From the bookshelf

Composer challenges readers, listeners

Posted: Thursday, April 07, 2005


  Winter Music, Composing the North, by John Luther Adams

Winter Music, Composing the North, by John Luther Adams

Winter Music: Composing the North

By John Luther Adams

Published by Wesleyan University Press

228 pages , compact disk recording


$24.95 (hardcover)

Alaska and contemporary musicology have little in common. Yet they intersect in the person of John Luther Adams.

The Fairbanks-area resident (who uses his full name to avoid confusion with fellow composer John Adams) works at the fringe of experimental art music. Most such creative efforts survive only in major cities, but Alaska is so central to his inspiration that he elects to remain here.

"There's a sense (an illusion, perhaps, but exciting nonetheless) that one might discover a new kind of music here — music that somehow resonates with all this space and silence, cold and stone, wind, fire and ice," he writes.

Adams explores this inspiration and other aspects of his work in "Winter Music: Composing the North." A series of essays, journal entries and other writings, it offers a provocative discussion of how art, artist and landscape interact through creative processes.

"In a world with more than six billion of us human animals, we can no longer hold ourselves apart from what we simplistically call 'nature.' Nature encompasses our entire world. It is the original source of human life and creativity. For me, nature and music are one and the same," he writes in his preface.

"Music is not what I do. Music is how I live. It's not how I express myself. It's how I understand the world."

The author's music lies outside the mainstream. You cannot hum it or dance to it. He says he considers it a spiritual practice rather than self-expression or entertainment. He certainly doesn't do it for the money.

Instead, Adams strives to create what he calls a "sonic landscape."

He begins the creative process with listening, and his writings repeatedly stress the importance of attentive listening without ego or preconceptions. He finds ideas in the wilderness of wind, birdsong, moving water and primal forces. He develops scores while immersing himself in poetry and studying 20th-century painting and sculpture.

Rejecting the din and distraction of modern life, he relishes silence, simplicity and whiteness. He strips music to its bones of rhythm, "color" and harmony. Yet he wants it to retain formal rigor and visceral impact. He seeks to lose himself and his audience in sound as ritual, as meditation, as portal to the spiritual.

Adams delves deep. Not content just to create sounds, he ponders their meaning and significance. He does this not with navel-gazing, but with a clear-eyed humility and voracious curiosity that leads him to write about a wealth of experiences from musicology to house-building to hiking in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Among influences he cites are 20th-century composers such as John Cage, painters such as Mark Rothko, writers such as Barry Lopez, the mathematics of fractal geometry and Alaska Native traditions, especially the drum and chant music of the Inuit and Atha-bascans.

Besides his Native friends and collaborators, he pays homage to Alaska mentors such as poet John Haines and Gordon Wright, former music director of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra.

Adams started out as a music-obsessed teen, playing rock''roll drums in a garage band. An obscure footnote by Frank Zappa first led him to listen to an album of experimental music, and he got hooked.

He attended Cal Arts in Los Angeles, where he acquired a formidable ensemble of skills, mentors and inspiration. Yet a loathing for the metropolis sent him to Alaska. Despite inconveniences for his career, he remains.

His colleague Kyle Gann, who penned the book's forward, describes Adams' music as fitting in the early-21st-century American musical movements called postminimalism and totalism. Gann says Adams' music transcends boundaries yet remains rooted in Alaska.

"John is simply the first to compose the great expanses of white in the Alaskan wilderness," Gann writes.

Describing his piece "In the White Silence," Adams says, "White is not the absence of color. It is the fullness of light.

"Silence is not the absence of sound. It is the presence of stillness."

This spare, Zen approach to music and life is not arid or sterile. Adams' prose and music smolder with subtle intensity. He expresses great passion for the land. Long involved in environmental issues, Adams also has been described as a "green" composer.

In the last essay, titled "Global Warming and Art," he explicitly addresses the role of art in the world. He describes art as an act of faith, essential to promoting hope.

"In the presence of war, terrorism, and looming environmental disaster, artists can no longer afford the facile games of postmodernist irony," he writes. "To be worthy of a life's devotion, art must be our best gift to a troubled world. Art must matter."

Adams writes better than many people who claim writing as their primary art. He comes across as an informed, clear thinker with a lot to say. The book's pieces vary, ranging from technical passages about music theory to poetic descriptions of wilderness travel.

Augmenting the text are black-and-white photos, samples from his musical scores and — making this book a real bargain — an audio CD with half an hour of his recent music.

Adams is not writing for the "Top 40" crowd. But if you find beauty in the stark, light-flooded landscape of winter snows or feel the heartbeat of the world within traditional Native drumming, you may find his esoteric work — audio and written — speaks to you in profound ways.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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