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The portable wilderness of John Luther Adams

Pulitzer prize winning composer John Luther Adams is seen in in his home in Manhattan, NY.Jennifer S. Altman

This article originally published on July 12, 2015.

NEW YORK – It’s a muggy June afternoon, and the composer John Luther Adams is sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Harlem, snapping at the traffic. “That always helps!” he says dryly, in the direction of a car blaring its horn. He then turns back to our table, as if to say, “Now where were we?”

In fact, we were talking about why he is here of all places, at a sidewalk cafe in Harlem, on the same block where he now lives.

Adams is, after all, a composer whose life was set in motion by Thoreau’s “Walden.” He is more easily imagined in his rural composing studio, canopied by quaking aspen trees and a big northern sky. Indeed, perhaps no other living American composer has been so closely linked to a particular place as Adams has for years been linked to the wild, untamed landscapes of Alaska.

Adams, whose music will receive its first Boston Symphony Orchestra performance on Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood, first moved to Alaska at 21, to help save the wilderness. The state returned the favor by opening the door to his art.


Over the course of 40 years of explorations across the Alaskan interior, Adams attuned his ears to the music of birds, of calving glaciers, and of frozen tundra. He has also contemplated the vast silences of the north, and has described them as a kind of spiritual tonic in an era of unceasing technological chatter.

Not surprisingly, the aesthetic Adams fashioned in this austere crucible prizes the elemental in music, but does so without retreating into a cave of unthinking primitivism. His music is built in complex and subtle layers, and he draws inspiration from a century of mavericks past, from Charles Ives and John Cage to Morton Feldman and Lou Harrison. Some of his most compelling scores transpose the majestic spaces of his adopted home into an art of outward stasis and inward change -- music that can, at its best, summon a response not unfamiliar to those who have opened themselves to landscapes like these: sensations of smallness, of connection, and of mindful solitude.


“Ultimately,” he has observed, “the music of nature leads us away from notions of tempo and rhythm . . . to a more direct experience of the larger flow of time.”

But a new set of metaphors may soon be called for in describing his work. Last year, Adams sold his house in Alaska (while keeping his freestanding studio) and settled with his wife, Cindy, a few blocks north of Central Park. (He also spends time yearly in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico.) There is a single tree now visible from the window of his Harlem studio, and a community garden nearby. He says he is just now learning to hear the aural topography of his new home. He is also working on a memoir, a portion of which was recently published on The New Yorker’s website under the title “Leaving Alaska.”

”I’m still trying to come to grips with it all,” he told me, gazing out at the street. “Why did I go there? What did we really do there? What did it mean? Why did I come to leave?”

New York, he is quick to point out, is not some alien planet for him, but a place to which he has long maintained close professional ties. Even so, Adams is also emerging from isolation in another sense, as his own art, too, has earned a new visibility after years of a lower profile in the new-music world.


Last year, Adams’s massive orchestral work “Become Ocean,” commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, won a Pulitzer Prize, and its recording won a Grammy. In 2009, Adams -- who, as it still remains sadly obligatory to point out, is a different composer from the other John Adams, known for operas such as “Nixon in China” -- took the step of writing music intended for outdoor performance. The first of these works, “Inuksuit,” for up to 99 percussionists, has quickly established itself as a new classic, having been unfurled in the Canadian Rockies, New York’s Morningside Park, and seemingly everywhere from Brisbane to Brazil. (A group of local Boston percussionists is exploring potential sites for this city’s first performance.) Adams only half-joking calls it his “In C.” And the honors and awards keep coming, too, the latest from Columbia University, which will present three nights of tribute concerts this fall (Oct. 7-10) at Miller Theatre.

Adams refers with a wry smile to his “newfound respectability,” but gives little impression, despite all the recent external changes, of shifting his artistic center of balance. That said, on the day we met, he also seemed to welcome the chance to reflect back on the contours of the chapter that has recently come to a close.


”To be a young person in Alaska in the 1970s was just so heady, so exciting, so intoxicating,” he said, with a clear note of wistfulness. “There was this feeling not only that we could save the wilderness and preserve entire ecosystems intact, but that we could also create a kind of ecotopian society, and show the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, how to do it.”

He paused before continuing.

”That didn’t work out. Alaska has devolved into a colony of big oil, and its politics have become so closed, hard-bitten, and strident. But despite it all, I still cling to that romantic, idealistic, impossible vision of how the world really is, or how it might be, and how we might be in the world.”

Of course, long before Adams left Alaska, he left behind the professional world of environmental activism to rededicate himself to his music -- a shift that came as a disappointment to many people, he said, some of whom had even hoped he might run for office. “I took the leap of faith that somebody else could carry on in the crusade, but perhaps no one else could make the music that I might be able to discover,” he said. “And implicit in that leap was the belief that, in its own way, music and art can matter every bit as much as politics. And I’ve actually come in recent years to believe that they matter more.”


This conviction has in turn required a delicate balancing act. Adams remains deeply skeptical of overtly political art, which, he said, “often fails as art just as it fails as politics.” But at the same time, he has refused to check his ecological awareness at the threshold of his creative life. Art, he believes, can ultimately serve “as a model for our collective and our individual ways of being more fully present in the world . . . which we’d better figure out real fast, or we are toast.”

This sense of tense equipoise between the natural sublime and ecological disaster is at the heart of recent works such as “Become Ocean,” which as its title suggests, hints at a perilous future brought on by global warming and rising seas. That said, the score’s textures and stillness, its sense of open expanse, is not in fact radically different from earlier works such as “The Light that Fills the World,” which has no planetary catastrophe -- or much of anything else -- looming at its periphery.

Completed in 2000, and slated for a BSO performance on Sunday under the baton of Ludovic Morlot, “The Light” is a briefer work inspired by the white late-winter landscapes of Alaska, as illuminated by the new light that arrives with the beginning of spring. Nothing “happens” or develops in this piece; the music drifts off the stage in an unbroken stretch of sonic color. Speaking by phone from Tanglewood, Morlot -- a former BSO assistant conductor, and now the music director of the Seattle Symphony -- described listening to the work as akin to “contemplating the sky.”

Indeed, even when Adams’s music is not explicitly about anything in particular, the pull of metaphors drawn from nature can seem irresistible. Near the end of our conversation at the cafe, Adams turned a fresh corner by probing the notion of Alaska itself as, for him, the ultimate metaphor. “It embodies that sense of openness, of edge, of possibility, of excitement, of extreme beauty and danger, that I found so intoxicating when I was 21, and I still do,” he said. “I still cling to that Alaska, even if it no longer exists in some way. Maybe it never existed, except in my imagination, and in the imaginations of a few of us who went there with those ideals.”

The “us” he is referring to included two dear friends -- the conductor Gordon Wright and the poet John Haines -- both of whom died in recent years, taking with them something of Adams’s own connection to the place. Depression also set in, he said, compounded by eye problems exacerbated by the many hours of winter darkness. It was time, he knew, for a new adventure.

These days, Adams said, he has grown to love that tree outside his studio window. And for all the time spent reflecting on recent decades, he projects an air of hopeful optimism toward the future. Plans were afoot for a work trip to Scotland. And a few days later, he was to lead some 20 people on a sound-recording expedition, harvesting the noises of Manhattan streets for a new work he is writing, commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which will be his first real New York score. His approach, it seems, remains secure far from its original sources of inspiration.

”Maybe in a way,” Adams said, “part of the reason I needed to leave home was to assert for myself that the music is its own Alaska -- that the music has become a geography of its own.”

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.