9. John Luther Adams
Outside Fairbanks, Alaska // July 2011
In the summer of 2011, I flew to Alaska to research an article about the conservation of natural soundscapes. I had received a journalism fellowship from Middlebury College that spring that would send me around the country for a year, talking to scientists and acoustic activists in national parks, offices, wilderness areas, and bars about how (and whether) to assess and preserve the world’s natural sounds. The project more or less changed my life — the research trips gradually morphed into my first national tour, for one thing — and would ultimately result in two essays, which were eventually published in Appalachia and Orion.
Since my travels would be taking me through Fairbanks, I seized on my project as a flimsy excuse to go talk to John Luther Adams. JLA is a masterful composer, a wonderful writer, and, to be honest, a bit of a personal hero of mine. We had already met up a couple of times over the previous year: he’d been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time, to teach some classes at Harvard during the spring semester, and an old professor of mine connected us, knowing how interested I was in the relationship between music and environment. We had coffee in Kendall Square (one of the most un-Alaskan settings I can think of) a couple of times, where we talked excitedly about music, Alaska, time, urban planning, and John McPhee’s books about geology. He was wonderfully, uncommonly generous with his time and thoughts, and I found him incredibly kind and fun to talk to. Given my reverence for his music, this was not only a thrill but an enormous relief.
So when I learned I’d be flying to Alaska, I reached out to him again and he invited me over to his home and studio, outside of Fairbanks. I borrowed a bicycle from the hostel I was staying at and rode through the spruce trees and black flies up to his house, and we had this conversation on his porch.
JLA’s life has changed considerably since we talked. Most significantly, a couple of years after this conversation, his gorgeous orchestral piece Become Ocean (which I think is the piece he mentions working on near the end of this interview!) would win the Pulitzer Prize in Music and shoot him into the stratosphere: he more or less instantly rocketed to the heights of fame and influence that he should have already been enjoying for decades. He moved out of Alaska, as he suggests in this interview that he might, and he and his wife now divide their time between Manhattan and Mexico, a plan he also alludes to here. He is now, quite deservedly, a genuine superstar in the classical music world, and I have to imagine that connecting with him would have been much harder — maybe even impossible — if I were in the same position trying to reach him for a conversation like this one today.
It was really strange for me to listen back to this interview. At the time it was conducted, I hadn’t really been writing music about landscape myself for very long, if at all — I’d barely been out of college for a year — and it almost doesn’t even sound like I had much confidence in the idea that I’d be able to carve out a career as a musician at all. I seem to have presented myself to him as an unusually incompetent journalist instead of as a fledgling musician, which is interesting in retrospect.
So, this interview is obviously pretty different from the others in this series: it’s older than all the rest by several years, and at the beginning at least, it’s nominally all about soundscape conservation, a subject — amusingly — on which neither John Luther Adams nor I are exactly experts. It may also be the first real interview I ever conducted, and listening to it seven and a half years later, it’s hard for me not to wince at some of my comments here. (I’ve tried not to edit them too much, except to remove a few hundred “umm”s, so the transcript remains pretty wild and rambling.) To be honest, at the end of the day, it’s not a great interview in the traditional sense — and not least because during most of it, JLA seems to be totally (and not unreasonably) perplexed by why I’m asking him about these things in the first place — but it’s an interesting conversation: it almost breaks down entirely about two-thirds of the way through, but then becomes really good at the end when he suddenly starts spontaneously dispensing some really lovely pearls of wisdom about noise and silence. The subject matter here overlaps a great deal with that of this current interview project of mine, so I thought it would be good to finally reproduce it in this context.
I’m enormously grateful to JLA for lending me his time and his thoughts, and particularly for doing so in the service of a quixotic journalism project undertaken by a wide-eyed, recently-graduated, and largely clueless kid. So this transcript may be a little long and occasionally pretty awkward, but it’s a special one for me in that it captures a moment in my life when I was really trying to figure out who I was and what I thought about the world. It is somewhat weird for me to observe this earlier version of myself in action, but also remarkable to think how outrageously lucky I was to be able to sit around with one of my heroes eating salmon in the middle of the Alaskan woods, and to have had the benefit of such a singularly thoughtful and talented artist’s attention and advice. I appreciate those things even more today than I did then, and I hope we cross paths again someday.
More about John Luther Adams, including links to some great articles about his work, is here. I hope you enjoy our rambling talk from seven and a half years ago.
Ben Cosgrove: —just trying to see if this “voice memo” thing works to record this…
John Luther Adams: Ah, so it’s on the phone?
BC: Yep, on the phone!
JLA: You know, I’ve used that. When people have wanted little audio clips or what have you. It’s a great little tool, isn’t it?
BC: It’s totally new to me. I actually only just got this — this is my first smartphone — so I’m still pretty unable to use any of it. So I’m really hoping this recording winds up working…
JLA: It looks as though we… we’re doing something there, yeah! But is there a way to bump up the levels? The needle looks a little faint…
BC: You know… probably? But this will just be used for me to transcribe, so I can always just boost the signal on the other end if it comes to that. As long as something’s going in, I think we ought to be good.
JLA: [laughs] You’ll get something. And I guess if it’ll wind up as text, not radio… well, I’ll move a little closer, just to be safe.
BC: Ha, good thinking; thank you. And… okay! Looks like it’s going.
BC: Well, I guess I’ll repeat the question that I was starting to ask before I remembered to turn the phone on — a lot of your work is more explicitly concerned with place, ecology, and environment than that of most composers working today, and again, maybe this is a weird question, but I wondered a little about how you thought about its historical context. For instance, before R. Murray Shafer, and acoustic ecology and soundscape composition all came onto the scene forty years ago, the overlap between musicians and environmentalists would have been very small. Do you think that the music you write owes anything to that influence?
JLA: You know, I have great admiration for R. Murray Schafer and all of his disciples. And that book of his, The Tuning of the World — I guess it’s called The Soundscape now, but I prefer the original title, don’t you? — is on my short list of the books that really changed my life. But despite my great admiration and affinity for Schafer and company, I've never really felt myself a part of that compositional tradition in any real way.
BC: That makes sense. Most significantly, you've never used — well, I think I only know of one piece of yours where you explicitly used literal, recorded, environmental sounds. Instead your music more often evokes natural situations — is that fair to say?
JLA: Yes, just once. And exactly. I'm after something else; it's not as literal. My thinking about soundscapes and natural sounds is pretty… well, these are not questions that I think about on a daily basis. They don't seem directly pertinent to my work now. But still I think they somehow deeply inform who I am as an artist and the way I approach music. They're deeply internalized but also a little bit transformed.
BC: I guess I can see how the broader questions might be related, because it seems like a lot of your work is connected to ecological concerns. You may not be concerned with the literal sounds of the world, but I gather that you are concerned with being able to listen to them, noting how they fit together, and keeping a connection with those rhythms—
JLA: Oh yes, awareness. What I call ecological awareness. Rather than retreating into our digital caves, remembering to turn our attention outward, toward the larger world in which we live. In which we're immersed in miracles all the time. So it's that sense of wonder, and longing. Longing to belong, longing to find or rediscover our place within this larger music of the world. Which I think somehow we lost along the way, especially in western culture.
BC: It seems that a lot of your music avoids straightforward representation of place and is more about— well, to my mind, it's not so much about specific places, but more about the way that you relate to a particular environment or to the world at large.
JLA: Yeah, I never know what subjectivity is. It's not something that I really think about: subject, object. Even in historical terms of abstract painting there is all this question of is this objective, is it not objective. That doesn't really seem pertinent to me. What does seem pertinent, more and more, is experience. And not second-hand experience, but primary, authentic experience. And not just MY experience as the composer, but your experience as the listener.
BC: So having the work not be a representation of the thing but the thing.
JLA: Exactly! Yes, that's the idea. I'm no longer painting musical landscapes, I'm hopefully somehow creating musical places in which - which are bigger than the composer understands. And are a kind of wilderness in and of themselves in which you the listener can find your own way and hopefully have your own experience which may include getting hopelessly lost, which is what I want for myself.
BC: How are you able to…? Well, for instance, I went to your installation [The Place Where You Go To Listen, 2006] at the museum — which I found incredibly moving — and obviously in a lot of ways, it sounds very “natural.” But it doesn't literally feature any natural sounds, only synthetic ones. I guess this is a weird question, but how did you ensure that the means by which you translated these data streams into sound and light would result in that effect, one that wouldn't feel artificial?
JLA: I'm glad you experienced it that way; that's what I wanted. Part of the challenge that I set for myself was that there would be no sounds you've heard before in that space. No recognizable musical instruments, no recognizable sounds of nature, that it would be a world in and of itself. A place the like of which you hadn't been before. But at the same time I wanted it to have the ring of truth. I wanted it to feel real. And my hope was that — exactly what it seems you felt, that any time you go in there, you might have the experience of feeling oh, this is what here and now sounds like, this is what it feels like, this has that ring of truth.
BC: I suppose, almost paradoxically, that if you had used the sounds of, say, crickets or birds, it would start to make everything else seem less real.
JLA: Yup. It starts to become cinematic, it starts to become a program. A show, a narrative, a demonstration.
BC: Because you're exerting too much control over everything?
JLA: Yup, yup. I didn't want it to be educational, I didn't want it to be a science project. I'm an artist. What artists do involves responding to the world and finding some resonance, some light, some atmosphere, some essence that is usually just beyond the reach of our senses.
BC: Yeah, it’s almost… an opportunity to observe the influence of time and place on a contained ecosystem of lights and sounds. You’re observing their effects, not the phenomena themselves.
JLA: I didn't want to use data streams. I didn't want rainfall to be a data stream. I even chose not to use wind. I didn't want to use anything that you could hear with your ears that you had heard before. So we see the aurora borealis, we see visible manifestation of the solar wind, but we don't usually hear it. There are all these accounts of people hearing the aurora, but I've never heard them.
BC: The only thing that's frustrating about your installation is that, well, the museum closes... so no one can experience what the middle of night sounds like there.
JLA: Ha — yes, and that's my favorite time too.
BC: It must sound totally different.
JLA: It does, it does! Of course in the wintertime, the sun isn't up for very long. So it's COMPLETELY different in the winter and in the winter afternoon, during the museum hours, it sounds radically different from what you heard.
BC: I think I know the answer to this, but why—
JLA: Huh. Sandhill crane.
BC: Just now? I didn't even hear it happen.
JLA: Yep, over there.
BC: Man, how wild. I’ve never seen one.
JLA: Just one though, apparently. I’m sorry, though — you were saying?
BC: Well, just that with that piece you're creating this internal isolated thing, where you close a door you don't hear anything from outside, all the lighting is controlled, it's a very controlled environment... but it's also — everything's from interior Alaska, it's very tied to that.
JLA: And from interior Alaska right now.
BC: In real time.
JLA: Or as close to real time as we can get.
BC: Ha, yeah, good point. What is the lag?
JLA: Different data streams have different latencies. But I think the greatest is like a second. We're very close to real time.
BC: Well, this question that I’m taking a million years to articulate is just about how… well, I'm interested by the idea that you could so honestly, resonantly represent a real-life environment by taking its objective parts and putting them in a new, foreign context — a place where you experience those elements in such different ways from how you’d experience the real thing. And yet it sounds… right.
JLA: I wouldn't say it represents it. I'd say it responds to it or resonates with it. The data streams already, the numbers themselves are already representations. The data from the seismic stations are not seismic vibrations, they're representations of seismic vibrations.
BC: Huh. Wow, that’s such a lovely idea. But yeah — when you put it that way, it's as though the infrastructure of that piece is itself an instrument that you built, one that can only be played by those data.
JLA: Yes! It is exactly like an instrument. OR it's like an ensemble, an orchestra.
BC: Is that how you thought of it, setting these triggers and traps that different phenomena would set off—
JLA: I built the instruments. I designed — and with my programmer built — these instruments that don't exist in the physical plane. And then designed the music as well, but the moment to moment details of the music are played by the data streams, which are representations of what's actually going on above our heads and beneath our feet and all around us in the light and in the sky.
BC: Yes. It is really neat that it manages to bypass— well, I guess I mean it’s remarkable that you can hide your tracks so well.
JLA: Good, good.
BC: That is, it's not like you're taking this information and making something discrete with it, you're designing a way for that information to appear before someone else. And a way for it to change itself over time, adapt itself to a changing world.
JLA: And yet of course my hand is all over it, because as my friend Stephen Schick constantly reminds me, I could have taken those same data streams, those same numbers — after all it's just numbers — and made hip-hop, or made country-western, or whatever. It could have sounded like anything. So it is my musical world, but there's this illusion that it's just this world, that the composer's not there. So by my withdrawing, it puts you there alone. And you either have to sit and listen and discover your own experience or you can be bored and leave. But I'm not telling you a story, and I'm not giving you a demonstration, I'm not presenting a lecture, I'm not expressing myself.
BC: Yeah, that’s interesting to me too. That you were so determined to make it not an act of self-expression.
JLA: It means that you're challenged to come to terms with it on your own. Your role in it. It is The Place Where YOU Go to Listen.
BC: If someone went in and didn't know where all these sounds and lights are coming from, do you think they would still have an experience very much like that?
JLA: Mm-hm. I think so.
BC: Hm! But jeez, I’d argue that… well, for me at least, it adds something very distinct and very important to be conscious of the forces triggering those sounds, even if you can’t track them exactly.
JLA: I hope so. And yet, the range of listeners' responses and their routes in and through the piece delights and amazes me. I particularly love people who want to have an immediate sensory experience and they don't want to know what's behind the curtain, how it's put together, what's that sound over there, what's this sound down here, they just want to come to terms with it purely in response to the sounds. I love that. And then maybe they get curious about what's doing what, how it works. Other people really seem to desire or even require some advance understanding of the science if you will behind it to make sense of it. Otherwise it's so austere and so strange. So removed from anything they've experience before that they need a way in. And that's great. That works too. And of course because it has no… because it doesn't repeat itself, ever—
BC: And doesn't end and doesn't begin—
JLA: Yeah it just goes on. So all I could do was — I had a flight simulator, we had it set up in my studio, and for about year before we opened a lot of what I was doing was just sitting in the studio listening to it in this particular light, at this particular time of day or time of year, giving it that test of time and that test of whether it had as I like to joke that ring of truth, whether it felt like here and now, this moment in this place. And if something didn't, then we tweaked that.
BC: That's the best evidence that as you say you're all over it, because if you're the test of whether it feels like here and now… and in fact you in your studio checking it against that ring of truth—
JLA: It is of course highly subjective, but there's this illusion that it’s— well, but what isn’t?
BC: Huh, that’s interesting. You said something earlier that reminded me of this, and I wanted to be sure to mention it — you've written, I think, about “integrating your voice into the larger music of a place.” Is this an example of that? Taking events that are bigger than you, out of your control, and engaging them with your own language?
JLA: Yeah… Yeah! You know, I hadn't thought of it in those terms before, but I guess that's right.
BC: It just seems that… well, if you're using stuff that is happening without you, and adding yourself in this way…
JLA: Well, the place, in some way it's— it and say Strange and Sacred Noise are perhaps my most… forbidding works, or — what’s the word I want? — implacable, inscrutable… they're the pieces that don't come to you, you have to go to them. You have to go into them and really experience them without too much help from the composer. And I haven't really figured this out yet, I haven't had time to really digest it, not enough time has passed, but I do sense that The Place is a kind of culmination of maybe 30 years of living in this place, and working with certain set of metaphors, sources that I explored in different media, in different pieces, different settings, that finally come to a kind of complete and inevitable manifestation in the place. And in a way I think it's freed me up now to move into a new phase of work.
BC: That's satisfying. And exciting, I’ll bet?
JLA: Yeah it's great, it's essential to always feel that work lies ahead. So there's a qualitative — I mean, I'm still obsessed with place and finding our place in the world, but now in pieces like Inuksuit I'm moving outdoors and exploring them.
BC: Huh. Would you please talk about that for a second? In what sense have you done that with Inuksuit?
JLA: Well, after all these years of making music that's so to speak inspired by the natural world but heard indoors, Inuksuit is the first piece that's explicitly intended to be performed and heard and experienced outdoors.
BC: Any place?
JLA: Yes, in fact it's assiduously not site-specific, it's site-determined. It's all about music as a vehicle for exploration of where we are, wherever that may be. So the first performances were in the Canadian Rockies, and the most recent performances have been in New York City. And the piece seems to work equally well, and very differently, in both wilderness and urban settings.
BC: Oh, cool. Wow, that’s… I love the idea that one could listen to multiple performances and then by, you know, factoring out the common denominator, come to learn so much about what an individual place, an individual bit of terrain sounds like.
BC: Where outside in NYC was it?
JLA: Morningside Park on the summer solstice, we had 3000 people last month. It was wonderful. We did at the Armory on Park Ave last winter, the one indoor performance I have sanctioned and will, and that's it.
It's an outdoor piece, you know? That was an experience to do it indoors, and the Armory as you know is a full city block, so it sort of felt like outdoors. But, it's still — I discovered new things about the piece.
JLA: Whoa, we’re about to lift off here. [adjusts umbrella] Yeah — it's an outdoor piece. Doing it indoors was completely experimental and very useful, I learned a lot about the piece and about future pieces. It was very useful… but it's definitely an outdoor piece.
BC: I mean… hey, that's less un-Schafer-like than how you were describing your other work.
JLA: Ha! Well, I suppose, in that he makes outdoor pieces.
BC: I guess his tended to be site-specific.
JLA: Yeah. One of my favorite artists, Robert Irwin, makes a critical distinction between site-specific and site-determined work. And Inuksuit is very much a site-determined work. Which to me is right now more fascinating, because it's new and maybe in some way bigger.
BC: Sort of sounds like 4:33.
JLA: It absolutely is...It's 4:33 with sounds in it.
BC: I guess that’s an… important distinction.
JLA: You might say! Ha. You know, you might want to get in touch with Steve Schick, a close collaborator of mine. A few years ago Steve embarked on a walk. In several installments he walked from San Diego to San Francisco, and he did it with 4:33 as a point of reference, in his backpack so to speak, on his headset. And he's been talking about writing a book about that experience. He's kind of a busy guy — he’s everywhere at once — so I don't know how far the book has progressed, but I've seen some fragments of things he was writing about that experience, and I think they'd be pertinent to your writing.
BC: Ooh, yeah. I was going to say… that does sound like it’s verging on what I’m hoping to write about. Just that question of the extent to which the sounds of a place contribute to its identity. Which seems — well, that’s exactly what he’s writing about.
JLA: Yes, absolutely. You’d get along well! You know, I’m… are you hungry? Thirsty? Maybe we should pause for a brief hiatus. The cupboard’s pretty bare, since Saturday is grocery day, but—
[Here the tape stops for a second while we take a break; JLA pulled out a bunch of snacks, and the second part of the interview took place as we lounged on his back porch eating salmon and crackers.]
BC: —well, yeah! To what extent do you think places have identities outside of how we experience them? I mean, to the extent that there is all this work preserving soundscapes, how do you feel about how important that is relative to preserving other parts of the landscape?
JLA: WELL. If a tree falls in the forest? Do I think there's life on other planets? [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Right. That was a poorly worded question. I guess I'm interested to know if and why you would say acoustic conservation is important, and does the fact of its… invisibility make it different from preserving any other part of the landscape?
JLA: I don't know if it's different, because everything is interconnected. Isn't that what we're learning, and in a sense what your inquiry into natural sounds is all about?
BC: Well, yes. In that case, I guess my question is why do you think this was an area that was overlooked for so long? Why good-looking views tend to be privileged over good-sounding places, for instance.
JLA: I don't know why that is. Again you're asking a question that's pretty big, which I encourage you to ask and investigate.
BC: Ha, maybe I'm a bad journalist.
JLA: [laughs] Maybe a good philosopher, though! Because that’s a great question — why is our culture much more visually sensitized than aurally?
BC: Well, you've actually said something in one of your books about how a visual experience hits you immediately, but listening takes time — how to listen you have to be really shooting for it, dulling your other senses and focusing on what you're hearing.
JLA: It is time, isn't it. As I've written more than once, in different ways, you can glimpse a place in an instant, but it can take a lifetime to truly know a place. Whether through your ears or your eyes. Listening slows us down.
BC: It's easier to think that you've seen everything than that you’ve heard everything.
JLA: Mm-hm. You can skim the surface. You can do that in The Place Where You Go To Listen. I've watched people come into the room, 15 seconds, you hear this sort of breathy sound and walk out. But listening takes time.
BC: Well, that's interesting because you've written lots of music that encourages that kind of deep, sustained listening. For instance, some of your work moves so slowly that a listener has to lock in for a long time to make some of the connections in it. Is your hope that by making music that requires a certain type of listening you might train your listeners to train to the rest of the world in a similar way? Or at least encourage them?
JLA: That's not the primary impulse, but that's certainly what I want for myself, that's the experience that I want to have.
BC: You don't necessarily want that for the people who listen to your music?
JLA: No, but the primary experience comes first. And if it doesn't, then what are you really doing as an artist? Why not just do something else, find a more effective means of changing people's mind. Go into politics. This is actually the crossroads that I came to years ago in my own life, and I chose to leave politics and dedicate myself deeply and completely to my art.
There is for me a qualitative difference between art and politics and that is not to denigrate activism in any way. I have deep and abiding gratitude and respect for people for whom that is their life's work. I realized however that I didn't have the temperament, or quite frankly the courage, for a life in politics and someone else could take my role in the crusade and perhaps no one else could discover the music that I imagined I might discover. So what I'm saying is the primary experience of… well, of art comes from the primary experience, the authentic personal experience of the artist in response to whatever it is. And everything else comes later. The art comes later. And then all these other thoughts and associations and agendas and ideas that we attach to the art for me are post. That's not in any way to diminish those, but I think it's important to assert that without that initial fire of wonder of fascination of curiosity, of obsession of emersion of desire of longing of whatever it may be — without that energy first, then I'm not really sure what you have.
BC: That seems very wise. So would it be right to say that your goal in writing music is to… use it as a way to respond as best you can to whatever it is that you're responding to.
JLA: Music is not what I do. Music is how I know the world. It is what gives my life meaning. Not just in a more grandiose sense of the arc of a life, but in the immediate day to day experience of the world. If I weren't doing this I'm not sure what I would do. It's always fun to think, well, if I weren't a composer what would I be? I don't know. I might be a different person. I might be a painter. I might be a writer.
BC: Huh. Have you ever painted? It’s sort of easy to imagine you doing that.
JLA: Just very briefly. I played with it when I was in my twenties. I also had a brief, torrid affair with photography. I did large format photography, 4x5, and had my own darkroom.
BC: Oh, wow. Up here?
JLA: No not here. But I had to give that up because it threatened to take over and I couldn't get to the same place.
BC: It's interesting how philosophically different your work is now — in a sense, isn’t photography about stopping time, capturing something in an instant? You went from a medium where it's literally a split second to making, for instance, a sound and light installation without a particular beginning or ending.
JLA: Right! Hm, right — but it's composed of an incomprehensible number of discrete events. Uncountable. Well, theoretically open-ended, right? Infinite.
BC: Until the museum burns down.
JLA: Or until the computer goes down and they don't replace it.
BC: Yikes, good point. What's the projected time for that?
JLA: Ha, let's not talk about that. We've dodged a few bullets in the last six years. A few hardware bullets. But hey, it's the thing about a canvas too. It's pretty much the thing about everything.
BC: In your books, especially in the written companion to The Place Where You Go To Listen, you talk a lot about an ecology of music and sound, which strikes me as an important and interesting idea. How do you see yourself contributing or responding to that?
JLA: Well, maybe I don't think about these things on a daily basis any longer because they're so deeply assimilated into what I do and who I am, they're part of me, they're inextricably part of my experience my life history and my work. But for me a lot of it goes back to what we call wilderness and my own experience of wilderness. That is being in places where people do not normally live. And those experiences were, especially early on, in my twenties, primary in shaping who I am and what I've been doing with my life ever since.
BC: What were some of those experiences?
JLA: Canoeing across Admiralty Island in 1975. My first visit to Denali, hiking. My first visit to the Arctic Refuge, all my trips to the Arctic Refuge. Although I'm not active in wildland issues, my work would not have happened without those places and my experience of those places. And I think the those places and those experiences in large measure give my music and my life's work whatever degree of uniqueness they may have. That's something that I have that most classical music composers, new music composers, sound artists, don't have, those experiences.
BC: What is about those wilderness places that makes them feel more important to you?
JLA: It's like going into The Place Where You Go To Listen. All those places for me were The Place. And without any human music and without a lot of extroverted sound I was challenged to listen and to hear in a different way, and I was exhilarated by the possibility that in all that space and silence - stillness would be a better way of describing it - I just might hear a music that I couldn't hear any place else and maybe that no one else had ever heard. It's a grand illusion and perhaps it's delusional, but that's what it was about for me, and in some ways still is.
I worked for the Wilderness Society for a while, I worked for the Alaska Coalition, I worked for the Northern Alaskan Environmental Center. I was an environmental activist. But ultimately I'm a composer. A composer who has lived in Alaska for most of his life, which has given me experiences that are very American, I guess. My European colleagues really couldn't have these experiences at home. My friends in New York couldn't have these experiences at home. So when I was young, that was exhilarating, it was intoxicating. Without wild places and largely unpolluted soundscapes, I don't know where I'd be. It's given me music, it's given me a life, but it's also given me an understanding of the world. And I don't mean to say understanding as though I have wisdom, that I understand something that no one else does, that's not what I mean. But just a way of understanding, who I am, where I am, what music is, how we fit into the larger world.
These questions that all of us are asking now, questions on which our very survival may depend. If I hadn't had that, if I'd gone to a conservatory, then to grad school, then to New York or Europe or whatever it would have been, if I'd followed a different course, I don't know what would have become of me. If I'd made the right choices, I probably would be in a world of hurt.
As someone said somewhere along the way, "For years I've worn Alaska like a hair shirt" - true. Recently it's started to itch pretty badly.
BC: At least… I mean, at least it took 30 years.
JLA: Mmhmm, mmhmm. But this will always be home, even if I'm not here. And I'm profoundly grateful for everything that I've been given here.
BC: How long have you been in this spot, this cabin?
JLA: Not that long. Since 1989. I lived pretty rustically. I lived until I was almost 40 without running water.
BC: Huh. Was there a nearby stream? How did you navigate that?
JLA: No, I carried water in on my back in jugs, a mile and a half through the bog. Not too far from here. As the raven flies maybe 5, 6 miles.
BC: Wow — wait, as the raven flies? I've always heard crow.
JLA: Ah, we don't have crows. [laughs]
BC: I guess it changes when you get above a certain latitude.
JLA: Stick around, it'll change again. We have birds showing up that we haven't seen before.
JLA: Ha! No, not quite. But magpies are moving north. We have red winged blackbirds now.
BC: Huh, yeah. I was wondering about that. Has it always been this… hot in the summers?
JLA: Oh, yep.
BC: I was totally unprepared for that! I got off the plane at, you know, 9pm and it was bright and sunny and hot. Alaska is still very foreign to me, so it’s, uh, disorienting.
JLA: Yeah, we mostly notice the change in – well, as you would imagine – in the wintertime. The winters have gotten shorter and milder. We have freezing and thawing at rates that we haven’t seen before, and wind – we have more wind than we used to have. The way that we see the evidence of climate change – and this is completely unscientific, just anecdotal evidence from someone who’s lived here for a long time – is, well, in the summer we’re seeing longer and more ferocious wildfire seasons.
BC: I saw some fires from the plane, I think.
JLA: Mm. Well, this is fire country – it always has been. The fires are essential to the ecology – to the ecological health – of this forest, the boreal forest. But it’s… it’s gone off the map in terms of its extent in recent years.
BC: Well, you mentioned the possibility of migrating south earlier – I’ll be really interested to hear what you do if you do go to Mexico.
JLA: I’ve always been in love with the desert, and now that I’ve discovered desert by the sea…
BC: You’ve always been in love with the desert?
JLA: Oh yes. I’ve always said, ever since I came here, that if ever I left the north, it would be for the desert. You know, it’s the sort of line that I would’ve just tossed off when I was in my twenties, but… it seems to be true.
BC: Where in Mexico are you looking to go?
JLA: Ah, on the west coast of the Baja. The Pacific coast. Halfway down. The middle of nowhere. I mean, truly, the middle of nowhere.
BC: [laughs] That’s… yeah. I remember when I finally realized for the first time that California just… keeps going. I think I was about twelve. It’s amazing for how long my geographic understanding of North America just didn’t include details about Mexico. An oversight on the part of placemat manufacturers, I guess.
JLA: [laughs] But yeah, it would be nice, to go down there. We’ll see! I’m also in love with New York City. I’ve always loved New York, and in recent years I’ve felt more and more at home there. It’s the center of my professional life now too. So if we had money – which we don’t – we would probably have a couple of toeholds, and one might be there.
BC: Yeah, I think you had mentioned that when I talked to you in Massachusetts a couple of months ago. How you were attracted to the city.
JLA: Yeah! I mean, I guess maybe that’s the old age plan, but… I mean, we still won’t have money. [laughs] And I don’t know how you live in Manhattan without money.
BC: I mean… if you figure out a way to do it, let me know.
JLA: I will! I will. But it’s strange, you know, years ago I couldn’t imagine living anyplace else… and I didn’t even like to go outside of Alaska. And now, maybe, I feel so grounded here that I feel like… well, that wherever I’ll go from here I’ll know where home is. And maybe home is everywhere. And maybe for an artist, maybe home is the work.
BC: What do you mean by “maybe home is everywhere?”
JLA: Oh, well, I… I think that’s part of my surge or my practice as a creative person, to pay attention wherever I am. And… to be truly open to the music of that place, wherever it may be.
BC: I have to imagine though, that sometimes the more attention you pay to something, the more foreign it might seem?
JLA: Yeah, maybe… I don’t know about that, though. I think the solution to that is to keep paying attention. And the more closely you pay attention to something, the more the foreign comes to feel like home. Think about… well, think about the first time you ate Ethiopian food! [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Sure.
JLA: Ha, I’m just trying to think of some… cuisine or something… where at first, you’re like “whoa, what’s this?!”
BC: Yeah, the first things you notice are the differences.
JLA: Right, but then, you know, maybe you like it, maybe you really like it but it still feels foreign. But then you learn to taste it, maybe you even learn to cook it…
BC: And eventually, I imagine, you learn to embrace the experience of… well, of tasting something new, right?
JLA: You don’t only learn to embrace it, you come to – obsessively seek it out! To relish it. I mean, in my case, I’m a Scotch whiskey fan. And people ask me all the time, “what’s your favorite whiskey?” And my answer to that is the same as when people ask what my favorite piece of music is: it’s a whiskey I haven’t tasted yet. It’s a piece I’m just starting to work on.
BC: That strikes me as a great philosophy to have. As long as—
JLA: I don’t think that’s just about… well, I hope it’s not just about novelty.
BC: Ha, yeah, that’s exactly what I was just about to ask. It doesn’t sound like it, though; it sounds like you’re leaning forward with an open mind, not just running around in desperate search of a new kick.
JLA: Yeah, I don’t think it’s just about novelty. It may be a little bit about gluttony!
BC: I mean, I guess you get more whiskey this way.
JLA: Yeah, you get more whiskey, you get – well, look, I haven’t played it out in my love life, so that’s probably a good thing. [laughs]
BC: [laughs] Right.
JLA: I mean, I’ve been happily married for many years. But maybe in my work and in my taste buds I can indulge my… my, ah, sensuous gluttony.
BC: Ha, well, I mean, yep. Those seem… like safe places for that to happen.
JLA: Yeah, there are so many sounds, there are so many colors, there are so many flavors, there are so many places… and how fortunate are we to be able to experience those?
JLA: Even if you’re just in one place! I don’t mean to suggest that we should all be running around all the time – I’ve got real misgivings about all of that. I try to be aware of my own personal footprint. But if I’m going to travel, I’m going to try and make good on it. Try and put back more than I take out. I think that’s all that any of us can hope for, right? That when we finally check out, our ledger sheet is at least neutral and maybe even slightly positive.
BC: It seems like it’s good to just… well, wherever you go, to make sure you’re there with some purpose or intention. Or that you, you know, are fully there enough to make it count.
BC: Yeah. Interesting.
JLA: You know, I’m sorry – I sense I’m maybe not giving you what you want…
BC: No, no! I mean, I don’t know what I want. The fact is, I didn’t come here with any agenda – for lack of a better term – for what kind of information I want to, you know, extract from you. Maybe this is external to the particular aims of this specific project I’m doing, but this has been a really valuable conversation for me, just as a means of thinking aloud about some of these subjects with you. I just figured it would be nice to talk on the record a bit with you, especially since I’d be here in your neck of the woods. So I’ve really been enjoying this – please don’t worry about checking the boxes of the particular thing I’m researching. It’s a bit of a formless project at this point anyway.
JLA: Oh, good – I’m certainly enjoying talking with you again, too. I just worried that—
BC: I mean, I suppose it may be that none of this interview literally winds up quoted in the piece I write, but this has absolutely been helpful in clarifying my thinking about some of it.
JLA: Well, you’re early in the process, it would seem, right?
BC: You are literally the first person I’m interviewing for this piece.
JLA: Ha! Well, so you’re starting on the fringe.
BC: I suppose so! But, you know, I don’t… well, I don’t necessarily think I’d think of it that way.
JLA: This is just to say — or to acknowledge — that I’m not by any means in the center of what you’re looking at here.
BC: Sure! I mean, honestly, in part, it just comes down to logistics – I was able to come here earlier than I was able to go talk to the people in the park. But, you know, it all winds up in the same place and most of the processing I’ll do will happen down the road. Maybe I’ll track you down again once I’ve gathered more information and am ready to wax philosophical once again.
JLA: Oh, certainly. But also, please tell me – I mean, you’ll figure it out, and I want to know just how… well, how the fringe relates to the center in this case. Because it seems like it has to.
BC: Yeah, I mean… I’d almost say it seems clear that it does.
JLA: I’m convinced that it does!
BC: We’ve also been talking about lots of things that I’ve sort of wondered about independently, though… so please know that this has been very productive and useful for me, regardless of where the project goes.
JLA: Well, that’s good news! [laughs] I’m interested in the project though – tell me who else you’ll be talking to…?
BC: Well, from here, I’ll be heading to Denali and hiking around with a scientist there named Davyd Betchkal… actually, while I’m thinking of it, don’t you… are you connected to the park in some way? I can’t remember.
JLA: Nope, nope. I know nothing about it.
BC: Huh, for some reason I thought you had mentioned knowing someone who worked there and had been involved with, you know, acoustic policy, that kind of thing. I must have been confused.
JLA: Hm, yeah, maybe… I think I may have known someone who was involved with it, but oh, ten years ago. I’m not sure – I apologize if I’d misled you there.
BC: Oh – no, no, not at all.
JLA: But yeah, I… well, years ago I did some recording down in the Kenai Fjords park. At some point I licensed some of my music to be used in a film about Gates of the Arctic. You know, I’ve had various different points of… tangency and convergence with the parks, but it would be wrong for me to say I was really connected with them in any meaningful way.
BC: That’s totally fine – I’m just making sure I had my bases covered. I’m new to this whole thing, so I just wanted to make sure I had that detail locked in if it existed.
JLA: But – of course – if they’re interested, please tell them that I’d love to hear from them! I’d like to know more.
BC: Oh, absolutely – I mean, I’m about to spend about sixty hours hanging out on the backcountry with this one scientist, so hopefully I should have something to report back by the end of it. [laughs]
JLA: Wow, you know, this… this just really sounds great. I mean, lucky you.
BC: Man, tell me about it.
JLA: I mean, you’re young, you’re healthy—
BC: Ha, well, for now I am! Let’s talk after I’ve been, you know, mauled by a bear.
JLA: Ha, well, yeah, we can talk about that! But you know, you’re young, you’ve got a good mind, you’ve been funded to do this great project, you’re getting to go all of these places, I mean… it’s a very happy situation.
BC: No, no, I’m very appreciative of that, and completely… I’m jazzed about the entire thing. I just hope I can do justice to the thing I’m trying to learn about and write about.
JLA: I’m sure you will.
BC: But I’m very lucky – it just sort of fell into my lap.
JLA: Maybe, but, well – you still had to catch it.
BC: I suppose.
JLA: And now you have to do something with it! [laughs]
BC: Yeah! Ha. I mean, the researching will be great – I’m really looking forward to all of that. The part that will be difficult for me, I predict, will be synthesizing all of that I collect into something coherent.
JLA: Mm-hm. How do you think it might be used?
BC: Used! Hm. I mean… well, the idea behind the fellowship is that they, you know, they fund these projects, but in addition to that, they sort of shepherd you through the process of crafting and pitching the stories that result to magazines and journals. I think for them the value of funding these stories and helping to facilitate their publication is that, you know, more people end up reading about these different environmental issues and hopefully… caring about them.
JLA: That explains a bit – you keep saying journalism, and that helps clarify it for me. You’re really… it’s not a research project per se, it’s a writing project. If you had to say what it is, it’s a piece of journalism?
BC: More like an essay? Possibly a couple essays. I don’t feel qualified to describe myself as a journalist, really… and it’s weird, with this thing – I haven’t met my fellow… fellows yet, but it does look like they’re all, you know, real journalists who have done this kind of thing before, and as far as I can tell I’m the only imposter that kind of slipped in.
JLA: Ha. Well, again, what an opportunity for you.
BC: Thanks! Yes, absolutely. But yeah, the thing I ultimately make will be some type of magazine piece – it probably won’t be deeply scientific or anything; it’s not an academic paper. But I still have to have enough concrete information about the subject matter that whatever abstract ideas I end up wanting to express at least have some… validity, legitimacy. But the tone is more likely to be like, you know, “…it was raining.”
JLA: So… ideally it will end up appearing in Orion, somewhere like that?
BC: I mean – that would be amazing. That particular magazine seems like sort of a long shot, but that’s the general tone, yeah. And obviously, that part they’ll have to hold my hand through a little bit, I predict. Because I am not… a writer. [laughs]
JLA: Well, you know, write everything and then be prepared to be brutally butchered.
BC: Ha, I was born ready for that. That’s fine; I’m all about being torn apart.
JLA: That’s good! Ha.
BC: Anyway, to answer your question more completely: from here I’m going to Denali, like I said, and I’ve got a few interviews lined up there. But then I’m done with Alaska – I’ll fly back, and then I have, I think, a week in New Hampshire to kind of clear my head—
JLA: Is that where you’re from?
BC: More or less. I grew up on the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border and my extended family all hangs out all summer in a camp in the southwestern part of the state, near Mount Monadnock. Which I feel like is where I did most of my actual growing up.
JLA: We’re talking about recording Inuksuit out there… which is a daunting task.
BC: [laughs] Yeah, a 3,000-person recording session?
JLA: Ha! Hopefully it’ll… well, we’re talking about recording it with Doug Perkins, who teaches at Dartmouth and is sort of the godfather of Inuksuit now. Well, Steve Schick is the godfather, but Doug is the… the capo.
BC: Ha, that’s… an interesting analogy, but I think I’m following.
JLA: Doug is proposing that we record it at a studio that’s… it’s in the woods in Vermont. I can’t remember what town, but it’s a former rocker who was successful in some band and now has a studio on a hundred acres. And he’s got, you know, running water, he’s got a lake, he’s got woods, he’s got meadows… and you can run the cables out the door of the studio – which is this little studio in the middle of this amazing place – and record the performers outdoors.
BC: Huh. Wow! That sounds amazing. I wonder if it’s… will you let me know if you remember what this place is called? I’m completely fascinated.
JLA: I will, I’ll absolutely send you a link. It looks perfect for doing this piece.
BC: I mean, it sounds brilliant!
JLA: I’m so excited about it.
BC: Please tell me if you end up doing it, too, because I’d love to hear all about the process. And Vermont is very much in my neck of the woods. It is a life ambition of mine to live there someday.
JLA: Yeah, it’s going to be really… Doug’s idea is that it will be a sort of Inuksuit Woodstock, you know, in which all the percussionists will descend on this place from all over the country. People, largely, who have played it before. And you know, we’ll all camp there for a few days and… and do the piece!
BC: Man, that sounds fantastic.
JLA: I think it’s such a great idea.
BC: Well, I’m a big northern New England aficionado, so I’m 100% in favor of you recording that piece in Vermont. I really hope it works out.
JLA: Me too! I’ll definitely keep you posted. And stay in touch with me as this evolves… I sense, especially since this is your first interview, that maybe we should plan to talk again down the road too?
BC: I mean, that would be fantastic. You said you’d be in New York this fall?
JLA: Yes, I’ll send you the dates – if we could overlap there that would be something. We’ll be in and around New York. Connecticut for part of that time. I think September… will you be there?
BC: Hm, actually – well I guess I never got around to this, but actually, I’m not sure. After New Hampshire, I’ll be driving around the country for a few months to go to all these other research sites. But we can compare schedules… maybe I can catch you at the tail end of your New York trip.
JLA: Yeah! That would be great. Either in Manhattan or, again, for part of that time we’ll be at a friend’s house in Connecticut. If that’s closer to you…
BC: Maybe, but it’s… Connecticut.
JLA: [laughs] Yeah, yeah. That’s interesting, though, what’s your route around the country? I’m jealous.
BC: Well, hm, I’m starting off in New York, but then heading to the Midwest – I’ll be playing a handful of shows with a bluegrass band in Minnesota for a couple of weeks.
JLA: Ha! Great.
BC: But then I head to Olympic National Park, where there’s a guy who lives nearby… he’s a natural silence advocate and an “acoustic activist,” and he agreed to go for a hike and let me interview him, so that will be something.
JLA: I love it.
BC: The greatest thing about this is that it has been giving me an opportunity to connect with some of the most eccentric people I’ve had the chance to talk to—
JLA: I’ll bet! I’ll bet. But so then tell me some others?
BC: So there’s him, there’s the three people at Denali – the current head of the soundscape program, the former head of the soundscape program, and the field scientist who I’ll be roaming around with. And then I’ll be in Fort Collins, where the national office for the natural sounds program is headquartered. So I’ll be talking to the director, who has really been helpful so far in connecting me to other names. But it sounds like a wild office – there’s just this crew of people who are sent out day after day with, like, microphones and bear spray. Looking at spectrograms of… you know… waterfalls.
BC: So I’ll be talking to some of them. And I’ll be talking with an interpretive ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.
JLA: This really sounds so great. This is really exciting to me.
BC: Why, specifically? I mean, I agree, but I’d be interested in hearing you articulate why you’re interested.
JLA: Well, I keep thinking that… well, at some point I think I will want to work with natural sounds. Which I will likely sculpt beyond recognition. But – you know, in recent years, I’ve realized through this experience, this convergence in my work between what I thought were opposite poles: noise and silence. Which appear in titles of my pieces and as metaphors for much of my work. Living up here, I’ve always thought in terms of… of winter and summer being almost different planets, different states of mind. And those states of mind, those different seasons, have manifested themselves in my music. There’s a sort of Jekyll-Hyde aspect to it, to my body of work. Some of it is very quiet, some of it is very spacious and lush and beautiful, some of it is very physical and loud and jarring and violent. So there’s… well, you might say, the noise and the silence.
But given that, isn’t it interesting that, for instance, a piece like In the White Silence is 75 minutes of continuous music with not a split second of actual silence. Whereas Strange and Sacred Noise contains within it several full minutes of composed silence. So already the music -- as usual – knew more than the composer did. But I’m only finally starting to understand that lately. That both noise and silence lead us to the same conclusion.
That is, when we’re listening in stillness – what we sometimes call silence – we hear that there is, in fact, no such thing as silence. And as Cage said, most of what we hear around us, in the world all the time, is noise. And when we ignore it, it disturbs us. But when we listen to it, we find it endlessly fascinating.
BC: Yeah! Yeah.
JLA: So our experience – if we’re really listening, if we’re really paying attention – our experience of both noise and silence lead us to the same conclusion: that the whole world is music.
I don’t know how I got off on that. But that – that’s the best statement I gave you. [laughs]
BC: Ha! I agree – that’s brilliant. I’m just scrambling to write some of it down.
JLA: I think that sort of wraps thing – ties things together – in a way that does tie into the core of your inquiry.
BC: Oh, I think so too. It’s—
JLA: And when I talk about noise – sorry – when I talk about noise, you understand that I’m talking about it in acoustic terms.
BC: Ah, as opposed to… cultural terms? Hm, so complex sounds, not tones..?
JLA: Right. Well, but – right! For your purposes, noise also speaks to the more vernacular use of the word, right? Unwanted sound. But if we’re really listening, there’s no such thing as unwanted sound. There’s no such thing as silence and there’s no such thing as noise! It’s all music. The world is music.
BC: Yeah. Yeah! That’s very wise and well-put. [pause] I— I’m sorry, I’m just trying to remember what I was about to say.
JLA: [laughs] Sorry! I got a little carried away.
BC: No, no, are you kidding? Not at all. This is all great. Thank you again.
JLA: I don’t mean to, you know, hit you over the head with theories.
BC: Ha, no, I love theories. But well, I guess I have a tangential point, which I thought of just because this extremely loud plane went overhead in the middle of your comments just then about silence and noise. Most of the noises that the scientists and policymakers I’ve been talking to for this piece are most interested in curtailing are… well, they’re drones. Engines and so forth. Which honestly, for the most part, are not unpleasant noises...
JLA: Ah, I see…
BC: …but which pose a problem because they add up to this kind of veiling effect. Where a soundscape loses diversity and clarity because it can be overtaken by these broad washes of sound.
JLA: Machines and things. But you know, wind is noisy, the river is noisy…
BC: Yeah. Yeah! I guess I wondered about your thoughts on that, in light of the Cage-y things you were just saying about taking a nonjudgmental attitude towards noise. Is an airplane – or are hundreds of airplanes – contributing something meaningful and interesting to a soundscape, or do those sounds amount to a type of smog, a type of pollution?
JLA: Perhaps it’s both! Two stories:
My first experience in the wilderness in Alaska was a canoe trip across Admiralty Island. In 1975. And… of course we got there by float plane. But then, crossing the island, the stillness was virtually pristine. Once in a while, we would hear a float plane off in the distance and it would annoy me, even though I had arrived by a float plane. I regarded it as an intrusion.
Twenty years later, I returned to Admiralty Island and I went across in a canoe. But I had heard a piece by Hildegaard Westerkamp – part of her Vancouver Soundscape series – a piece composed entirely from the sounds of float plane engines. And it’s… it’s rhapsodic. It’s lyrical. It’s beautiful. It’s gorgeous. It’s… ravishing. And I could no longer hear the sounds of the float planes off in the distance as an intrusion. As I would have; as I am wont to do.
[a propeller plane roars overhead; he pauses to wait for the noise to subside]
—second story. Strange and Sacred Noise contains a piece composed for four air raid sirens. And it’s very loud, and… sharp. And indoors, where the piece is usually heard, it’s frightening. But a couple summers ago, we played – and filmed – Strange and Sacred Noise out on the tundra, in the heart of the Alaska Range. In the middle of the night, we got to the siren movement. And the musicians were stationed around the perimeter of this lake. And… it was amazing how all the associations – air raids, fire trucks, ambulances, horrible things that happen to people that are associated with sirens – all those associations, all that baggage dropped away. And we heard that… well, the sirens are just sounds. And out there in the wilderness, they sounded just as natural as they could sound. They might as well have been a pack of wolves in the distance.
BC: That’s – I can’t believe you were able to summon both of those stories so instantly. They’re… perfect. [laughs] Thank you.
JLA: You know, we just showed – there’s a new film. I can give you a copy. There’s now a film of Strange and Sacred Noise.
BC: Oh yeah? Thank you, yes, please. I’d love a copy.
JLA: And we showed it in New York, we had the premiere at the theater at Columbia. And it was really well-attended and well-received, and we had this discussion afterwards at which people had great observations, great comments, great questions. And one woman asked, she said, “well, you know, I just had a hard time with the sirens – I… I just can’t divorce the sound from all the assocations with war, disasters, accidents, and trauma.”
And I understand that – I have great sympathy for that. But her question reminded me of that experience of hearing the sirens out on the tundra. The place where you’d most likely regard them as foreign and intrusive. And just – they were gorgeous.
BC: Do you think that has more to do with the fact that in that setting you’re actually listening to them? Or that the fact that they’re so incongruous in that setting that it’s easier to separate the sounds from the meaning they’d have in a less wild place?
JLA: Perhaps both, I don’t know. But you know, maybe if that woman heard the piece on the tundra she might still hate the sirens.
But you’re right – I think part of what happens to us in the natural world is that we step outside of our usual experience, our usual associations, our usual habits of thought. And we are provoked to have a more immediate and sometimes more creative response to the world – to experience. That’s – to me, that’s what wilderness is about and what music is about.
So there! I’m so glad we had this little coda, because I feel like—
BC: This has been the most fruitful part of the entire interview! [laughs]
JLA: It absolutely has been! I’m so glad. We had to bounce around a little bit; it took me a little while to kind of catch on and find my way, wrap my mind around it. Because I’ve been working on a big new piece for orchestra which has… nothing at all to do with this. [laughs]
BC: Well, I really can’t thank you enough for your time and your thoughts. It’s – I mean this – it’s so much fun to talk with you, and I really appreciate your taking time out of your day to do it. Thanks for inviting me by.
JLA: Of course! Here, let me get you that DVD.
[END OF TAPE]