- Winter Music: Composing the North
John Luther Adams's Winter Music: Composing the North defies categorization and rejects easy summary, much like his music. Not a scholarly book in the traditional sense, there is no over-riding thesis or proposition being argued, although there is an over-arching theme: music as communion—with nature, with place, with Alaska most especially. The author is obviously well informed, trained, and read, and quotes liberally from a range of people and materials; however, there is little by way of documentation save a list of sources for the single chapter "Resonances of Place." The end materials contain "Writings by John Luther Adams," "Writings About John Luther Adams," an enumeration of interviews with the composer as subject, and a catalog of his works. As Adams explains, the book includes "essays about music" as well as "excerpts from journals and anecdotes from travel, work, and daily life" (p. xxi). The book comes with a compact disc that includes three newly recorded works: Roar, Velocities Crossing in Phase-Space, and Red Arc/Blue Veil. They may very well say more eloquently what Adams attempts to convey in his text. I'll return to the music.
The composer/author is extraordinarily attuned to the sounds of his environment; they inform every thought he utters. Adams's love of the visual arts is also audible in his prose. He tells us that he's "always envied the hands-on relationship that painters and sculptors have with the materials of their art" (p. 174). He speaks of music as color and light, he describes individual changing tones in a new piece as "brushstrokes" (p. 65). He sees analogies between his multi-part musical works, of which there are many, and the series paintings of Monet, Cezanne, and Diebenkorn. He aspires to compose music whose edges blur like the colors of a Rothko painting. He identifies with Lou Harrison and John Cage, earlier composers whom he knew, and who also were as comfortable with visual media as they were with sounds. Rich imagery vivifies his ideas; there is poetry in much of the writing. His commitment to Alaska is palpable; he has "chosen to develop a deep relationship with [this] place" (p. 154) and to make "music [that] could matter" (p. 182).
At times Winter Music reads like a loosely-woven aesthetic statement in the making, and at others like an unequivocal tract on music as environmentalism, or life as music or as art, or vice versa, or some kind of eco-criticism, or an extended meditation on oneself. More than once I wondered whether readers were witnessing the composer in the throes of an identity crisis; are we party to the composer composing not "the north," as indicated in the title, but himself. (I recall that years ago I had wondered something similar about the group of philosophers and writers collectively known as Transcendentalists.) As a devoted reader of Henry David Thoreau, Barry Lopez, Ivan Doig, Annie Dillard, and Wendell Berry, I'm at home in the place-sensitive, environmentally-aware, reflective essay. I seek out the genre. It informs my own work. Yet Adams's writing leaves me perplexed, alternately wanting more or less, in ways that the works of these other [End Page 378] deeply spiritual writers do not. While no less sincere or insightful I am sure, one senses a degree of self-consciousness and striving in Adams's writing. Perhaps the key lies in the fact that he is foremost a composer. He thinks in music.
In introductory remarks to the book, his good friend, fellow composer, and award-winning writer on music, Kyle Gann observes that Adams "is not fascinated by himself," but "is more moved by the things that go on outside him than by the things that go on inside him" (p. xvii). Yet because Adams has made himself inseparable from that which lies outside, he becomes omnipresent in the foreground, not only in the...