The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music
by John Luther Adams; foreword by Alex Ross
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2009
180 pp., illus., 4 col.,17 b/w. Paper, $24.95
Reviewed by Giuseppe Pennisi
Professor of Economics Università Europea di Roma
John Luther Adams is a well-known composer in his early 50s. Obviously, in Europe his works are known to small audiences interested in contemporary music, especially to those who have a penchant for live electronics, electro-acoustic, and the use of natural elements (water, birdsongs, stones) as a part of a score. It may be interesting to know that now Rome is, with Paris and Berlin, one of three European cities with the largest supply of contemporary music. By mere coincidence, this book of Adams reached me together with a very rare CD –– Messiaen et autorde Messaien for onde Martenot et piano (it is reviewed separately) . The book and the record have many a connection; in a way, the onde Martenot can be seen as precursor of electronic music and Messaien a precursor of the employment of natural elements (mostly birdsong) as a part of compositions. At the same time, there are many differences. Some are related to technological progress in electronic music and in electro-acoustic. However, the salient differences are philosophical and conceptual. Messiaens was a devout Roman Catholic; he viewed nature as a demonstration of God’s power through the creation. Through his books and his other writing, albeit often published by publishing houses deemed to be close to the Presbyterian Church, John Luther Adams seems to be a pantheist. Messiaens touches on the 12-notes scale. Adams goes well beyond dodecaphony in search of “things we haven’t heard before” (the title of one of the chapters of this book).
Although he grew up in the South of the USA and in New York City, his music (and his life) are a contemplation of Alaska. In his 16' x 24' cabin-studio outside Fairbanks (viz. The Place where you go to listen), where Adams has worked for over two decades, the vastness of Alaska has swept through the distant reaches of his imagination and every corner of his compositions. In turn, Adams has used any means necessary to communicate the power of the elemental forces he experiences daily. Adams' methods have included percussion ensembles, Alaska Native voices, orchestral residencies, sound and light installations, and elegant prose writing collected in a previous book Winter Music. Now, after the creation and equipment of The Place, his music is no longer for acoustic instruments (blended with natural elements) ; it is mostly, if not only, for intangible instruments, “an orchestration of untouched material”, produced almost entirely by a software on a computer.
For those specialized in very contemporary music, the book is a necessary tool to understand new tendencies – e.g. Tam Dun’s water and stone music. For the more general audience, the book is an excellent testimony of the path followed by a composer from acoustic instruments (both traditional and electronic) to what he himself calls intangible instruments.
The book is divided in three parts. The first part deals with “the ecology of music”; in short, it develops and explains, the theory behind Adams’ approach and the special sound-and-light installation (The Place) he created at the Museum of the North of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks with a view of writing compositions for intangible instruments. The second part is Adams’ own journal during the conception, the construction, the equipment and the running-in of The Place. The third part is more specifically about The Place’s capability: an orchestration of untouched material, the choirs of day and night, the voice of the moon, the aurora bells, the sonic space, the colors of noise and tones. Most of the technicalities are in the third part; they are written in a skillful way so that non – technical readers my skip them.