Review: Alex Ross on Composer John Luther Adams

Photograph of John Luther Adams on Lake Louise by Alex Ross

In 2008, I flew to Alaska to meet the composer John Luther Adams, who was then living in an airy house on the outskirts of Fairbanks. I had recently come to appreciate his music, which evokes vast landscapes and natural processes in motion. Although I had met him only once, he seemed a good subject for a magazine profile. The writing of such profiles is a strange business. One spends a few days with a person and presumes to sum up their entire life with authority. Soon after I arrived in Fairbanks, though, I could see that the assignment would be no great challenge. Adams spoke about himself precisely, eloquently, and without pretense. He took me to several of his favorite Alaskan places, including the iced-over expanse of Lake Louise, and explained easily how his music germinates in a feeling for place and a feeling for self.

In the acknowledgments for Silences So Deep, his newly published memoir, Adams reports that the book actually had its origin in a comment I made in passing when we visited Lake Louise. He had been telling me about the circuitous journey of his life, from suburban New Jersey to the suburbs of Atlanta, and on to Southern California and, eventually, Alaska. He told me of his youth playing in a garage band; of his electric early encounter with the avant-garde music of Edgard Varèse; of his tense conversations with the German rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun, who for several years had been his father-in-law; of his early time in Alaska, when he worked as an environmental activist and lived in an unheated cabin in the woods. I apparently remarked that he had lived an interesting life, and asked if he had ever thought of writing a memoir. I can’t help thinking that the idea would have occurred to Adams one way or another, but I am proud to have a role in the genesis of this intensely lyrical and candid work.

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The title of the book comes from the poet John Haines:
There are silences so deep
you can hear
the journeys of the soul,
enormous footsteps
downward in a freezing earth.
Some of the book’s most moving passages in the book describe Adams’s long, close friendship with Haines, who had spent much of the 1950s and ’60s in near-total isolation on a homestead eighty miles from Fairbanks. During my 2008 visit, we visited Haines in the more accessible house that he inhabited in old age, and Haines recited the lines that furnished the title of the memoir. I won’t ever forget that gravelly but melodious voice, whose lilt reminded me a little of Yeats’s recordings of his poetry. Haines died three years later. The other now-departed figure who looms over Silences So Deep is the conductor Gordon Wright, who took his Arctic Chamber Orchestra around the state to halls rarely touched by the classical-music circuit. The book is a tribute to such relationships, which formed and intensified in isolation. Adams left the state in 2014, in part because he felt the absence of those friends too strongly. The warming climate also unsettled him.

In addition to these affinities, Silences So Deep records an artist’s creative development against this rich natural background. Become Ocean, his largest and most spellbinding work for orchestra, bears oblique witness  to environmental catastrophe, invoking awesome natural forces just beyond the music’s control. In the White Silence sketches a kind of ideal memory of an unblemished northern landscape, like the one we witnessed on Lake Louise. Everything That Rises, for string quartet, suggests the life of a solitary bird or flock of birds, spiraling upward into limitless sky. There is a serene detachment in this music, as if planetary life and matter were being seen from an immense, almost extraterrestrial vantage point. Yet the indifferent majesty of nature is filtered through the engaged spirit of the person observing it. This is the land itself, heard through his eyes, seen through his ears.


Alex Ross is the music critic for The New Yorker magazine. His books include The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Listen to This, and, most recently, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.


Book Notes
Here at Book Post I’m emulating John Luther Adams and spending a couple of days in a cabin. My next closest cabin is only about fifty feet away, and the experience is only marginally more solitary than the last seven months in the middle the city, but still it’s a welcome change. I’m reading Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg, a book that keeps returning to libraries as examples of public spaces that nourish connection between people. Klinenberg enumerates many harms, some lethal, that come when such connections are severed: his interest in what he calls “social infrastructure” came out of studying mortality in the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995. People who were alone were at greater risk. It is heartbreaking to read his book, published in 2018, now, when our own public health emergency has isolation at its very core. I’m reading it with some other books about shared spaces for something I’m writing about Book Post’s philosophy, stay tuned. (nb, Eric Klinenberg, I may be writing this by myself but I’m in a state park!).

Meanwhile in the less terrifying news Out There, authors Jacqueline Woodson, N. K. Jemisin (we have a review of her latest in the works), Tressie McMillan Cottom, and Cristina Garcia Rivera were among the handful of writers to receive 2020 MacArthur genius grants this week. (Today’s reviewer Alex Ross got one by the way, not to brag.) J. K. Rowling’s new book, about a murderer who disguises himself a woman, has prompted dueling author letters (supporting in England, opposing in England, opposing in the US) responding to remarks she has made objecting to gender transition. Los Angeles bookstores put out a call for support as the venerable Pasadena shop Vroman’s (founded in 1894(!) when Adam Clark Vroman converted his beloved book collection into a store after the death of his wife) announced it needed customers if to survive. I like the story of Arcadia’s The Book Rack, where Mina Kasama, who had worked in the shop since high school, created a GoFundMe page to support her boss, her “surrogate grandma.” And the House Judiciary Committee released a damning report after a sixteen-month study of monopoly power in the tech industry. We covered the committee’s hearings with tech giants Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Tim Allen, and Sundar Pichai last month.

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