The history of American contemporary classical music over the last half-century has been as multifaceted as the face of America itself. Studded with styles and populated by various “isms,” American contemporary music is impossible to pin down and classify.
This variety in style is matched by the variety of composers, many of whom come from wildly different backgrounds. Today’s composers live as rock musicians, jazz pianists, electronic performers and professionals that have nothing to do with music. Some composers are the children of concert masters; others never heard a Beethoven symphony until college. Each artist has taken their own unique road to becoming the composer they are.
One of the most interesting paths taken is perhaps the one tread by composer John Luther Adams — a path which has now led him to the University, where he’ll be giving a talk on Thursday at the Michigan Theater as part of the Penny Stamps Speaker Series.
Adams — who is not to be confused with the equally renowned but stylistically dissimilar California-based composer John Adams — was born in Mississippi. As a child, his family moved from place to place a great deal.
“It was almost like being a military brat, you know, we moved every few years, from the Deep South to the suburbs of New York City,” Adams said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
His first musical experiences weren’t classical, but rather part of the world of rock ‘n’ roll where he was a drummer for several bands during his adolescence. As part of the group Pocket Fuzz, he once opened for the Beach Boys.
But Adams’s artistic direction was changed dramatically by an encounter with the music of Edgard Varèse (whose name the young Adams mispronounced Var-EE-zee), instigated by the liner notes of Frank Zappa’s album Freak Out! Inspired by the avant-garde Varèse, Adams listened to more and more contemporary classical music; his and his band-mates' work became more and more experimental.
A few years after graduating in the first class of the California Institute of the Arts, Adams made one of the most important decisions of his life: moving to Alaska.
“As a result (of moving so frequently as a child), there was never a place in which I felt I belonged, never really a place I thought I was at home,” Adams said.
In Alaska he worked as an environmental activist for several decades, experiences which strongly shaped his future work.
“I went north as an idealistic, romantic young man, running away from my family, running away from the suburbs and the cities, running away from academia, running away from competitive careerism. You know, I thought I was leaving everything behind, that I was running away from the world,” Adams said. “But it turns out that I was running to my home, my real family — the family I discovered and chose in Alaska — and my life’s work. And I can’t imagine what would have become of me as a man or as an artist had I not found Alaska. It is home in the deepest sense, and it always will be.”
From his experiences in Alaska, Adams drew inspiration for much of his compositions and ideas, some of which he will be discussing in the Penny Stamps talk.
“My theme is music in the Anthropocene,” Adams said of the Penny Stamps address. “It’s a reflection on the meaning of creative work, the meaning of art and music in these troubled times, when we live in a world on the verge of melting.”
Drawing from his 2003 essay “Global Warming and Art” and more recent writings, Adams said his talk is a “reflect(ion) on why I continue to do what I do in the face of potentially catastrophic environmental change.”
Following the Penny Stamps address, the University Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kenneth Kiesler will be performing Adams’s work Become Ocean in Hill Auditorium, for which Adams was the recipient of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
“Become Ocean is my largest orchestral work to date, and I think it’s the culmination of years of work. I think the music has been leading me to this piece for decades,” Adams said.
Adams wrote the piece very quickly while in Mexico.
“The house that we live in in Mexico is right on the water. If you have a good throwing arm you can stand on the deck and throw a ball into the ocean.” He continued, “When we’re down there we sleep with the windows open, and I like to think that what happened was that the music of the sea was finding its way deep into my consciousness, into my dreams, and I would just get up in the morning and do my best to write down what I heard in my sleep,” Adams said in explaining the piece’s origins.
“I don’t understand how any of this works, and that’s fine with me,” Adams said, referencing the act of composing. “As a creative artist, I often feel that if I think I know what I’m doing, then I’m probably not doing my job. I think it’s all about discovery and asking new questions, and not knowing exactly where you are or what you’re doing.”
“The reason that music is worthy of a lifetime of devotion is that the music always knows more than the composer. The music is always leading me into new territory, and my job is simply to pay attention and to do my best to follow it wherever it wants me to go.”