For nearly 40 years, between the 1970s and 2010s, Mississippi-born John Luther Adams slept with the window open at night. He wanted to feel as close as possible to the drama and beauty of the natural world – and his surroundings were about as dramatic and beautiful as they come, since he lived in the Alaskan wilderness, close to the Pacific Ocean.
In a bid to get even closer, Adams has spent decades writing, recording and releasing music that, through modern classical techniques, speaks to the Romantic tradition of great 19th and 20th century composers: the duality of the power of the individual and the world he inhabits. Over the course of nearly two dozen albums – folding in electroacoustic sounds, experimental percussive techniques and themes of environmental activism – the Grammy Award-winning musician has crafted a sonic landscape that The New Yorker credits to “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.” In this excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Frosty on RBMA Radio, the composer meditates on his lifelong captivation with the music of birds, and finding peace in the immensity of the world.
I think we all know how to listen deeply and we just need the occasional wake-up call, to remember to pay attention. For me, the first wake-up call was the song of the wood thrush, which I heard in this eastern hardwood forest that we’re sitting in now, a little farther south. In 1974, I was living in an old farm house in rural Georgia and I didn’t know much about birds. I had never paid much attention to them, but I was working long days, two jobs. I was a small town librarian. If I wasn’t there, the library wasn’t open. I was [also] a farmhand so I was working hard, but every morning early I would get up and walk in the woods, and again at dusk.
I became captivated by this music that I would hear, this liquid, silvery, sort of bell-like music that I would hear back in the woods. I’d try to follow the music and find the singer and it always seemed to be just beyond. I don’t know how I figured it out, but eventually I came to learn that the singer was the wood thrush. As it turned out, the wood thrush is the favorite singer of my adolescent hero, Henry David Thoreau. I sharpened my pencils and got my little sketchbooks out, and I started taking dictation from the wood thrush. I think my life’s work really began right then and there.
I loved that idea that these are languages that I will never understand, I’ll never speak, but I was determined to not utilize field recordings, to listen to the music of [influential composer/ornithologist Olivier] Messiaen, to be as uninfluenced as I could be. To have this unmediated apprenticeship with the birds. Messiaen said the same thing, but the birds were my teachers.
Nothing comforts me more than to feel small, insignificant, vulnerable, evanescent, mortal.
I began sketching on my first trips in Alaska. That summer of 1975, I began sketching immediately, writing down birdsongs as best as I could and trying to capture, to translate, to evoke something of the feeling of the air and the light and the wind. Initially, I began with a kind of landscape painting in music and immediately I thought, “Well, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” I imagined that I might discover up there a music that no one else might be able to discover anyplace else.
I don’t make peace with the immensity of the world – I find peace in the immensity of the world. Nothing comforts me more than to feel small, insignificant, vulnerable, evanescent, mortal. That’s close to the heart of religious experience for me. That may sound weird, but that’s what I want to connect with through music. That’s what I hope, at times, the music does for you as a listener. It just reminds you of those things, invites you to wake up and pay attention.
We are inseparable from this profoundly sensuous world that we inhabit. In fact, the whole shape of the human mind is formed in response to light and wind and sounds and birdsongs and leaves. I’m enough of an ecologist in that sense, I guess, to believe that really we don’t create anything. We could argue it becomes a game of syntax. Is there such a thing as abstract thought, or not? My point is that just about everything that we imagine, we’re inventing or creating, is really just an echo, just a response to creation itself.
The reason that music is worthy of a lifetime of devotion is that it’s so much bigger than I am. It’s so much bigger than I can ever expect to understand. It’s my life’s work and I still have no idea what music is.