Interview: John Luther Adams, ‘We’ve forgotten how we fit into the world’

Interview: John Luther Adams, ‘We’ve forgotten how we fit into the world’

credit: Donald Lee

The environmental composer gets ready to debut new work at the East Neuk Festival this summer

‘For me, music is not what I do – music is how I understand the world. At a personal level, I think I’m trying to compose home.’ US composer John Luther Adams isn’t talking about some self-absorbed, new-age-y longing for security through sound. This environmental activist-turned-composer is instead describing his conception of a profound melding of music and place, of music defining and being defined by the natural world.

It’s a relationship he’s explored many times before in his uncategorisable music, in pieces inspired by or evoking nature – for example in the huge orchestral swells of his 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean. Or in pieces intended to be experienced outdoors, within the natural world itself – for example his 2009 Inuksuit for percussionists scattered across a landscape, which got a magical UK premiere at Fife’s East Neuk Festival in 2013.

Adams is back at the East Neuk Festival in July this year, with a brand new outdoor work – Across the Distance, for massed horns – in which music and landscape are again intimately linked. ‘I imagined that the music would arise and come out of the earth,’ he explains, ‘and would slowly rise up the harmonic series, and as the music rises the players walk out into the distance. So the music rises and goes out, and it never comes back – it just dissolves into the air.’

He’s a composer in the experimental, John Cage mould, happy to accept that his music is sometimes open-ended, and that its specific outcomes can often not be predicted. But his focus on the natural world brings a sharp, pertinent context to what otherwise might seem overly conceptual. And it’s borne out of Adams’ political viewpoint: he’s lived in Alaska since the 1970s, where for several years he worked full-time as an environmental activist before devoting himself to music. He sets out his personal manifesto in a frank article on ‘I took a leap of faith, in the belief that music and art can matter every bit as much as activism and politics,’ he wrote. ‘My music is not activism, but if it can inspire people to listen more deeply to this miraculous world we inhabit, then I will have done what I can as a composer to help us navigate this perilous era of our own creation.’

Unsurprisingly, he’s happy with the ‘environmental composer’ label. ‘If my music doesn’t work as music, then any other associations or labels that might be put on it are meaningless,’ he explains. ‘But I want to have it both ways, really. And I believe there’s no reason I can’t, in composing music that is a world of its own, and yet ultimately derives from the world in which we live, the only home we know.’

And his realisation that music could – and maybe should – take place within the natural world came, he says, as a revelation. ‘An indoor concert hall is a kind of idealised environment in which we imagine we can focus our attention on a few carefully chosen, carefully produced sounds, and shut out everything else. When you move outdoors, it’s anathema to think we can make and experience music in that way – we’re challenged to focus outward, and we start to hear the counterpoint between the music of the piece and the neverending music of the place in which it’s performed.’

Across the Distance will bring together music and nature intimately, even down to the very notes that Adams’s dozens of horns will play, all based on the instrument’s natural acoustic properties. ‘For me, music is many things,’ he says, ‘and one of them is audible physics. The harmonic series is a basic property of musical physics and acoustics – tubes or strings or other resonating bodies all want to vibrate in particular proportions. It’s a very organic, natural thing that exists in the air and the music of the world around us, and I wanted to tap into it in this piece.’

Taking the nature connections still further, every one of the piece’s musical phrases is intended to last a single breath – which will unavoidably vary from player to player, thereby creating a rich and unpredictable texture. ‘And every player is a soloist,’ Adams continues. ‘There’s no unison playing, and every player follows their own musical journey, and their own physical journey, through the space of the performance.’

Nevertheless, Scottish Chamber Orchestra principal horn Alec Frank-Gemmill is in charge of co-ordinating the performance itself. ‘I’ve been really impressed working with John,’ he says, ‘both by his character and his insights. He’s a very open person – incredibly creative as well as intellectually rigorous about it all.’ Using amateur musicians and kids alongside professionals has been fundamental to the piece right from the start, and Frank-Gemmill is in charge of sourcing local players. He continues: ‘The amazing thing is that there’s a horn club right in Fife, called the Fife Horn Union, and we’re talking to them about being involved.’

How important is the Fife landscape in Adams’s conception? ‘I love Scotland,’ he says, ‘and I have an idealised image of the Scottish countryside, with the Highlands and the lakes and the mountains. In a sense this is a very Scottish piece, simply because the Scottish landscape will form part of the performance. But in another sense it’s not at all – it’s a co-commission with the Southbank Centre in London, so presumably the second performance will be in a very urban setting – the same piece, but a very different experience.’

As for what the performance will all mean, Adams is keen not to dictate. ‘As a composer, I’m not really interested in telling the listener what to think or how to feel or what to experience. All I want is for you to have your own authentic personal experience.’ Which ties in closely with the practicalities of this kind of open-ended, outdoor, promenade performance: ‘There is no best seat in the house. Every listener has the opportunity to create their own mix or listening experience, which may be very different. One person may decide that they’re going to sit right in the middle of the space and let the piece radiate out into the distance. Another may become intrigued by following the path of a certain horn player, and may follow that person out into the countryside.’

It’s all part of a bigger plan not only to take inspiration from nature, or even use nature as part of performance, but to rediscover our environment. ‘We’ve become a culture that’s so fragmented that we’ve kind of forgotten how we fit into the world in which we live,’ says Adams. ‘I understand music as a way to reconnect, and to reintegrate our awareness, our listening, ourselves with the larger, older world that we inhabit.’

Across the Distance receives its world premiere performance in Cambo Gardens, Fife, at the East Neuk Festival on Sun 5 Jul 2015, 4pm

East Neuk Festival Finale

An open-air promenade concert featuring the world premiere of a specially commissioned work by one of the USA's best composers: Across the Distance by John Luther Adams, featuring multiple horns sounding throughout the woodlands.