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Composer John Luther Adams, longtime Alaskan, wins Pulitzer Prize

Mike Dunham
NORA GRUNER

Longtime Alaska composer John Luther Adams has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music, the Pulitzer board announced Monday.

Adams, who recently moved to New York City, was honored for his large orchestral piece "Become Ocean," which premiered in Seattle last year. The Pulitzer committee called it "a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels."

The prize is awarded for music receiving its first performance or recording in the U.S. during the previous year. It comes with a prize of $10,000. Other finalists included California composer and John Adams (a previous Pulitzer winner and no relation) and Christopher Cerrone.

The Seattle Symphony, which commissioned "Become Ocean" and debuted it on last June 20, is scheduled to play it on May 6 at Carnegie Hall in New York as part of the city's annual Spring for Music festival. The event showcases six major orchestras in six days.

Adams is currently a composer-in-residence at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich. In an interview by phone Monday, he said he expected to be in New York for the Carnegie performance and looked forward to hearing his composition live for the first time.

"I haven't heard the piece in person yet," he said. "When it premiered I was on an operating table in New York City." He experienced a detached retina while moving from Fairbanks, a condition that later recurred. His condition is much improved now, he said.

From Fairbanks to fame

Adams was born in Mississippi in 1953. He came to Alaska in the 1970s, initially to work for environmental causes. He resided near Fairbanks until last year, when he moved to New York.

He began to gain recognition as a composer while working with Gordon Wright, conductor of the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His theater piece, "Coyote Builds North America," with a text by author Barry Lopez, debuted at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau in 1987.

In 1993, his soundscape "Earth and the Great Weather" premiered in Fairbanks. It included percussion, recorded natural sounds and choreography to represent the geography of the Arctic and was later presented by Anchorage Opera. The Anchorage audiences were painfully small, but a recording of the work went far toward making his name known outside Alaska.

Adams established an international following in the 1990s and 2000s as an increasing number of his works were recorded, including: "In the White Silence," "Strange and Sacred Noise," "The Light that Fills the World," "Four Thousand Holes," "Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing" and "The Immeasurable Space of Tones."

The Anchorage Symphony Orchestra premiered two of his most-performed shorter works, "Sauyatugvik: The Time of Drumming" in 1995 and "Dark Waves" in 2007. The debut of the later was particularly traumatic in that it came a few days after the death of Wright, a close friend and mentor. Adams was among the conductor's friends who found him dead at his cabin in Rainbow and brought out the body.

In 2006 he created a permanent installation at the University of Alaska Museum called, "The Place Where You Go to Listen." Inside the small room, various geophysical phenomena -- seismic movement, temperature, daylight, moonshine and auroral activity -- are translated into sounds in real time, an ever-evolving soup of bells, drums and simulated choral sounds. The installation was noted by the national press, with articles in Orion Magazine and The New Yorker.

More recently, his massive "Inuksuit," using as many as 99 percussionists, developed something of a cult following. It has been presented around the world several times, either outdoors or in huge arena-style facilities.

Adams has won numerous awards, including the $25,000 Rasmuson Foundation's Distinguished Artist Award, the $100,000 Heinz Award for raising environmental awareness and the $100,000 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition presented by Northwestern University in Illinois.

He is also the author of books and essays, including articles written for the Daily News over the years.

'Unusual, organic and beautiful'

"Become Ocean" has roots in "Dark Waves," Adams said. "After the Anchorage debut, I heard the piece several times, including with the Chicago Orchestra. Each time people came up to me and said, 'That was so beautiful, but it's too short. I was just getting into it.' I felt the same way.

"I wanted to do something similar but on a bigger canvas, without the electronic tracks, to make that ocean of sound without the artificial enhancements. I wanted to make the colors brighter, more open textures, more Debussy than Wagner." (Debussy's "La Mer" will share the bill at Seattle Symphony's Carnegie concert.)

Seattle Symphony conductor Ludovic Morlot and executive director Simon Woods contacted Adams about the possibility of a new work in 2011, shortly after they stepped into their posts. "We were looking for a number of new commissions to make a statement about where we were as an organization," Wood said. "John came to mind because he's an extraordinary individual and very focused on nature. And there's this close connection between Alaska and Seattle."

"This was their first major commission under Morloc," Adams said. "They asked for something big and this was a thrilling opportunity for me. I've written a number of long pieces for small orchestras and a number of short pieces for big orchestra, but I'd never done anything on this full symphonic scale. I never had the opportunity. It's not a medium that is readily available to living composers on a regular basis."

The finished piece calls for an enormous orchestra, triple winds, full brass section, four harps "and lots of percussion -- of course," Adams said. He's a percussionist by training and some of his work is scored exclusively for percussion instruments.

"The orchestra is deployed as three separate ensembles, separated as far as possible," he said. The three distinct parts rise and fall independently and occasionally converge in what the composer called "a tsunami."

Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, wrote of the piece, "Like the sea at dawn, it presents a gorgeous surface, yet its heaving motion conveys overwhelming force. ... I went away reeling."

"When we first heard the work at the premiere, everyone had the sense that it was something very special," Woods said, "something unusual, organic and beautiful. There's really nothing like it in the history of music. It's a different way of writing for orchestra, a new way of thinking about what an orchestra can do."

Woods said the Seattle orchestra had already decided to perform the piece at the Carnegie festival even before the Pulitzer Prizes were announced. "We wanted to take something to New York that was distinctive to the Pacific Northwest. Also, John has a very significant following in New York so we thought this would interest New York audiences."

'Fake New Yorkers'

Though Adams and his wife, Cinthia, have sold their Fairbanks house, they still own a cabin on five acres outside the city, which he has used as a studio for several years. They plan to be back in the summer, spending much of the time at Wright's former home off the grid in Rainbow while they remodel the studio as a part-time residence.

"We're calling ourselves fake New Yorkers," he said. "We've lived in New York exactly six days. We keep calling our flat 'the cabin.' " The Adamses' New York apartment is about 800 square feet, he said, a little more than half as big as their Fairbanks house.

"We were lucky to find it," he said. "The prize money is nice, but it doesn't exactly put us in a different tax bracket."

There were practical reasons for leaving Alaska, Adams said. His work requires a great deal of travel, including many appearances in Europe. And the New York fan base is not to be ignored.

Adams' next big premiere will be another out-of-doors or "site-determined" work for massed forces, including choruses, "Sila: the Breath of the World." "Sila" is an Inupiaq word similar to Yup'ik "Cella" or "Ella," meaning the universe expressed as a conscious personality, a concept touched on in "Earth and the Great Weather."

"It's about our awareness of the world -- and the world's awareness of us," Adams said.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

 

University of Alaska Museum of the North exhibit: "The Place Where You Go To Listen"
By MIKE DUNHAM
mdunham@adn.com