John Luther Adams: Interview

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Daniel Varela: Can you characterize the current state of your work and compositional interests?

John Luther Adams: I've just completed a concert-length work for string quartet, string orchestra and two pianos dedicated to the memory of Lou Harrison. As I was composing this piece it occurred to me that it completes a trilogy of large-scale memorial works. Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing is dedicated to the memory of my father. In the White Silence is dedicated my mother. And for Lou Harrison is dedicated to the man who was in a real sense a musical parent to me.

My book Winter Music was published last year. It's a collection of essays, journals and other writings dating from 1974 to 2004. Putting the book together was in part an experience of looking back, reflecting on thirty years of work. That reflection helped me identify essential themes and elements that have unified my work over the years, and it helped me look ahead to where the work appears to be leading me.

Currently I'm working on The Place Where You Go to Listen - a sound environment for the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska. The music in this room is "played" by forces of nature, resonating in real time with seismic waves, fluctuations in the earth's magnetic field and the changing rhythms of night and day, darkness and light. The piece has no beginning, middle or end, and it never literally repeats. This is a new medium and a new way of working for me, and I'm enjoying it very much.

DV:Many of your works released on CD deal with large-scale orchestral groups, but recently you've been composing works for smaller ensembles. Which aspects are different or similar between these two scales?

JLA: I've been exploring the difference between size and scale. Size is actual dimension. It's a measure of the medium - the number of instruments, the physical volume of sound - as well as the duration of the music. But scale is perceived dimension. And it's quite possible to create a large sense of scale with smaller media and in less time.

In my recent music I've been working with smaller ensembles, but the music is still large in scale. Using combinations of acoustical and electronic sounds I'm composing works that require fewer performers yet are still orchestral in conception.

DV: Some of your more recent works (In the White Silence, for instance) have quite a bit of movement and are more fluid and less static than other of your works. Are these kind of compositional tools a new period for your work or only strategies related to a particular piece?

JLA: It's true that White Silence has relatively active musical textures. But the harmonies hardly change at all. By contrast The Light That Fills the World and my works recorded on Cold Blue Music encompass a wider range of harmonic colors, yet the textures of that music are relatively unarticulated.

My most recent piece, for Lou Harrison, is as harmonically static as anything I've composed, with only a handful of different harmonies in over an hour of music. However the surfaces of this music are very lush and active, with many independent lines moving continuously in four distinct tempo streams. So there's a strong sense of suspended time, articulated by moment-to-moment fluidity. The formal structures of the composition recur throughout the score, but the sound of the music is always changing. Listening to it is a little like sitting in one place watching the wind and the weather, the light and the shadows change slowly over time.

DV:Could you explain your concept of "formal rigor and visceral impact"? Is this concern related to your interest in mathematics and chaos theory as well as your commitment to nature?

JLA:We humans are pattern-making animals. Mathematics and music are expressions of our impulse to perceive and articulate patterns in the world around us. Like human intelligence itself, our sense of form derives from the natural world.

Form is a kind of discipline that gives the music a presence of its own, independent of the composer. Form extends beyond the limitations of self-expression and protects the music against the composer's lapses in taste. Form isn't a container for music into which I pour notes. It's an all-encompassing space that the music inhabits. If the music is an organism then form is a place in which the music lives and breathes.

I don't rely on form to generate ideas. It's more of a means to filter out ideas, to distill the most essential ideas and protect the music from being cluttered up with too many clever little ideas. Whenever I feel the music demands it, I break the form. Otherwise I try to follow its discipline as faithfully as I can. I often conceive of an entire piece or a section of a piece as a single breath, a single complex sonority. So form is as integral a part of the music as the notes, the moment-to-moment sounds. Form and material are one and the same.

The critic James Mellow said about the sensuous formalism of Dan Flavin's art: "Purism one begins to feel, is the ultimate form of romance." Virtually the entire body of Flavin's work is composed from four standard lengths of fluorescent bulbs in a handful of stock colors. The formal restrictions of his chosen medium are extreme. Yet the presence of his work is, quite literally, radiant.

One of the great wonders of music is that it's so physical and yet so ephemeral. I want to have it both ways at once. I want my music to have formal integrity. And I want it to be as physical as it can be, to touch the listener as directly as possible. It's that ageless balancing act between the classical and the romantic, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Maybe I argue for the classical because, fundamentally, I'm such a romantic.

DV:How does your concept of form relate to compositional process?

JLA:Good question. Like biological or geological processes, compositional processes determine the way things evolve over time. I use compositional processes to keep the sound in motion from moment to moment.

If process is the behavior of forces, then form is the course that those forces trace in space and time. I value both process and form as elements that give the music continuity and coherence. But the primary focus of the music is always the sound.

DV:Are you still interested in the idea of "white sound" that is present in many of your works? Can you tell me about your relationship with the color white?

JLA:I live in a place that is white for much of the year, and I never grow tired of the image of vast stretches of untouched whiteness. But more than the idea of whiteness, it's the presence, the material substance of all that whiteness that I love.

The less attention a work of art or music calls to ideas or gestures the more it calls us to look and to listen to the real presence of space and color, sound and time. Robert Ryman's white paintings aren't really about white. They're about paint, the material substance of painting. In a similar way, my music isn't really about metaphors of whiteness or color. It's about the sound, the material substance of music.

Recently I've begun working with whiteness in a new way. The prima materia for my installation The Place Where You Go to Listen is synthesized noise - both white noise and "colored" noise. I've also begun a series of Veils, sound sculptures composed entirely from synthetic noise.

DV:The concept of beauty can mean very different things to different people. And it's even a concept that many people have tried to delete from contemporary art and music. What is your opinion about "beauty" in music?

JLA:We all enjoy beautiful things. I want my music to be as beautiful as it can be. But there can be a fine line between the beautiful and the superficially pretty. So, as you suggest, the question becomes: What exactly is beautiful?

More than beauty, I'm drawn to sensuality - the saturation of the senses. I want music to immerse me in a totality of sound. That sound might be ravishing or it might be terrifying. (There's another fine line - between beauty and terror.) So beauty is really a by-product of art. A more fundamental object of art is truth.

That which is true is that which is whole. This is isn't an aesthetic position. It's an ecological view. Wholeness is the quality that gives an ecosystem, a biological species or a work of art its authentic identity. Wholeness is integrity. Something that has integrity is fully and wholly itself. We may or may not regard it as beautiful. But we recognize it as complete, in and of itself. It is itself and nothing else.

The central truth of ecology is the reality that everything in this world is interrelated. The great challenge of our time is to live by this truth, to re-integrate our fragmented consciousness and to live on this earth without destructive hierarchies. This seems to me to be the central message of John Cage's work. In today's world this is a more radical and a more urgent proposition than ever before. If we don't embrace ecological understanding soon, it may be too late for the human species.

DV:Your music has a very meditative and introspective character. Do you feel some of this related to your own personality?

JLA:More than reflecting my outward personality, I think the character of my music reflects the intensity of my interior life. Our exterior lives can become so busy, so small and so crowded with people and things. Music, art and the natural world ground us and re-connect us to the life of the spirit. For me, art is a spiritual aspiration, the sensual reaching for the spiritual. The sensuality of sound connects us with both the physical and the spiritual dimensions of music.

DV:Certain composers and non-Western musical traditions throughout history have used tapestries of long tones to induce meditation or contemplative experiences. Do you think your own music could be related (at least in a subtle/ abstract way) to this kind of music?

JLA:I don't feel a conscious connection with any tradition of drone music, but it's true that I feel a certain affinity with composers who favor long tones, from Perotin and Ockeghem to La Monte Young and Eliane Radigue. And, aside from Inuit drumming and chant, the non-Western music that speaks most directly to me is the Gagaku music of Japan. So maybe my music does have some relationship to a history of long-tone music. But fast, loud music can induce equally strong states of mind. One of the primary impulses behind my extended percussion work Strange and Sacred Noise was my desire to explore noise and extreme physicality as a gateway to ecstatic experience.

DV:Do you believe in music as a kind of transcendental, spiritual or sacred expression? Much contemporary and experimental art has tried to reject the "old" relationship between these two human fields, while other people, even in most extreme experimental art forms have tried to restore this ancient linkage...people like German artist Joseph Beuys...

JLA:I'm not interested in art as self-expression. But I do believe in art as an expression of our spiritual aspirations. Beuys is a wonderful artist, yet the symbolic elements and narrative quality of his work don't really engage me. I'm drawn more to an artist like James Turrell, whose work is composed only of light. There are no objects in Turrell's work, but a palpable sense of mystery and presence.

Of course we can't avoid self-expression no matter how hard we try. Still, I'm not interested in making music in which my own subjectivity is the subject. Rather than self-expression I aspire to more transpersonal expression.

DV:Many contemplative states are experienced in solitude and isolation, in conditions of deep concentration... like the contemplation of a vast landscape. How do your experiences with geographic and aural landscapes relate to this?

JLA:By temperament I'm inclined toward solitude. My own most powerful contemplative experiences have been in isolation, whether in the studio or in the wilderness.

I love the vibrancy of a great city. But I could live without it if I had to. I'm not sure I could survive without wild landscapes. And the solitude of the studio is the foundation of my daily life.

DV:You write and speak about your experiences with indigenous peoples. What can you say about what you've learned from traditional societies? Which aspects from Native cultures speak to you?

JLA:Traditional Native cultures teach what it means to truly belong to a place. Over the thirty years I've been in Alaska, I've learned from my Native friends and neighbors about how to live as long-term inhabitant of this place. Native traditions honor the spirit in all things. In Native teachings everything in the world is inhabited by spirit, and the world itself has consciousness. This way of being in the world has profoundly influenced my own spiritual awareness.



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