Composer John Luther Adams grieves and honors a changing world through music
John Luther Adams wants people to slow down, to disconnect from the internet and the incessant commentary and the endless analysis and have an “authentic experience” rooted in a specific time and place.
Hence his life’s work as a composer, and his focus, for the last 15 years, on “outdoor music” meant to be performed and experienced in the open air.
“For me, the great power of music is its ability to touch us in ways that 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 this week.
The Aspen Music Festival and School co-commissioned one of these outdoor pieces with the Barry Lopez Foundation for Art and Environment, and premiered “Crossing Open Ground” on Aug. 6. Musicians from the festival’s contemporary ensemble moved across an open field as they performed, combining Adams’ composition with the sounds of quaking aspen trees and nearby wildlife.
“When [the music] gets big, when it gets loud and large with lots of low frequencies, maybe it reminds us of the Earth beneath our feet,” Adams said. “And then, slowly, it dissolves back again into the air, and over the course of an hour, as people are listening deeply to the music, we begin to hear the place differently.”
Adams still writes “indoor music” too, meant for chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras in traditional concert halls, and the Aspen Music Festival and School will also present two of those pieces this weekend.
But the natural world, and a sense of place within it, is still the central theme: The man long known as America’s “eco-composer” draws inspiration from the rugged landscapes of Alaska, where he lived for nearly 40 years, and from the deserts of the Southwest, where he’s spent the better part of the last decade.
He’s likewise inspired by Barry Lopez, the late author whose namesake foundation supported Adams’ “Crossing Open Ground.” Adams dedicated the piece to Lopez, whom he considered a “beloved friend,” and titled the composition after a book Lopez wrote about endangered wildlife and forgotten cultures.
Adams has two more compositions on the Aspen Music Festival lineup this weekend: the contemporary ensemble will perform “There is No One, Not Even the Wind” at Harris Hall on Saturday, and the festival orchestra will play “An Atlas of Deep Time” at the Benedict Music Tent on Sunday.
Reporter Kaya Williams spoke with Adams about “An Atlas of Deep Time” and how he uses music to both grieve and honor a changing world.
PULL QUOTE: For me, everything is an adoration of the Earth. … Everything we think, everything we perceive, everything we imagine or we create, ultimately derives from the sensuous world that we inhabit.
John Luther Adams: I've been reading geology books, and I've been reading the rocks on the mountain where I live as, kind of, scriptures and ways of remembering my infinitesimal, less-than-an-eyeblink presence in the immensity of time on Earth.
You know, the Earth is 4,570,000,000 years old. And “An Atlas of Deep Time” is about 45 minutes. You know, my joke is the tempo of the music is 100 million years a minute. And at that rate, in that scale, the whole history of humanity, the whole life of the family of humanity, is the last 25 milliseconds of the music, the last 25 one-thousandths of a second. That's big, big time. Yet somehow, for me, it's reassuring to remember that, and to be in touch with that, even metaphorically, poetically, through music.
Kaya Williams: Now, these pieces are all being presented in the broader context of the music festival’s program this year, the theme of which is “Adoration of the Earth.” What does that theme mean to you or that phrase?
Adams: For me, everything is an adoration of the Earth, everything that I do. And you know what? Everything that we do, any of us, everything we think, everything we perceive, everything we imagine or we create, ultimately derives from the sensuous world that we inhabit.
The world is on fire. We have set our world on fire. So what keeps me going as a creative artist at 70 now, and devoting myself to my work, is my love for and my faith in the next generations — for people your age and younger, who are going to have to sort through the rubble that my generation is leaving to you and imagine new ways of being human animals on this Earth, new ways of living together with one another, and with all life on this only home that any of us are ever going to know.
So for me, life itself is a never ending celebration of, and in these times lamentation for, and adoration of the Earth.
Williams: So what's giving you hope these days — is anything giving you hope?
Adams: Funny you should use that word, and we all use it, and I don't mean to sound like an old grouch, but I kind of feel like, you know, it's too easy. The idea of hope is a little too easy.
I don't think I've found hope in that sense, because I haven't done the work yet. And I don't think collectively we have. I think it's too easy to say, you know, ‘vote for hope.’
So what takes its place? The possibility of redemption. And I don't mean redemption in any kind of religious sense. Sure, you can understand it in a Christian sense or whatever works. But, it feels to me that we need to confront our grief, to embody a little humility for God's sake, because we're going to get humbled a lot more pretty soon.
And I think it's through confronting, you know, not just this woo-woo idea of hope, but confronting the reality of the present, of the world that we're living in, and embracing the world and one another with love. Maybe there, we find redemption, which then allows us to imagine and create and bring into reality new ways of being in the world. The new culture that I will never live to inhabit.
Williams: Has creating this music helped you process your grief or made you think about it differently than if you just sat with it for a while?
Adams: Music isn't what I do. It's how I understand the world. It's the only way I know how to be and I often think that music is the only thing that maybe redeems my failures as a human being.
So part of understanding the world for me now is grief. And it’s grief over the loss of three beloved friends over the last decade, the most recent of whom was Barry Lopez, who died as a climate refugee. It's grief about the world on fire. It's grief about what, as I said earlier, what my generation is leaving to yours. And maybe it's also a little bit personal as mortality is no longer an abstract concept for someone in their 70s, you know?
But sure, music helps me process grief, it helps me process the joy. It helps me process mystery and confusion and fascination and everything. You know? As I say, it's not what I do. It's how I understand the world.