision, again and again and again,” Adams said. “It was about making a life, not making a career.”

Adams eventually moved to less spartan surroundings outside Fairbanks, and maintained involvement in orchestras, ensembles and organizations. But except for occasional forays into concert halls and academic residencies, he seemed content to live on the margins of the musical world, close to the natural sources of his inspiration, assiduously expanding his music’s scope and ambition. 

Much of his 1980s and ‘90s music — “strange and sacred noise,” to use the title of one of his major works — was written for percussion and other small ensembles, and embraced environmental themes and even sounds, evoking nature through music that shunned conventional narrative and dramatic forms, including soundscapes and installations. It was enjoyed primarily by a relatively small audience, released on tiny but influential record labels. 

Gradually, Adams’s music and prominence spread. A series of moving, beautiful works in the 1990s produced luminous recordings and rapturous reviews, and garnered their composer increasing awards and acclaim. He was no longer likely to be confused with that other West Coast John (Coolidge) Adams. 

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“As the new century unfolded, he aimed at nothing less than capturing the sky, the waves, the wind, and the cosmos in his music,” wrote musician and cultural critic Ted Gioia. No composer has been more successful at using sound and music not just to portray place in a sonic way, like a realist painter or photographer, but also to make listeners feel the emotion of being there. As Adams told The New Yorker writer Alex Ross in 2008, “my music is going inexorably from being about place to becoming place.” 

Across the Distance

In 2014, for reasons personal, medical, and political, after nearly four decades in Alaska, Adams and his wife, Cynthia, moved to New York City — about as distant from their Northwest isolation as imaginable. For a few years, they split time between New York and the Mexican Sonoran village of San Juanico, maintaining as much as possible the creative isolation that fuels his increasingly expansive work.

Though Adams worried about losing touch with the creative inspiration the Alaska landscape had so long provided, the move turned out to be creatively reinvigorating. “It’s been exciting to begin to establish a new home down there [in Mexico] and have all this new music coming out from that new place,” he told me not long after he relocated. “Part of it is feeling like a beginner, learning new plants and birds and weather and light, and the desert is just an enchanted garden. And then the front yard is the Pacific Ocean.” 

That’s where he composed Become Ocean (whose title quotes a John Cage tribute to their friend Lou Harrison) and a passel of other late-career masterpieces, including the other two parts of the Become trilogy, the choral work Canticles of the Holy Wind; Sila: The Breath of the World, and more. (No composer creates more evocative titles than Adams. Dream in White on White, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, In the White Silence, The Light That Fills the World, The Immeasurable Space of Tones….) 

They’ve also lived recently in Chile, New Mexico, and Australia, where we reached him. And as the 71-year-old composer’s surroundings shifted from tundra to desert, so did his music.

All the while, Adams has continued to create at a furious pace, including several books, including the fascinating recent memoir Silences So Deep, and essays (he’s among the most eloquent of contemporary artists, whether speaking or writing), and an utterly singular series of string quartets, many written for the Jack Quartet. 

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“It’s just a continuation of what I’ve been doing all these years, but with a new sense of energy and discovery,” he explained. “I think the changes are happening in the music because the music wants them, not because I want them or I’ve moved. The music has a mind of its own, a current of its own that I can’t anticipate and push around. I just try to understand them and try and follow.”

It’s a philosophy that reflects Adams’s own sense of the natural world that’s something to be respected, internalized, and adapted to, rather than reined in and controlled. And that continuing artistic connection to nature makes him a, well, natural favorite for listeners in this nature-besotted region, no matter where he now resides.

Oregon Connections

 Although “Alaska will always be home,” he says, now that he’s left our region, we Pacific Northwesterners can no longer claim Adams as our greatest living composer. Yet we can still feel some vicarious pride at the wider world’s embrace of his music. His music has been commissioned and performed here by Portland’s Third Angle New Music, CMNW and others. And two Oregonians in particular exerted an enduring  influences on Adams and his music. 

“Lou Harrison was a generous friend and wise mentor to me for almost 30 years,” Adams wrote in the program notes for his musical tribute, For Lou Harrison. “His faith in and support of my music was a decisive influence in my life. I learned more from my time with Lou than from any of my institutional studies. And he was an inspiring model of how to live, without regret or bitterness, as an uncompromising independent composer.”

Adams detects Harrison’s influence less in actual sounds he created and more in their attitudes and choices. “One way Lou’s influence is audible is in the way my work embraces extremes from extreme sensuousness to extreme noise and experimentation,” Adams told me. “People are more familiar with his gamelan and chamber music, but what often gets overlooked is Lou Harrison the experimentalist and disciple of [American composer Henry] Cowell. I think that has influenced my work in that I see no reason you can’t explore the whole terrain. There’s also the breadth of his music, which audibly influences my own explorations. His music is not afraid to be unabashedly beautiful, and encouraged by that I’ve found similar resolve in my work. Because he was so authentic in who he was and what he did, it challenged me to be equally authentic and honest as a composer and what I did.”

Barry Lopez and John Luther Adams in New York City.

The other influential Oregonian was revered writer Barry Lopez, whom Adams eloquently eulogized in Harper’s magazine. They collaborated on several projects for which Adams furnished the music and Lopez the stories (including Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping With His Daughter, Coyote Builds North America), and they inspired and responded to each other’s creations, each diligently and meticulously laboring in solitude in his respective forest cabin. Two major recent works, 2021’s Arctic Dreams and 2023’s Crossing Open Ground, were dedicated to Lopez and named after his books. 

“Barry and I shared a close friendship over the course of forty years,” he told ArtsWatch. “On several occasions, I visited him at his homestead on the MacKenzie River. Several weeks before he passed away [in December 2020], Barry’s home was devastated by the Holiday Farm Fire. Prophecies of Fire is haunted by that memory, by Barry’s magnum opus Horizon, and by his prophetic final book Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World.”

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Prophecies Of Fire

That new composition, which Oregonians will hear this week, also owes something to Harrison, who together with his friend John Cage more or less co-invented the modern percussion ensemble in their landmark joint West Coast concerts in the 1930s and early ’40s. Moreover, from his teenage days as a rock band drummer to his positions as timpanist and percussionist in the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, Adams has been propelled by percussion.

“In Prophecies of Fire, I’ve returned to the place I began,” he told ArtsWatch. “Percussion is the medium I understand most deeply in a physical sense. And with the broadest range of pitch, dynamics, and timbres, its embrace of full spectrum noise, I believe it’s the most elemental family of instruments.”

 It’s hardly a retro move. The composition deploys an approach he’s used effectively in recent works for other instruments. “Prophecies of Fire is a perpetual acceleration canon, always seeming to be getting faster, without ever arriving,” he explained, referring to a technique developed by the earlier American maverick composer Conlon Nancarrow. “Over the course of 30 minutes or so, the sound also rises continuously —out of the earth, with rumbling bass drums, and up to the sky, in high shimmering bell tones. This is a musical idea I’ve had in mind for fifty years now, and Prophecies is the closest I’ve come to realizing it.”

Sandbox Percussion performed in Portland’s Spontaneous Combustion Festival of New Music in 2018.

Adams was further inspired by the performers in these Oregon concerts. “Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Sandbox Percussion perform my extended cycle for percussion quartet, Strange and Sacred Noise,” he wrote in a program note. “Since then, these extraordinary musicians have performed songbirdsongs, …and bells remembered…, and Inuksuit. I’ve come to regard these four young men as the foremost interpreters of my percussion music. And I welcomed the invitation to compose Prophecies of Fire — a concert-length work specifically for them.”

As always, the physical environment of the performance matters deeply to Adams, who describes his music as being “haunted by metaphors of place and space.” In the Oregon performances, “the musicians surround the listeners, enveloping them in a continuum of timbres, pitches, dynamics, and velocities, rising from the threshold of whispers, slowly swelling into a vast sea of sound— like the wildfires, superstorms, and tides of darkness rising all around us,” his program note explains. “But beyond any poetic or metaphorical associations, this work is a celebration of the elemental power of sound itself to touch, to move, and perhaps even to transform human consciousness.”

Chamber Music Northwest describes Prophecies as “big, bold and VERY LOUD. It will be a musical, visual, and physical experience in which you will feel the music’s power.”

With Oregon just emerging from the latest killer heat wave (with many more, and worse to come), and Adams’s and Lopez’s decades of writings about the human-caused climate disaster knowingly perpetrated by Big Oil and its minions, it’s easy to infer from the title and Adams’s program note that Prophecies of Fire was at least partly inspired by our unfolding climate catastrophe. Lopez, after all, died as a climate refugee, having just fled unprecedented wildfires that devoured part of his forested Finn Rock home. Already, ArtsWatch music editor Matthew Andrews reports that smoke from various wildfires is filling the valleys of Southern Oregon. The fiery prophecies issued by Adams, Lopez, and so many others over the past half century are undeniably coming true.

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Nevertheless, the composer suggests that, at least for a few minutes during the performances, we focus on the music itself. In Prophecies, as in all his compositions regardless of musical means, “what I want for listeners is what I want for myself —to get lost in the music,” Adams told ArtsWatch. “I want the music to be all around us, enveloping us with the full presence of a place. I hope this invites an experience of discovery —less like following a narrative and more like walking in the woods, the desert, or the tundra.”

Prophecies isn’t the only new Adams music that simultaneously draws upon both his new environment and his old inspirations. “Here in Australia, I’m returning to one of the original sources of my life’s work —the music of the birds,” he told ArtsWatch. “I’m working on two books — one about my long friendship with Barry, and the other a collection of sketches of places and moments of epiphany in my life. Unlike a baseball player, it’s possible for a composer to get better with age. And I intend to continue working as long as I possibly can.”

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Sandbox Percussion performs the world premiere of John Luther Adams’s Prophecies of Fire  at Chamber Music Northwest, 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 10 ,at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium, Portland, along with music by the excellent California composer Gabriela Lena Frank; and at the Oregon Bach Festival, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 13, Hult Center for the Performing Arts, Soreng Theater, Eugene. 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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