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Alaska’s best-known composer honors place, musical influences and friendships in new memoir

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: November 14
  • Published November 14

Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska

By John Luther Adams. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 194 pages. $26

’Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska, ’ by John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral composition “Become Ocean” in 2014, found his home in Alaska as a young man and was deeply influenced by the landscapes, soundscapes and friendships he found in the north. His new memoir takes readers into those influences and into the creative impulses of an artist called by New Yorker critic Alex Ross “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.”

“Music is my way of understanding the world, of knowing where I am and how I fit in,” Adams writes in his prologue. With his arrival in Alaska in the 1970s, he began that journey of listening, feeling, fitting into both the boreal forest he chose as home and the wider world of musical traditions, poetry, ideas, and activism. That decades-long journey was sustained by enduring friendships, especially with the three individuals to whom he dedicated the book: his wife, Cynthia; the late Gordon Wright; and the late John Haines.

The early part of the book details Adams' somewhat rebellious youth, his apprenticeship at CalArts, the summer of 1975 when a trip north “changed my life.” As he listened to ice melting within glacier crevasses and the stillness of deep forests punctuated with bird song, he knew that Alaska would be his home. “I imagined there was music that could be heard only there, music that belonged there like the plants and the birds, music that resonated with all that space and silence, cold and stone, wind and fire and ice. I longed to hear that music, to follow it wherever it might lead me.”

Adams found work in Fairbanks as the director of the Fairbanks (now Northern) Environmental Center. The late 1970s and early 1980s were a heady (and challenging) time to be an Alaska conservationist, and Adams was committed to the work. He was also beginning to compose music inspired by birdsong and published his first recording (“songbirdsongs”) in 1980. Soon, he realized that he had to make a choice between politics and music, and he chose music. He retreated to a cabin in the woods “where I took the passion that I felt for Alaska together with my hopes for changing the world, and put them into my art. This is the path I’ve followed ever since.” Someone else, he decided, could take his place in politics, but nobody else could make the music he imagined.

Adams was soon composing for the Fairbanks Symphony and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra, then receiving commissions for works elsewhere, teaching invitations, and national and international performances and accolades. His book, in accord with the author’s own quiet, contemplative character, is light on these listings, mentioning them almost in passing. What’s important, he makes clear, is the work itself, and the stories that surround the work. Stories about the weekly saunas he shared with friends, trips into the wilderness and to villages, his battles with cabin-invading squirrels, conversations and listenings that led to sounding out a musical sequence.

While much creative activity necessarily occurs in solitude, inside one’s own head, Adams was no hermit in the woods. He thrived on collaborations with others. In the winter of 1980-81 the poet John Haines sent Adams a cycle of poems and asked “whether I might find something musical in them.” The result was “Forest Without Leaves,” a cantata for choir, vocal soloists, and chamber orchestra that addresses the relationship between humans and the natural world. Adams writes about this project as one in which he searched for the music within the words, not only in sound but in language itself, and in which there was considerable give and take with Haines. It was, Adams says, “a milestone in my life. Working closely with John Haines encouraged me to think more deeply about what it meant to be an artist in the Far North, giving me the temerity to entertain artistic aspirations to match the landscapes of Alaska.”

Later, in 1999, as he flew in a jet over the Alaska Range, Adams envisioned “a piece — a place — where we could hear the elemental vibrations that are all around us all the time, just beyond the reach of our ears.” This became the years-long project “The Place Where You Go to Listen,” a small room at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks. In that room, the sounds — nothing from nature or instruments — come from a computer that synthesizes in real time responses to the rhythms of day and night, the phases of the moon, seismic movements, and the aurora’s energy. For this, Adams worked with composer and programmer Jem Altieri. The two even constructed the space that became the room, along with its sound and lighting systems.

In 2014, John and Cynthia Adams left Alaska to split their time between New York City and desert country. Despite some concerns about how such a move might influence his work, Adams discovered that the “Alaskan” qualities attached to his music had become less overt and more deeply embedded over time. “I began to feel that my music was no longer about place, but had in a real sense become a place of its own.” Especially, with the effects of climate change, he understood that Alaska was deeply connected to every other place, and he felt “a growing imperative to expand my music to embrace a broader vision of the world.” “Become Ocean” was followed by “Become River” and “Become Desert,” and by numerous other works that explore, with Adams’ distinct and always experimenting aesthetic, that troubled and glorious world.

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