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John Luther Adams | Music is not what I do. It´s how I understand the world


Ruth Prieto, for The Composer Speaks, interviews composer John Luther Adams

Alaska, June 2012 

Music is not what I do. It´s how I understand the world

1. Ruth Prieto:
To start with, what do composers speak about?

John Luther Adams: Like everyone, composers talk about the weather. We talk about the state of the world. We talk about art and we talk about literature. We sometimes talk about sports. But most of all composers talk about music. We talk about music with one another, we talk about it to ourselves, and we talk about it to anyone who will listen.

2. Ruth Prieto: Which characteristic defines you best?

John Luther Adams: I want my music to be intellectually airtight and arrestingly visceral. You might call me a cerebral sensualist. I´m an airy person, who is always striving to feel my roots in the earth.

3. Ruth Prieto: To what extent is composing a trade?

John Luther Adams: For me, music is not an intellectual pursuit. It is not an academic discipline. It is not entertainment. Music is art. And art is work. To be an artist is to be a worker. Music is my vocation.

4. Ruth Prieto: What virtues does a composer have to have?

John Luther Adams: A composer needs to have patience, passion, the ability to listen and concentrate deeply, and a willingness to embrace solitude.

5. Ruth Prieto: And defects?

John Luther Adams: A composer needs a certain kind of single-mindedness, which sometimes comes at the expense of social and personal relationships.

6. Ruth Prieto: What was most recent moment of pleasure that you got from music?

John Luther Adams: Not long ago my wife and I were in the desert in Mexico. In the hour before sunset we heard white-winged doves calling to one another across the distance, their voices echoing off the rocks, up and down the canyon. Each moment was more beautiful, more perfect than the last. This went on for almost an hour, until the sun disappeared behind the rim and the music stopped. It was one of the most magical concerts I have ever experienced.

7. Ruth Prieto: And the most recent unpleasant surprise?

John Luther Adams: There is so much trivial music and counterfeit experience around us. We´re inundated with it these days. But it´s so inconsequential that, fortunately, none of it really stays in my memory.

8. Ruth Prieto: What is composition for you in this day and age?

John Luther Adams: I don´t want to “express myself” in music. I´m not interested in telling stories. I want to explore strange and beautiful new places in music. And I want to get hopelessly lost in them.
Music is not what I do. It´s how I understand the world.

9. Ruth Prieto: If you had not been a composer, what would you like to have been?

John Luther Adams: In my earlier years I was an environmental activist. If I hadn´t dedicated myself to music, I might have pursued that as my life´s work. But, quite frankly, I´m not sure I would have had the courage.
I might have become a performing musician, probably a percussionist or a conductor. I might have been a writer. I can imagine being painter. Or perhaps an architect. I can also imagine being a biologist or an ecologist.

10. Ruth Prieto: What has your greatest extravagance been?

John Luther Adams: I´ve lived life largely on my own terms, where and how I imagine it should be lived. I´ve rarely done anything primarily for money. And I´ve always composed the music that I feel called to compose.

11. Ruth Prieto: What does music contribute to education?

John Luther Adams: Music helps us become more fully alive, more complete human beings.

12. Ruth Prieto: What are you afraid of?

John Luther Adams: I am afraid of living in a world in which greed, intolerance and brute force diminish the richness and diversity of life itself.

13. Ruth Prieto: Anything you´ve lost along the way?

John Luther Adams: When I was young, I believed that we could create an Ecotopian society here in the Alaska –a new model for how to live in balance with the earth. Over the years it´s become undeniably clear that Alaska is a colony of Big Oil. Transnational oil corporations control the economy and the government of Alaska. Even so, I still hold onto a vision of human societies and cultures that don´t destroy the earth. And my work is still grounded in that vision.

14. Ruth Prieto: What is silence?

John Luther Adams: We often think of silence and noise as opposite extremes. But over the years I´ve come to regard them as interdependent elements – two parts of the same whole.
Two of my largest works are titled In the White Silence and Strange and Sacred Noise. White Silence is seventy-five minutes of continuous music, with not a moment of actual silence. And the sixty-five minute span of Strange and Sacred Noise encompasses several minutes of composed silence.
For me, silence is not the absence of sound. It is the presence of stillness. Noise is not unwanted sound. It is the breath of the world. When we listen carefully noise and silence teach us the same thing: The whole world is music.

15. Ruth Prieto: Liberté, egalité, fraternité ... Anything to add?

John Luther Adams: Yes. I would say: “Liberté, egalité, fraternité, for all life on this earth.”

16. Ruth Prieto: Do you have a definition for musical happiness?

John Luther Adams: Listening to the music of the earth in a wild place.

17. Ruth Prieto: Who would you rescue from the past?

John Luther Adams: I would reclaim the wisdom of indigenous people who know how to live in balance with the earth, who understand that we human animals are just one species among many, and who recognize the spirit in all things.

18. Ruth Prieto: What´s interesting about the present?

John Luther Adams: The sheer diversity of musical experiences available to us these days is unprecedented. And I take heart in the growing number of listeners who are open to new musical experiences.

19. Ruth Prieto: What do you expect from the future?

John Luther Adams: I expect the pace of contemporary life to continue to accelerate until global calamities – war, economic collapse and environmental disasters – force us to change the way we live. I only hope we will survive the disasters of our own making and move beyond, to reach the fullness of our potential as a species.

20. Ruth Prieto: Can you define «contemporary»?

John Luther Adams: Contemporary music is music that springs from the time and place in which it´s made. For me, this encompasses not just the human cultural dimensions of a time and place, but also the physical place – the topography and climate, the vegetation and animals, the geography and the ecology of place.

21. Ruth Prieto: What is your main obsession when working?

John Luther Adams: What fascinates me, what keeps me working is the possibility of hearing something that I haven´t heard before. Somewhere, out there in the air, the music already exists. My work is to listen carefully, to try and hear it, and to bring it into the range of our ears.

22. Ruth Prieto: What are you working on now?

John Luther Adams: Over the past four decades most of my music has been inspired by the outdoors, but heard indoors. With Inuksuit – a work for nine to ninety-nine percussionists – I finally composed music intended from the start to be performed and heard outdoors. Now I want to continue this exploration with a broader instrumental palette. I´m just beginning work on Sila: The Breath of the World. This will be a concert-length work for multiple choirs of woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments, to be performed in a large outdoor space.

23. Ruth Prieto: What would be your advice to a young composer?

John Luther Adams: Remember that it´s not about you. It´s about the music. Always put the music first. It is your life.

24. Ruth Prieto: What makes you laugh?

John Luther Adams: My wife! She´s one of the funniest people I´ve ever known, and she has the most beautiful laugh in the world. When I met her, way back when, I was a pretty serious guy. I still am. But from my wife I´ve learned just how essential a good sense of humor is to living a rich life. And with Cynthia, the Apocalypse will be a party!

25. Ruth Prieto: What makes you cry?

John Luther Adams: Saying goodbye to a person or a place that I love can make me cry.
Simply being in the presence of beautiful place or piece of music can move me to tears. And sometimes the realization of the violence we inflict on one another and on the earth can also make me want to weep.

26. Ruth Prieto: Which musician(s) or work(s) have made an impression on you as a composer?

John Luther Adams: When I first heard Morton Feldman´s Piece for Four Pianos, at the tender age of 15, it changed my life. Desérts by Varése, The Unanswered Question of Ives, and other works by Lou Harrison and John Cage had a similar impact on me.

27. Ruth Prieto: Have you got a composer of reference?

John Luther Adams: There were many composers who influenced my music early on. But those influences have long since been assimilated. At this stage, (as the sculptor Richard Serra says), I´m working from out of the work itself.

28. Ruth Prieto: Have you got any eccentricities when composing?

John Luther Adams: I have so many eccentricities that I´m probably not aware of most of them! 
I have my special pencils and paper and notebooks. I have certain objects in the studio that I sometimes hold or touch, like amulets. And when I´m pondering a musical question or problem, I have a tendency to walk around a lot.

29. Ruth Prieto: A "must" film.

John Luther Adams: Painters Painting by Emile de Antonio. It´s an extraordinary glimpse into the minds and studios and working habits of some of my favorite artists. I think I´ve seen it four times now.
And if I may have another, I´d add Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky…especially the scene of the casting of the bell in the earth.

30. Ruth Prieto: Recommend us a book.

John Luther Adams: Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

31. Ruth Prieto: A song that puts right an off day.

John Luther Adams: The song of the hermit thrush. Or the song of the canyon wren.

32. Ruth Prieto: What do you think of politics?

John Luther Adams: I think of politics as little as possible. And still, I think of politics too much. I no longer have much faith in politics. Years ago I left my work as an environmental activist to devote myself to music. Implicit in that decision was my belief that, in its own way, music can matter as much if not more than politics. I´ve been trying to make good on that leap of faith ever since.

33. Ruth Prieto: What inspires you as a composer and why?

John Luther Adams: My work is inspired by the mystery and beauty of this miraculous world in which we live. What we call “nature” is the source of everything that we are and everything that we do. As a composer, I believe that music has the power to serve as a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.

34. Ruth Prieto: What are your musical roots (real or imaginary)?

John Luther Adams: I came of age playing rock ´n roll. And though I left it behind long ago, I still feel some part of my musical roots there. But I believe my music is part of a uniquely American tradition of independent composers from Charles Ives and Henry Cowell to John Cage, Morton Feldman, Conlon Nancarrow, James Tenney and Pauline Oliveros, and beyond.

35. Ruth Prieto: What have you not yet been asked to do in music?

John Luther Adams: I´ve not yet been asked to write an opera. I´m not at all certain that I would. But it would be an interesting possibility to consider.

36. Ruth Prieto: Which is your favourite hobby?

John Luther Adams: I love camping out in the wilderness, and listening to the music of birds. I also love watching baseball, and playing catch.

37. Ruth Prieto: How is your morale these days?

John Luther Adams: Getting older is sometimes a challenge. Yet unlike athletes, composers have the possibility of getting better as we get older. And it´s still my great privilege and joy to follow wherever the music may lead me.

38. Ruth Prieto: Have you got a motto?

John Luther Adams: For years I kept at my piano a little motto, my own little variation on a theme by Thoreau

Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

I also subscribe to these words of Pedro Salinas:

Earth. Nothing more.
Earth. Nothing less.
And let that be enough for you.

39. Ruth Prieto: What would John Luther Adams say about John Luther Adams?

John Luther Adams: John Luther Adams is an artist who believes in the mysterious power of sound, and the miraculous beauty of the earth.

40. Ruth Prieto: Thank you Mr Adams!!

John Luther Adams: It´s my pleasure 

                                                                      John Luther Adams, Alaska Junio del 2012

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