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Musician's Work Reflects Alaskan Landscape - 2004-08-13


John Luther Adams writes music in a small cabin near Fairbanks, Alaska. As you might expect, it's furnished with a wood stove and surprisingly perhaps, a baby grand piano. His works are a reflection of the Alaska landscape that surrounds and inspires him.

John Luther Adams folds his lanky frame into the contours of the tundra. From this perch on the top of Murphy Dome, he gazes out beyond the tussocks and rocks to the birch and spruce trees. Streams and rivers curve through the valley beyond. The vastness of arctic and subarctic terrain is something he tries to convey through music.

"I tend to think in big washes of sound, like this country that we're sitting in, you know, there's this range of hills and then there's another one behind it and another one and on and on and on to the horizon. So there's this sense of space upon space upon space. Expanding out all around you. And, I try to do that in music by using layers, these big washes of sound that I brush on top of one another in ever expanding layers," he says.

Mr. Adams came to Alaska as an environmental activist 25 years ago. But he'd trained as a musician and composer and eventually made music his life's work. With it, he tries to share the peace he feels here in the 'last frontier'. "I think it touches and speaks to a deep human need to have that place of stillness where you feel your aloneness in the middle of the beauty, the terror, the wonder of the world. And at the same time that you feel your aloneness, you feel your connection with where you are and all the other beings that are there, too. I think it's a spiritual need, we need stillness," he says.

That stillness, along with lush washes of sound, can be heard in this piece, In the White Silence, John Luther Adams' most recent release.

He says it's different from his early Alaska works, which were about specific places. For example, Earth and the Great Weather, from 1994, celebrates different communities on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "There's been this gradual evolution in the music as my experience of place has become more varied and deeper over the years. It all becomes part of the texture of my life and I think the landscapes have in a sense become more imaginary and more interior. I'm no longer interested in telling a story through music, or even painting a picture. But somehow creating a presence, a musical presence that has the feeling of a place, that puts the listener at the center of the world," he says.

With music, he conveys his love of Alaska's wild places. But he says that's not his only goal. "What I hope my music can do, occasionally, is to invite someone into a place in which they can have an authentic experience of their own. You know, that they can discover things in the music I didn't know were there," he says.

Mr. Adams will next try to evoke that response in a literal space. He's creating a permanent exhibit for the University of Alaska Museum called The Place Where You Go to Listen. He plans to fill the room with only sound and light. "My hope is that in this place we will be able to see and hear the echoes, the images of things that are going on in the world all the time that we don't normally hear," he says.

Computers will translate natural occurrences into musical sound in real time. So seismic rumbles underground will prompt drumming. The magnetic activity in the sky will cause virtual bells to ring. The synthetic sounds will reflect the natural world.

After lounging on the tundra in the late summer sun, we meander back toward the car, the stillness of Alaska echoing in our heads.

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