Poster Composer John Luther Adams
Composer John Luther Adams wrote his memoir, Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska, based on the decades he spent living and working in the Arctic.
Pete Woodhead/Courtesy of the artist

Composer John Luther Adams on the Arctic sounds that shaped his work

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In that composition, Adams incorporated the knowledge and voices of Inupiaq and Gwich'in speakers. Among them was Adeline Peter Raboff, who grew up in Arctic Village, a community of 150 or so where winter temperatures dip to 60 below. She describes working with Adams in nearly spiritual terms.

"That's the thing about his music — it makes you realize that you're just a part of this huge universe and there are many things that you just don't know, you don't understand and you might never," she says. Raboff says she has no issue with Adams using Indigenous source material — in fact, she asked him to set one of her poems to music.

"My life's work, my aspiration is to create music that's entirely outside of culture," Adams says. "It's of course a patently ridiculous proposition."

Adams grew up in the culture of rock and roll. Drums are a big part of his music, which is partly what attracted conductor and percussionist Steve Schick to his work.

"I had never ever heard music like this in my entire life; it was so thrilling," says Schick, who first discovered Adams in the '90s. "It was so, kind of, raw. It both appealed to the mind and the ear, but it also appealed to the heart and the whole body, and so I was bowled over by this music."

When Adams won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean, he was in his early 60s and had just left Alaska. Since then, he and his wife Cynthia have lived in Manhattan, Mexico and Chile. Now they are, as he describes it, in an undisclosed location in the U.S. desert. Among the compositions he's working on is one he describes as a sort of "eulogy for the Arctic."

"There's always more to discover. There's always more in what we're hearing than we can process at once. I think what I'm after is losing myself in the music, and that's what I want for you," Adams says. "Ultimately I think I'm trying to compose home, a place to live. I want to inhabit the music."

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