I first met Fairbanks composer and community activist, John Luther Adams, in late November, 1987. The Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra was performing the premiere of my Chugach Symphony, under the baton of the late Gordon Wright. John was one of the percussionists in that performance.
I had been looking forward to meeting John. I had just gotten back into composing music three years before, after hardly writing a thing for over ten years. John, at that time, along with Maestro Wright and Anchorage's George Belden, were the best-known Alaska composers. Even at that time, John had the most resonant, authentic voice among the four of us.
After the December, 1987 performance, John told me that, in early rehearsals he hadn't liked my new symphony, but had warmed to it intensely. He called me, only partially in jest, "Alaska's Bruckner."
Although Anton Bruckner's nine huge, hour-long symphonies are majestic, sweeping landscapes of the mind, they are also regarded as utterly simple in their straightforward thematic content. Almost simplistic. So I asked John which of these aspects of Bruckner he meant.
"Both," was his reply.
Since then, I haven't written another symphony nearly as long as the 35-minute Chugach, and only two other works that are longer. But John, has since written a series of majestic, sweeping landscapes of the mind, utterly simple and straightforward in their daring combination of overt simplicity, masking covert complexities.
His series of compositions, and the commercial CDs of performances of them, have since marked John Luther Adams in my mind as Alaska's most powerful living artist. He's probably become a more important national and international figure, than an Alaskan one, though. Although John has long been appreciated in the Fairbanks arts community in which his art matured, Anchorage performers and listeners have had difficulty approaching John's sound palettes with open ears and minds.
The arts community that embraced Adams's music first was the so-called "downtown" music culture of lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, beginning in the late 1980s. The writer who chronicled John's growing resonance and fame, was Kyle Gann. At the time, Gann was one of two critics writing about serious NYC music for the Village Voice. Leighton Kerner wrote about The New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, performances at Carnegie Hall, and so on. Kerner covered the uptown scene.
Gann, who was and is an avant-garde composer, covered the downtown scene. Gann's Village Voice columns took early notice of Adams. In Gann's 1997 book, American Music in the Twentieth Century, he describes Adams's mature voice as on that has "deepened into a beautiful language of bitterseet chords and cyclic rhythms, complemented by joyously totalist tempos superimpositions in his percussion music."
Alex Ross, perhaps the finest writer in the USA on serious music these days, has profiled John in the May 13 edition of the New Yorker. Ross seems to have a special affinity for music of the far North. His brilliant 2007 essay on Finnish master, Jean Sibelius, which centers on Sibelius's 5th Symphony, may be the best essay on Sibelius ever written. His articles on Icelandic composer and performer Bjork cover the other end of the Northern musical culture gamut.
When Ross went to Fairbanks to visit Adams last month, John took Ross down to Lake Louise, to give him a feel of Alaska, from John's viewpoint. I suppose it worked, as the article is fascinating. The New Yorker's on-line version of Ross's Adams article features a recording of John's 2006 work, Dark Waves, commissioned by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra's Musica Nova group (note - I was a member of the group that year).
Alex Ross decribes Dark Waves as "one of the most arresting American orchestral works of recent years, it suggests a huge entity, of indeterminate shape, that approaches slowly, exerts apocalyptic force, and then recedes. Every instrument is, in one way or another, playing with the simple interval of the perfect fifth—the basic building block of harmony—but at the climax the lines coalesce into roaring dissonances, with all twelve notes of the chromatic scale sounding together."
I teach music appreciation at UAA. My students are all supposed to attend at least one concert in the community during the semester, and write an essay about the experience. Perhaps the most fascinating essay of the spring, 2007 semester was one written by a USAF E-8, who had recently returned from Iraq, and was about to head out for his third deployment in Afghanistan. What he saw in Adams's Dark Waves was at times frightening, at times overwhelming, but, ultimately comforting and embracing. "It almost makes me wish I could return to my beginning, but helps me accept that I can't," was the line the airman used that resonated most with me.
Ross's blog, The Rest is Noise, is my favorite blog about music, from a New York resident's viewpoint. The articles are full of useful hyper-links, and Ross's photographs are always a treat.
images - John Luther Adams, top, and Alex Ross, bottom