When music becomes place
November 30, 2016
“My music is going inexorably from being about place to becoming place,” John Luther Adams told The New Yorker back in 2008. He’s not suffering delusions of grandeur. This contemporary American composer is widely regarded as a master of textural sonic sculptures whose genesis can be found in the birdsong, cracking glaciers, prairie thunder and crashing ocean waves of Earth’s various landscapes.
We can easily identify the naturalistic elements that wend themselves through Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring.” Copland’s treatment of an Appalachian experience of that same season is beloved for its joyful celebration of the mountain, and more especially the people of the mountain, but it attain a vibrant degree of “mountainness,” it doesn’t threaten to “become” the mountain.
Put on some good headphones and listen to Adams’ “Earth and the Great Weather,” and you’d be hard pressed not to appreciate an actual sonic landscape – a place – that you inhabit from the ears inward, and back out to your skin. Those goosebumps would arise if were you transported to the composer’s beloved Alaska. And who’s to say you aren’t in fact transported?
A good place to start is the below episode of the excellent WQXR podcast series “Meet the Composer.” Adams brings us along on his journey to modern composers like Frank Zappa, a rock and roller named Dennis, California, an avant garde mentor named James Tenney, and eventually, Alaska.
Adams’ friend, author Barry Lopez, has said, “Landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures.” Adams is perhaps not as well known as other sonic pioneers like John Cage, Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Conductors, musicians and academics have singled out Adams as a master of landscape – music that edges toward “becoming place.” Have a listen, and see if the outer landscape gives way to a more expansive, inner landscape, if the room around you doesn’t shrink from consciousness, if the world “out there” doesn’t become more real yet inscrutable, unforgiving and beautiful.
Enjoy the experience of entering a “natural geographical cathedral in sound,” as composer JoAnn Felletta has called it. It just might forever alter your idea of landscape and place.