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The Farthest Place

The Music of John Luther Adams

ed. Bernd Herzogenrath

Publication Year: 2012

The first critical anthology of an important and singular contemporary composer The artistic heir of sonic artists such as John Cage and James Tenney, John Luther Adams is one of the most significant and highly regarded contemporary American composers. The Farthest Place is the first critical look at the work of the composer whom the New Yorker critic Alex Ross has called “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.” While often identified with the Alaska that so inspires him, Adams is anything but a regionalist. Though inspired by the wild and open nature that surrounds him, “Adams does not represent nature through music. He creates tonal territories that resonate with nature—immersive listening experiences that evoke limitless distance, suspended time, deep longing and even transcendence.” In addition to the New Yorker piece by Alex Ross, and original essays by Kyle Gann and Wilco’s own Glenn Kotche, The Farthest Place includes essays by scholars, critics, composers, and performers, merging theoretical and historical observations, musical and environmental questions with analytical discourse and personal commentaries on Adams’s music and thought.

Published by: Northeastern University Press


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pp. c-ii

Title Page

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p. iii-iii


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pp. vi-viii

Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iv-v

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pp. ix-x

I would like to thank upne (in particular Richard Pult) for giving me and us the opportunity to work on this labor of love for John Luther Adams, and all those wonderful people who contributed to this volume—it has been a pleasure!
Most of all I would like to thank John himself for support, encouragement, and practical help—highly appreciated!...

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pp. 1-12

John Luther Adams is a singular voice in contemporary music. This book is the first critical anthology about the work of a composer the critic Alex Ross has called “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century.”
Like Henry David Thoreau, Charles Ives, and John Cage, Adams inhabits both the periphery and the center of his times. Adams lives and works in Alaska, and his music echoes the open spaces of the far North. He is anything...

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1 | Song of the Earth

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pp. 13-22

When I took a trip into the Alaskan interior several years ago, I didn’t get to see the aurora borealis, but I did, in a way, hear it. At the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the composer John Luther Adams has created a sound-and-light installation called ...

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2 | Music as Place, Place as Music: The Sonic Geography of John Luther Adams

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pp. 23-47

John Luther Adams is an American composer whose life and music are both uncompromising and unique.1 Born in Meridian, Mississippi, he grew up in homogeneous suburban surroundings in the South and on the Northeastern seaboard. After living in overdeveloped Southern California, however, he turned toward environmentalism, eventually finding his spiritual home in ...

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3 | Time at the End of the World: The Orchestral Tetralogy of John Luther Adams

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pp. 48-69

John Luther Adams is a reasonably tall man who lives in an enormous state: Alaska. He enjoys crawling over that state’s wilderness landscape and encountering bears, nearly horizontal sunrises, fields of ice crystals, avalanches, and other phenomena that many of us would be happy to stay at home and read vivid descriptions of. From the air (from former Governor Sarah Palin’s ...

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4 | for Lou Harrison

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pp. 70-76

In 1953 (the year John Luther Adams was born), Lou Harrison, then a young composer still in his thirties, came home to California after a decade on the East Coast—first in New York City and then at Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina. Back on the West Coast he eventually settled in Aptos, a small coastal community near Santa Cruz. Lou’s “Chinese poet” hermitage was up on the hill, just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean. He and Bill Colvig were...

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5 | Strange Noise, Sacred Places

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pp. 77-106

Zoom in on composer John Luther Adams. His fingers press a set of earphones tightly against his ears and his eyes squeeze shut as he tries to hear through the recorded marimba sound to the faint buzz of distortion in the audio signal. He calls me over to take a listen. “Is that a rattle in the resonator tube, or do we have a microphone problem?” ...

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6 | Go There to Listen: How Music Based on Nature Might Not Need Natural Sounds

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pp. 107-115

John Luther Adams once told us where music came from. He wrote an essay called “The Place Where You Go to Listen” and explained how you need to first hear the music of the Earth before you will have any need to make your own music. It all started with an Iñupiaq shaman who came to this place, Naalagiagvik, and this is what she heard: “As she listened, she came to hear the breath of each place—how the snow falls here, how the ice melts—how, when ...

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7 | The Thunder That Smokes

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pp. 116-130

I’m obsessed with rhythm. Traditionally, melody and harmony have long reigned supreme in the historical appreciation and analysis of art music, but rhythm remains the most natural of musical expressions and oddly enough, also the last and least to be intensely explored. This began to change dramatically in the first part of the last century when a new generation of composers saw the limitless potential of this often overlooked aspect of music, art, and...

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8 | How Do You Play with an Aura?: The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies

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pp. 131-142

In 2003, I heard the premier performance of The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies in a small studio at the University in California, San Diego. It was not the “official” premiere but it certainly was the first-ever performance of this work. Steven Schick performed the seventy-minute work and I had the unique and surprisingly challenging task of operating the CD player, which was playing...

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9 | Qilyaun

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pp. 143-156

In 1995 I accepted a position as an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I had recently completed my studies at the University of Miami, where I first encountered the music of John Luther Adams, listening to a CD recording of Earth and the Great Weather. As a result of that experience, while preparing for the adventure of moving to the far north, I resolved to meet him....

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10 | The Color Field Music ofJohn Luther Adams

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pp. 157-179

Generally speaking, the music of John Luther Adams can be classed into four interrelated categories that I will call Alaskan, color field, abstract, and hybrid. As the name implies, the Alaskan works, such as Five Athabascan Dances, Sauyatugvik: The Time of Drumming (both 1996) and parts of Make Prayers to the Raven (1998), are grounded in the culture and musical traditions of Alaska’s indigenous peoples. While defined by their use of Alaskan traditional...

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11 | The Light Within

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pp. 180-187

He is sitting in a room that has had most of the ceiling cut away, watching the play of artificial lighting on the gallery wall against the subtly changing color of the sky. Out of this period of quiet observation, a process probably only ever fully understood by the composer is set in motion, and from this encounter with light will come an impression in sound: The Light Within....

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12 | Timbral Listening in "Dark Waves"

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pp. 188-205

During the summer solstice in Fairbanks, Alaska, the day lasts nineteen hours and twenty-five minutes; during the winter solstice it lasts just three hours and forty-one minutes. Over the past decade, evocations of this dramatic contrast between light and darkness have become pervasive in the music of John Luther Adams, as evidenced by the titles of some of the composer’s recent...

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13 | Place and Space: The Vision of John Luther Adams in the Ultramodernist Tradition

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pp. 206-218

John Luther Adams is often identified as a leading contemporary representative of the American experimental tradition, and with good reason. But in this essay I’d like to suggest that “experimentalism” may be too narrow a word to encompass his art, in part because it tends to suggest that the means by which music is produced is at least as important as, or even more important than, the ultimate product or its motivating ambition. Following the classic...

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14 | The Weather of Music: Sounding Nature in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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pp. 219-234

What is the weather of music? In seminal works of classical music which refer to the seasons (Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, “Frühling [Spring]”; Gershwin’s “Summertime”; or Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons), or to the weather, such as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”), with its fourth movement, “Thunderstorm,” composers were primarily concerned with an acoustic/musical translation of subjective sense perceptions, that is, with...

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15 | "songbirdsongs" and "Inuksuit": Creating an Ecocentric Music

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pp. 235-286

Can music be ecocentric? Can it communicate a view of the natural world that, instead of assuming a preeminent role for human beings, inherently values the entire biosphere? It is a question well worth asking, as growing environmental crises threaten both human and nonhuman life on the planet....

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A Catalogue of Works By and About John Luther Adams

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pp. 269-300

The singular musical voice of John Luther Adams is embodied in over thirty years of creative output. This bibliography aims to explore the many facets of Adams’s artistic life, through a survey of the composer’s works, recordings, and writings, as well as the literary manifestations and audiovisual media that have been produced about Adams....


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pp. 301-304


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pp. 305-310

E-ISBN-13: 9781555537647
E-ISBN-10: 1555537642
Print-ISBN-13: 9781555537623
Print-ISBN-10: 1555537626

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 57 figs. 18 tables.
Publication Year: 2012