Wilderness campaigner's obsession with 'place' led to symphony about climate change

John Luther Adams doesn't want you to think his Pulitzer Prize-winning symphony "Become Ocean" is about climate change. Except ... he sort of does.

The Alaskan environmentalist, who turned his full attention to his music after helping to secure the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, said the threats to the Earth are always on his mind. All of his pieces, from his early "Songbirdsongs" to his more recent epic "Inuksuit," evoke the outdoors.

"Become Ocean" took shape while Adams was working by the sea -- thinking, he said, about rising sea levels and melting polar ice.

At the same time, the symphony that The New Yorker called "the loveliest apocalypse in musical history" is also about something bigger: time, place and the nature of beauty.

"I want the work to stand on its own as music. But I want to have it both ways, and I believe that I can," Adams said. "I can be a thinking, caring human being, a citizen of the world, and be profoundly concerned about climate change and these other challenges as a human species. At the same time, I can be an artist whose principal obligation is to the art itself.


"I see no reason why I can't have it both ways," he said. "To imagine it any other way is to underestimate the intelligence, creativity and open-mindedness of the listener. Some people will say this is a piece about climate change. And I'll say 'No, it's not.' Yes, it is, but no. It's not."

In a wide-ranging interview as he prepared to perform at Carnegie Hall with the Seattle Symphony last week, Adams discussed his environmental background, his love for Alaska and how being awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in music last month has changed his life.

Adams was born in Mississippi, and his father worked with the phone company "back when it was the phone company," which meant the family moved around a lot, living in New Jersey suburbs and elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard. He went to Los Angeles for college and in 1973 was in the first graduating class of the then-new California Institute of the Arts. The school, he said, turned him into a composer while the state turned him into an environmentalist.

"I just really felt lost in the seemingly endless sprawl of Los Angeles," he recalled. "It was a time when the last few California condors were hanging on by a thread in the [Los Padres] National Forest. That really captured my imagination and seemed to symbolize something bigger and larger about the way we live."

Farewell to environmental activism

Instead of attending graduate school, Adams said he made his way to Alaska. Describing himself as a young crusader, he found something in the nation's last frontier that he didn't even know he was seeking.

"Part of what I wanted to do was to help save the wilderness. I got caught up in the excitement and sense of possibility of preserving entire healthy ecosystems intact. But at the same time I was looking for a home. I was looking for a home I never had. It turned out to be a deep, if inarticulate, hunger. From the moment I arrived, I knew I was home."

Adams played out what he calls his Henry Thoreau fantasy, living in a cabin in the woods without running water. He met his wife, Cindy, "the love of my life," campaigning for the Alaska lands act. Enacted in 1980, the law ensured protection for more than 100 million acres of pristine wilderness. He later served as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, all the while composing music.

Eventually, though, the pull of music became too great.

"I thought I could be a crusader like [Sierra Club founder] David Brower and discover a new music that perhaps no one else could. At some point it just became more than even a young invincible man could sustain. I came to realize I didn't have the temperament, or perhaps the courage, for a life in politics. Someone else could take my role as an activist, but no one else could make the music I just might be able to make."

Make music he did, along with books and plays, almost always evoking the landscape around him and sometimes directly recording the sounds of ice melting and glaciers booming into his music. The Chicago Symphony, the Radio Netherlands Philharmonic and the Melbourne Symphony performed his 2007 orchestral work, "Dark Waves."

In 2011, he performed his outdoor percussion piece "Inuksuit" in New York's Morningside Park. The word refers to a stone figure that members of the Inuit tribe in the Arctic used in their spiritual lives, and the work, Adams wrote in a program note at the time, "is haunted by the vision of the melting polar ice, the rising of the seas, and what may remain of humanity's presence after the waters recede."

Feeling 'the breath of the world'

And yet Adams chafes against the idea that his music is overtly about anything, least of all a social or political message.

"I don't compose in an overtly political process. I believe in the inherent power of art," Adams said. "Less and less I'm interested in painting a picture or telling a story or even, frankly, telling a message. Music for me is ultimately its own landscape. It's its own organism and ecosystem."

"Become Ocean" may be informed by the threats posed by climate change, something Adams says he thinks about all the time. But, he said, that shouldn't limit the listener's experience.

"I'm obsessed with place," he said. "I have been all my life and still am. But I do aspire to music that creates its own inherently musical sense of place. I hope in my music to create these strange and beautiful and sometimes frightening places, and invite you, the listener, into them to have your own experience your own way. And maybe, if you're lucky, to get hopelessly lost in it. Ultimately, that is the best thing I can do about climate change. ... Music is about listening. It's about paying attention. It's about being more carefully tuned in to where we are and how we live."

Since getting The Call from the Pulitzer committee last month, Adams said he's been doing a lot more interviews, but not much else has changed.

"Nobody has knocked on my door with bags of money," he joked. "I'm just doing my best to hang on and actually enjoy it. I do hope that it will help me continue to do the projects I feel most compelled to do. That's all I ever wanted."

Even as Adams performs his now famous-again piece across the country, he is preparing a new work, "Sila," which will premiere in New York in July. Another word from the Inuit dialect, sila loosely translates into "the breath of the world," and Adams said that like "Inuksuit," it will be performed outdoors.

"What is it? Yes, it's the wind, yes, it's the weather, yes, it's the climate. But it's also our awareness of the world in which we live and the world's awareness of us. Sounds like a climate change piece, doesn't it?"

Click here to hear a bit of "Become Ocean," as played in its world premiere by the Seattle Symphony.

Twitter: @LFFriedman | Email:

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