Author: John Luther Adams

33 Years of Composer Advocacy: Celebrating the Legacy of Ralph Jackson

Ralph Jackson

Ralph Jackson. Photo by Scott Bartucca, courtesy BMI Classical

Whenever I find myself grappling with a significant question in my musical life, I ask Ralph Jackson for advice. He never gives it. Yet invariably I come away with a clearer understanding of what I need to do.

Ralph is a kind of sage, a savant with an uncanny gift for seeing beyond superficial complexities into the real essence of a situation. Ralph’s perspective is always insightful, often provocative. It is never predictable. Ever.

Sometimes I’ll find myself wondering: “What would So-and-So say about this?” You can’t do that with Ralph because his brain is wired differently. He just doesn’t think like most other people. You may say to yourself: “Ah, I know where he’s going…” And suddenly you find yourself following Ralph down a path you didn’t even know existed.

Throughout his career Ralph has shared his insights countless times with so many composers. Ralph cares deeply about composers. More importantly, he understands composers—because he was one.

In 1976, two years after completing a performance degree in oboe, Ralph earned a degree in composition from the University of Texas at Austin. In each of the following two years, he won the BMI Student Composer Award.

In 1979 Ralph took a leave from the PhD program in composition at the University of Iowa (where he also worked as a professional oboist), and moved to New York City. Later that same year he won an ASCAP Young Composer Award and (following a brief stint at Associated Music Publishers/G Schirmer) began working for BMI.

Writing about his metamorphosis from composer to administrator, Ralph observes:

“Certainly there are administrators who are also very successful composers. These are almost always individuals with a tremendous, unstoppable creative urge. They have no choice other than to write music. That was not me. Instead, my passion began to be redirected to helping other composers.”

Ralph has pursued that passion for more three decades. His extensive travels have given him a broad view of the contributions composers make to our world today. Ralph is fiercely intelligent and boldly outspoken when the occasion demands. Yet his generosity often takes the form of quiet, behind-the-scenes actions, and the people who benefit rarely ever know about them.

Working his way up the ranks at BMI, Ralph eventually became Vice President for Classical Music Relations. In the ‘90s he began working with the BMI Foundation (a separate not-for-profit that supports the creation, performance and study of music), becoming President in 2002. In 2007 he was awarded the Letter of Distinction from the American Music Center, for his “significant contribution to contemporary American Music.”

Now, after almost thirty-three years of service, Ralph Jackson has retired from BMI. He will continue his service to music as President Emeritus of the BMI Foundation, and on the boards of MATA (Music at the Anthology) and the Charles Ives Society.

Over the years my wife Cynthia and I have shared many memorable meals with Ralph and his partner, the composer and guitarist David Leisner. Ralph and Cindy are a dangerous combination. Once they get started telling stories, it’s all over. Ralph is wickedly funny. His account of driving with Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig (a white-knuckle ride I’ve also experienced) is roll-on-the-floor hilarious.

Ralph and David are avid art collectors. And Ralph himself is a painter, who’s produced a continuing series of abstract portraits of his friends. In my studio is a small, color-charged painting titled Cindy Adams with Police and Lightning. But that’s another story…

Ralph is fearless, relentlessly creative, and always open to new ideas and experiences. I look forward to many more delightful dinners in the future. And I wait with curiosity to see what surprises he has in store for his encore. But for the moment, I’m confident that I’m not alone in voicing my heartfelt gratitude to Ralph Jackson for all that he’s done for American composers and their music.

Ralph Jackson Painting

Cindy Adams with Police and Lightning. © Ralph Jackson. Used with permission.

Sound Ideas: Prompt #1

crooked roadVariations on A Theme by La Monte Young

In 1960 La Monte Young prompted us:

“Draw a straight line and follow it.”

The reverberations of this radically simple directive have been vast and profound.

But aside from those that we humans create, there are few if any straight lines in nature. So, fifty-two years later, I’d like to propose Variations on A Theme by La Monte Young:

“Find a crooked line and follow it.”

You may choose to realize this in purely visual terms. Or you may want to follow your crooked line and sound it.

You might walk along a shoreline, singing or playing as you go. You might trace a fixed elevation line as it meanders along a hillside, perhaps translating the contour from a map into musical notation. You might follow the course of a stream and record its changing voices.

Maybe you trace in sound the forms of clouds in the sky. Maybe you choose to travel from Point A to Point B as directly as you can, but the crooked line you follow is the rise and fall of the earth beneath your feet.

Step off the rectilinear grid that we impose on the world and wander wherever the infinitely intricate curves of nature may lead you. Alternatively, you might remain in one place and let the lines come to you.

There should be as many possible variations on this theme as there are crooked lines in the world.

And then there’s the possibility of a polyphony of such lines…

Now it’s your turn: write, record, or otherwise draft your response using any method that suits your style and skills, then share it in comments. You can embed a SoundCloud player, a YouTube video, a link to a score file—whatever works. Here at NewMusicBox, we talk about music a lot. This project is our way of shifting focus and actually making some music, too. We can’t wait to hear what everyone creates.—MS

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams, whom critic Alex Ross has called “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century,” has created a unique musical world rooted in wilderness landscapes and natural phenomena. His music, which includes works for orchestra, chamber ensembles, soloists, and electronic media, is recorded on the Cold Blue, New World, Cantaloupe, Mode, and New Albion labels. Adams’s books Winter Music and, most recently, The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music are published by Wesleyan University Press, and his writings about music and nature have appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies.

No More Outsiders

[Ed. Note: Upon learning that John Luther Adams was named the recipient of the 2010 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, we were thrilled at the opportunity to ask him once again to write for these pages.—FJO]

John Luther Adams
Photo by Don Lee, Banff Centre

When I first opened the e-mail telling me I’d been chosen to receive the Nemmers Prize, I couldn’t bring myself to read it. It just didn’t seem real. So I closed my laptop, walked out of the room, and asked my wife Cindy if she would read it. While she did, I stood as far away as I could, resolute in my disbelief.

In the days that followed, I struggled to absorb the impact of this lightning bolt. I’d never imagined I would be nominated, let alone selected for such an award. Of course I was thrilled. But I also felt a nagging sense of unworthiness.

While I could accept the recognition of the music, I recognize all too well the human failings of the composer, and I felt uneasy about this honor. But sometimes we need to separate the art and the artist.

In teaching I’ve occasionally found myself gently reminding a younger composer: “Remember, it’s not about you… It’s about music.”

Clearly, it was time to walk my own talk!

We Alaskans often refer to the rest of the world with a single loaded word: “Outside”. The world of music can be equally provincial.

For most of my creative life, I’ve worked in relative isolation. And I’ve always thought of myself as a musical outsider.

The Nemmers Prize is a heartening sign that my music seems to resonate “out there” in the larger world. At the same time, I’ve found myself wondering: Does this mean that I’m no longer an outsider?

Maybe so. But Conlon Nancarrow, Ornette Coleman, and Meredith Monk all received MacArthur grants. In recent years David Lang and Steve Reich have received the Pulitzer Prize. And just last month Pauline Oliveros received the William Schuman Award. All these composers were once considered outsiders.

My own musical mentors and role models Lou Harrison and James Tenney were quintessential outsiders. Neither Lou nor Jim gave much thought to making the “right” career moves. They always put music and life first. Despite years of rejection and neglect from the so-called “mainstream”, they tirelessly pursued their artistic visions, creating unique and richly varied musical worlds. In time, the rest of the world has caught up with them, and they’re now recognized as major figures in American music.

The irrepressible spirit of Lou and Jim endures in the music and the lives of Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Lois Vierk, Larry Polanksky, Chas Smith, Eve Beglarian, Paul Dresher, Jim Fox, and many other composers of my generation. And it continues to reverberate in the likes of Jim Altieri, Corey Dargel, Alexandra Gardner, Greg Davis, Todd Tarantino, and so many others of the next generation.

Music is one of the most powerful expressions of the human spirit. No matter where it comes from, no matter what it sounds like, when we make music and listen with open ears, we’re all insiders. Amid the vitality and diversity of music today, maybe there are no more outsiders.

But how do we make qualitative judgments about music? As an occasional panelist myself, I’ve given some thought to the way grants and awards are adjudicated.

The Nemmers Prize is made anonymously. I still don’t know who nominated me, who made the decision, or how. The formal citation from the Nemmers jury makes no mention of Alaska or the natural world. It doesn’t include the words “experimentalism,” “minimalism,” “environmentalism,” or any other terms that are often used in reference to my music.

This makes me smile. And it suggests a process of evaluation that considers music on its own terms, setting aside style, politics, academic credentials, and any considerations other than the music itself.

The Nemmers Prize doesn’t address a specific piece of music, but rather a larger body of work. This is a welcome confirmation of the work I’ve been doing for some forty years now. The recognition that comes with the Nemmers is extraordinary. Equally welcome is the financial support it affords the recipient time to explore new ideas and compose new music.

I’m a working composer. Ever since I quit my day job in 1989, I’ve relied on commissions, royalties, fellowships, grants and other unpredictable sources for most of my livelihood. This award will give me two or three years to pursue projects that might seem impractical or too risky for potential commissioners.

Already I’ve begun revisiting my sketches for a long orchestral work that no one is likely to commission. I’m looking forward to writing a new book, a kind of atlas of music and places in my life. After a hiatus of more than thirty years, I’m thinking about returning to my work with bird songs. And there will likely be other new projects that I haven’t yet imagined.

As we get older, we’re called on to pass along some measure of the gifts we received from our own teachers and mentors. One of the special things about the Nemmers award is that it encourages the recipient to give back, by engaging with students at the Biennen School of Music at Northwestern University.

Few things make me happier than working with young musicians, so I’m especially looking forward to my residencies at Northwestern. And since I don’t have a long-term relationship with a university, college, or conservatory, these residencies will provide institutional resources that aren’t always available for performances and recordings of my music.

In the days since the public announcement of the Nemmers, I’ve received a wonderful outpouring of phone calls, e-mails, and messages from all over the world. It’s open-minded listeners, my fellow composers, dedicated performing musicians, record producers, critics, editors, scholars, family, and friends who bring my work to life. You’ve kept the composer going and the music growing for all these years. Your love, faith and support mean more to me than I can find words to express.

The unexpected honor of the Nemmers Prize still has me feeling a little vertiginous, more than a little humbled, very grateful, and curious about where the music may lead me next.

Remembering Lou

John Luther Adams, Bill Colvig, and Lou Harrison
Photo by Dennis Keeley

The great redwood has fallen.
Light streams into the forest.
The sound will reverberate
for generations to come.

The passing of Lou Harrison marks the end of an era in American music that began with Charles Ives and continued on through Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage.

The expressive range, diversity of media, prolific quantity, and consistent quality of Lou’s music is perhaps unequalled among recent composers. From heroically dissonant orchestral counterpoint to explosive percussive rhythms to ravishing, timeless music for gamelan, his body of work embraces most of the important currents in the music of our time.

Lou always fearlessly pursued his own way. While still a young man, he left the competitive careerism of New York City to make his home on the California coast. There—surrounded by the beauties of nature and the richness of Pacific cultures—he created his own uniquely personal world, grounded in his credo: “Cherish. Conserve. Consider. Create.”

As a teacher Lou introduced many young Western musicians to the music of other cultures or, as he called it, “the whole, wide, wonderful world of music”. His diminutive Music Primer remains a wellspring of creative wisdom about the life and the craft of a composer.

Through his wide-ranging friendships, Lou was a central figure connecting five generations of musical independents. His spirit lives on in his music and through the immeasurable gifts he gave to so many younger musicians. I feel blessed to have been among them.

Thirty years ago, as an aspiring young composer, I won second place in a composition contest. I was especially thrilled since one of the judges was Lou Harrison, whose music I very much admired. Emboldened, I made the pilgrimage to San Jose State University where Lou was teaching at the time. I was delighted to find the man himself to be every bit as scintillating and engaging as his music.

From that day on, Lou was a generous mentor, an attentive friend and an inspiring role model to me, as he has been for many other younger composers. Lou always treated me with respect as a younger colleague. His matter-of-fact embrace of my aspirations removed any shred of doubt in my mind that I would make a life as a composer.

When I first visited Lou and his partner Bill Colvig at their home in Aptos, they picked me up at the bus station in Santa Cruz. Bill was driving and Lou insisted that I ride in the front seat. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. From then on whenever we drove anywhere together this was the seating arrangement. Lou always treated me like visiting royalty.

In my mid 30s I found myself weighing the risk of quitting my day job to devote myself to composing full-time. My boss offered me the opportunity to continue working on a half-time basis. As I often did, I called Lou for his perspective.

As usual, he spoke directly to the situation: “There are no half-time jobs, John. Only half-time salaries.”

I promptly quit my job and never looked back.

Over the years Lou taught me many lessons about the art of composition and the life of a composer. He also gave me the best conducting lesson I ever had.

In 1988, Lou and Bill came to Alaska for a concert of Lou’s music with the Fairbanks Symphony. On the program was his Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra, which I conducted. As a percussionist I’d always had steady time. And as an occasional conductor I’d always prided myself on my precision and attention to detail.

After the dress rehearsal I asked Lou what he thought.

“You remind me of John Cage,” he said.

Intrigued and vaguely flattered, I asked: “How so?”

“Well, you’re more kinesthetic than John…”

My intrigue and flattery grew.

“…When John used to conduct he wanted to hear every detail of the music and he tried to show every nuance of the score. So, of course, the tempo would gradually slow down.”

Instantly I recognized that I was doing the very same thing. At the next night’s concert my conducting was leaner, crisper and steadier in tempo—a style I’ve tried to maintain ever since.

This lesson from Lou was not just about conducting. It was also a lesson about teaching. Lou was fond of recalling that his teacher Henry Cowell would often begin a sentence by saying “As you know…” and then impart some wonderfully unexpected pearl of wisdom.

In his own teaching Lou employed this technique brilliantly, using the gentle touch of flattery to prepare receptive minds for the gifts of learning.

For their concert Lou and Bill brought with them the Sundanese gamelan degung, Sekar Kembar. As far as we can tell, this was the first time a gamelan had been heard “live” in Alaska. Bill played various instruments in the ensemble and he was featured as soloist playing the suling flute in Lou’s tunefully-sunny Main Bersama-sama for horn, suling and gamelan.

This was Lou’s one and only visit to Alaska. But it was homecoming for Bill. In the late 30’s Bill had left Berkeley to live for several years on the rough and ready frontier of Alaska and the Yukon, and he was thrilled to be back in the North again.

After the concert Lou and Bill came out to my cabin for a party. My place was deep in the woods. I had no running water and heated with a wood stove. The temperature in the boreal forest that night was well into the forty-somethings below zero. Accustomed to warmer climes, Lou was good-humored in his forbearance. But Bill was in his element. The colder it got the better he liked it. The aurora borealis dancing in the sky that night was the icing on his cake.

In 1991 I composed Five Yup’ik Dances, based on traditional songs of the First People of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. These pieces are composed entirely of “white notes,” with no sharps or flats. After looking through the score Lou was very enthusiastic, saying: “You’ve rediscovered those seven tones as something wild, fresh, and new.” Encouraged by Lou’s reaction, I went to compose Dream In White On White—a larger work in Pythagorean diatonic tuning which led eventually to the 75-minute expanse of In the White Silence.

Sometime in my mid 40s, I began to feel acutely the professional limitations of my life in Alaska. While colleagues elsewhere had blossoming careers, things seemed to be moving very slowly for me. I thought seriously about moving someplace closer to the centers of musical life. I decided to apply for a fellowship and asked Lou if he would write a letter of recommendation for me. Although he was very busy, he cheerfully agreed.

When I received the letter first thing I noticed was the signature, in Lou’s incomparable calligraphy. (This was before the development of the lovely “Lou” computer font.) But beyond the elegance of his hand, I was struck by the heart of his message. Among other things, Lou observed that by choosing to live in Alaska I had chosen to develop a deep relationship with place and to avoid what he called “the group chattering of the metropolis.” This, he said, had allowed the growth of my work to be “both integrated and in ‘real time.'”

Clearly Lou understood the meaning of my life choices better than I did!

I didn’t receive the fellowship. But that letter from Lou was an enduring gift. I haven’t thought about leaving the North since.

One summer when an orchestral work of mine was performed at the Cabrillo Music Festival, I spent a memorable week with Lou and Bill. After the concert that included my music we had dinner. My piece had been well performed and well received, and I was in an upbeat mood. At the time Lou was enjoying a surge in performances of his orchestral music, and I suggested that this must be gratifying to him.

“It’s nice,” he said. “But it’s not really what we do.”

I asked him to elaborate.

“The orchestra is a glorious noise. But the heart and soul of our musi
c lies elsewhere. We’re the ones who form our own ensembles, make our own tunings, build our own instruments and create our own musical worlds. We’re the ‘Do It Yourself’ school of American music!”

I was humbled. Here Lou was finally starting to receive from the classical musical establishment some measure of the recognition he deserved, yet he wasn’t seduced at all. He always had a singular dedication to the deepest roots of his music and an unwavering sense of who he was.

At a time when gay couples were still largely invisible to the straight world, Lou and Bill openly and tenderly showed their profound love for one another. Their thirty-three years of shared life and devotion is a model and an inspiration for all couples.

As their flowing beards and hair turned white, Lou and Bill grew to resemble one another more and more. When Bill died in 2000, Lou was at his side, holding his hand. “It was a peaceful death,” said his soul-mate. “He was so beautiful…Like a beautiful animal returning to Nature.”

Like many of their friends, I worried that Lou would soon follow Bill. But he continued his life and work with undiminished energy and enthusiasm well into his 86th year. When he died, he was on his way to a festival of his music.

As Lou once quipped: “All good things come to an end. Even the 20th Century!”

Yet Lou Harrison and his joyful, ecumenical life and music seem more vital and pertinent than ever before.

Another View: Music and Wilderness

photo by Dennis Keeley

In addition to my wife Cynthia and our son Sage, there are two great loves in my life: music and wilderness.

At first blush, these two things may not seem to have much in common. Music is among the most social of human experiences. Wilderness is where we sometimes go to experience solitude.

Yet almost thirty years ago when I left music school in southern California and gradually found my way to Alaska, my intuition was telling me something it’s taken my intellect all this time to understand: Both music and wilderness are grounded in community.

Community is a network of relationships. Whether a community of land, plants, and animals or a community of music and people, two essential qualities of healthy communities are diversity and integrity.

Like music and wilderness, diversity and integrity may seem to be opposites. But as we’ve learned from the science of ecology, they’re really one and the same. Integrity is wholeness. And wholeness comes from diversity.

Diversity is both a biological imperative and a cultural necessity. Today more than ever, our world needs as many unique species of life and as many distinctive voices and cultures as possible.

Sixty-three years ago Aaron Copland, Marion Bauer, Otto Luening, and other American composers joined voices together to create the American Music Center. Today the AMC is a community rich in its integrity and diverse in its wholeness.

Over the past decade it’s been my honor to play a small role in the service of this community—as a Board member and for the past three years as president of the AMC. As I pass the baton to my friend and colleague John Kennedy, I want to express my sincere appreciation to our members, our staff, board, funders and everyone who has contributed to creating and sustaining this musical community.

As the old Chinese curse has it, we live in interesting times. Perilously interesting times.

We human animals have become an unprecedented force of nature. We’re literally changing the climate of the Earth, threatening the entire biosphere—that miraculous network of connections that sustains all life on this planet, including ourselves.

Ecosystems all over the world are in imminent danger of losing their integrity and diversity, their capacity to sustain themselves. Amid the expanding monoculture of global commerce, the same is true for diverse human cultures.

If we’re going to survive we have no choice but to expand our sense of interdependence and obligation to all human cultures and to all forms of life with which we share this beautiful stone spinning in space.

We will do this through dedicating ourselves to the work of our individual lives and to our work together as communities. We will do this through preserving wilderness. We will do this through creating music.

Our courage for the present and our hope for the future lie in that place in the human spirit that finds solace in wilderness and finds voice in music.

It’s my hope that sixty-three years from today the great Porcupine River caribou herd will still freely roam the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—a wilderness ecosystem undivided by roads and undamaged by oil wells.

And it’s my faith that sixty-three years from today the American Music Center will still be here—even stronger and more visionary than it is today—serving a new music community that is more vibrant and more diverse than ever before.

A Lesson from Yogi

After he’d miserably flunked a high school exam, Yogi Berra’s disheartened teacher asked him:

“Yogi, didn’t you learn anything?”

The future baseball Hall-of-Famer replied: “Ma’m, I didn’t even suspect anything.”

Like Yogi, no one could ever teach me much of anything. As a young man I figured that the few things I didn’t already know I could either do without or learn on my own. So I usually learned things the hard way. Fortunately I had some special teachers along the way who understood that the best approach was to let me make my own mistakes and occasionally point me in the right direction.

This isn’t the most efficient approach to learning, but along with the labor of reinventing the wheel comes the joy of discovery, and a deep sense that the wheel belongs to you. And to this day I persist in my belief that in a very real sense we’re all self-taught. Still, we all need teachers and mentors.

Over the years I’ve learned a great deal about music from other composers (older, younger, and my own age), and from many gifted and generous performing musicians. I also count among my teachers fellow artists working in other disciplines, Alaska Native elders, as well as mathematicians and scientists – who are some of the most creative people I know.

Composing, learning and teaching are all processes of asking questions. Asking the right question at the right moment can be far more important than any answer. My own best teachers and mentors – James Tenney, Lou Harrison, Morton Feldman and Dane Rudhyar – all afforded me courtesy and respect as a younger colleague. They never offered definitive answers, only pertinent observations and timely questions, sometimes gentle, sometimes provocative. (As Morty put it: “Love the questions.”) I’ve tried to carry this approach into my own work as a teacher.

Not too long ago I found myself beginning a composition lesson with a particularly gifted but unfocused student by saying: “You’re very talented, Joshua. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

Talent is a gift. But it can also be a handicap. The challenge is to not settle for what comes easily. No matter what our natural gifts, our work as students and as artists is to go deeper and deeper into the strange, the new, the obscure.

Deep learning requires discipline. It requires learning about learning. And there are as many ways of learning and teaching as there are students and teachers.

As teachers, we learn about the different ways our students learn. We do our best to give the student what she needs, in a way that invites her to accept the gift.

As students and as artists, what we learn about how we learn gives us the practical tools that eventually become our personal disciplines for learning and for practicing our art.

It’s clear that we can teach and learn about music. The technical devices – the “chops” – can be codified, ingested and digested. But technique alone doesn’t make art any more than a recipe makes a great meal.

What have you learned about the art of music? How have you learned it?

Are there particular mentors or teachers who have changed your life, your practice or your understanding of music?

How do you teach?

And what do you think: Can the art of music really be taught? Can it really be learned?

Or, like Yogi, do we never even suspect it?

American Originals

“Affirmation of parentage is the substance of rebellion.”
—Harry Partch

I’ve never been what you’d call a flag-waving kind of guy. But when it comes to music, I guess I’m pretty darn red-blooded.

I’m captivated by Bach. I revel in Debussy and Wagner. And I admire Stravinsky. Still, I’ve never thought of these composers as family.

My musical family tree begins with Charles Ives, and it runs from Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford, to James Tenney and Pauline Oliveros, to Peter Garland and Lois Vierk.

As a student in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I was a musical omnivore. From gamelan and gagaku to Coltrane and Zappa, I devoured anything and everything I could lay my ears on. In the world of contemporary “classical” music my diet included Xenakis and Ligeti, Stockhausen and Boulez, Messiaen and a host of other Europeans. But it was the music of Feldman and Harrison, Partch, Cage and Nancarrow that spoke most directly to me.

This was an instinctive attraction. It wasn’t until my friend and classmate Peter Garland (who’s definitely not on John Ashcroft’s party list) started publishing the magazine Soundings that I began to sense an emerging tradition of American classical music, distinct from that of Europe.

One of the hallmarks of this tradition is the multiplicity and originality of its voices. The music of these American originals is so idiosyncratically personal as to defy easy knock-offs.

There’s only one Meredith Monk. And one LaMonte Young. Nancarrow and Partch have had profound impacts on subsequent generations. But few young composers are cranking out ersatz Nancarrow and Partch.

So if it’s not a particular continuity of sound, what is it that characterizes this musical tradition?

Attitude. These composers have all been dedicated to relentless experimentation, and to following their own individual paths.

In thirty some-odd years of trying to follow my own path, I’ve returned again and again to certain touchstones of this musical lineage: Ives’ Unanswered Question and Fourth Symphony, Partch’s Delusion of the Fury, Tenney’s for Ann, (rising), Meredith Monk’s Atlas, LaMonte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano, and certain works by Crawford, Cage, Nancarrow, Harrison, Lucier, Feldman and others.

My studio library contains well-worn copies of Cowell’s New Musical Resources, Partch’s Genesis of A Music, and Kyle Gann’s The Music of Conlon Nancarrow, which I turn to for information and inspiration on matters of theory and practice. For aesthetic provocation and cultural context, I consult Cage’s Silence, Harrison’s Music Primer (which contains a good measure of practical theory, too), Garland’s Americas and In Search of Silvestre Revueltas, and Gann’s essays and columns for The Village Voice.

In my own music, the inheritance from my musical family includes:

from Ives – a geographic sense of space, with multiple events occuring independently in time.

from Cowell – the harmonic series as the foundation of music, and an ideal of music in which pitch and time share the same harmonic relationships.

from Nancarrow – realization of Cowell’s unified field in multiple streams of time, and visceral planes of sound.

from Cage – music as ecology, inseparable from life.

from Feldman – sensuality, touch, and time undisturbed.

from Oliveros – the discipline of listening, always.

from Tenney – the unity of sound and form.

from Young – the mysteries of prime number relationships and the beauties of higher reaches in the harmonic series.

How about you? What’s your musical geneaology?

Do you identify with a specific musical tradition? Is there anything particularly American about the music you love, or the music you make?

Music Happens

“No matter what we do, sooner or later it all sounds melodic.”
—Christian Wolff

Despite the best laid plans of composers and performers, music happens.

Like life itself, music always involves some degree of indeterminacy. Improvisation, wrong notes, reluctant instruments, failing technology and other messy realities are integral elements of all music.

But it wasn’ t until about 1950 that Western “art” music began to fully embrace its own indeterminate nature. John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown and Christian Wolff began making a new music in which notation, the sequence of sounds, and the sounds themselves were left open to an unprecedented extent.

This was a uniquely American phenomenon. It evolved directly out of the music for percussion ensemble composed by Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, William Russell, Cage and others in the late ’30s and ’40s. Since the sounds of individual brake drums, pod rattles, temple gongs and tom-toms vary much more than the sounds of pianos, strings, brass and woodwinds, a high degree of indeterminacy was already inherent in the percussive medium.

Taking his lead from Cowell, Cage “invented” the prepared piano to place an entire percussion ensemble at the fingertips of a single performer. He got more than he bargained for.

With traditional composer’s precision, Cage’s early scores for prepared piano contained exacting specifications for the size, location and materials of the objects to be placed on or between the strings of the piano. But when he heard his music played on a piano different from his own, the sound was shockingly different. Cage had to decide whether this was or wasnÕt the piece he had composed. He decided it was.

From this epiphany, Cage and his circle went on to incorporate the I Ching and other indeterminant processes into composition and performance. By the end of his life, Cage had come to the radically elegant definition of music as “Sounds heard”.

This shifts our center of musical gravity from “saying something” to simply listening. As composers, performers and audience members, our primary participation in music is to listen. Music becomes less of an artifice and more a part of the ecology of our lives. We step off the grid of regularly measured time and into the more open and immeasurable flow of time that we experience in nature.

The first work in my catalog is songbirdsongs Ð a cycle of pieces for piccolos and percussion. In this music, I set fragments of bird songs in a way that I hoped would ring true with the experience of listening in the soundscape. All the notes are written out. But the printed music is what Harrison called a “performance kit”, with the specific order of events left to the performers to decide in the moment of playing and listening.

Since these early pieces, my music has ranged from one end of the determinate/indeterminate spectrum to the other Ð from rigorously detailed scores to more open forms of notation and performance. Some of my music explicitly celebrates nature. Much of it is more sonically “abstract”. But to this day all of my music is still informed by the lessons of indeterminacy, and by Cage’s aspiration “to imitate nature in her manner of operation”.

What about you?

How do chance, indeterminacy and “the music that happens” influence your listening, composing, performing?

Word and Voice

“A word will never be able to understand the voice that utters it.”
—Thomas Merton

One of the beautiful things about music is that it can mean almost anything, or nothing at all.

Like language, music encompasses a continuum of meaning from specific denotation to evocative connotation.

And the relationships between word and voice constitute another continuum of their own.

At one end of this spectrum are the hobo text settings of Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball and Debussy’s opera Pelleas et Melisande, in which every syllable of language is set as a clear, distinct musical atom.

At the other end is chant, organum, and pure vocalise in which the connotative colors of voice completely supercede the denotative meanings of word.

Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room is a unique vocal work that traverses this entire spectrum, from pure language to pure tone, without any singing at all.

My own music extends from one end of the word/voice spectrum to the other, in one case embracing both ends at the same time.

My English text settings of Inuit songs and the poems of John Haines follow a strict one-syllable-per-tone course. And in two songs to poems in the Gwich’in Athabascan dialect, I followed a similar path with a language I don’t speak myself.

The text of my opera Earth and the Great Weather is a series of “Arctic Litanies” in which the names of places, plants, and the seasons are spoken simultaneously in Gwich’in, I–upiaq, English, and Latin, accompanied by microtonal music for strings.

Although Earth is one of my best-known works, I’ve sometimes felt an element was missing in the musical space between the strings and the spoken voices. So for a new production at the Almeida Festival a couple of years ago, I added a chorus singing elongated versions of the Gwich’in and I–upiaq texts. As it turned out, the voices of the singers were the catalyst that fully integrated the music and language.

Whether it’s Dawn Upshaw or Robert Ashley, ultimately it’s voice that brings musical text to life. And the quality of “voiceness” resides not just in the unique spectral print of an individual’s speaking or singing voice. We also hear the composer’s voice and the writer’s voice ­in those composites of experience, aesthetics, and beliefs that create and permeate the sound of both music and word.

What do you hear in the relationships between word and voice?

Are there specific pieces of music you feel embody an especially strong marriage of text and sound?

As Charles Ives asks in his Postface to 114 Songs: “Must a song always be a song?”

Music, Space, and Place

“Place is security, space is freedom.”

—Yi-Fu Tuan

Morton Feldman’s one and only composition lesson with Varèse was a brief encounter on the street in New York. The old master gave the young upstart one pearl of wisdom: “Make sure you think about the time it takes from the stage to go out there into the audience.” That seemingly simple adage contains a world of implications.

Listening to music, time and space become present to our ears. Since sound is slow, we hear space as time. The distance between here and there becomes then and now. Space is where the music comes from, and where it’s going. Place is where we are listening.

In the 19th century, the most exalted place for listening to Western music was the concert hall, that consecrated space outside quotidian time where a congregation of listeners came to experience symphonic communion. As the concert hall grew larger, the orchestra grew larger. (And vice versa.) But though the sound grew louder, it also moved farther away from most listeners.

In the 20th century, the locus of much of our listening moved to the loudspeaker. Musical space exploded to fill arenas and stadiums for blockbuster concerts. And it grew smaller and more intimate until (with headphones) we had private music rooms for our ears alone.

From Gabrieli to Berlioz, from Ives to Brant, to Oliveros and Lucier, the places and spaces in which we listen have fundamentally shaped the creation of music. Just as music is molded by the acoustical spaces in which we hear it, the virtual spaces of recordings have a powerful influence on the music we make today.

As a composer, I’m obsessed with space and place. My music has been profoundly shaped by the place where I live. The soundscapes of Alaska resonate even in pieces I think of as abstract, and the ideal of sonic geography remains a persistent metaphor for my work. But a very specific acoustical space has also been a touchstone for my music.

Over the past three decades I’ve been fortunate to work in a beautiful concert hall at the University of Alaska, and this space has had an audible influence on the evolution of my music. Whether by accident, design or some combination of the two, the acoustics of this hall are nearly perfect. Both high and low frequencies are fully present, and the natural reverberation of the room imparts richness and warmth to almost any ensemble.

This hall seems especially well suited to the spacious textures of my music. Several of my works have been premiered and recorded in this hall, and a few years ago I composed a concert-length work for percussion and electronics specifically for the unique resonances of this space.

Now, after years trying to evoke place in musical space, I’m trying to do this in a more concrete form. The Place Where You Go to Listen will be a permanent installation for the new wing of the University of Alaska Museum. In this space, infrasonic and ultrasonic vibrations from earthquakes, volcanoes, aurora borealis and other natural phenomena will be transposed into our range of hearing, and modulated by the seasonal cycles of night and day. So once again my work comes back to music, space and place.

But what about you?

What are your favorite musical spaces?

How do space and place shape the music you listen to and the music you make?

John Luther Adams
American Music Center