John Luther Adams,
The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music
(Wesleyan University Press, 2009)

John Luther Adams is one of the more interesting composers working today, and I mean that in a very complimentary way: his music seems as much translation as composition, based on a wide understanding of music as sound and sound as meaning.

The Place Where You Go to Listen is a book about the creation of one of his works, of the same title, that illustrates perfectly what I mean. It is a permanent installation at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska, Adams' home state, and translates natural phenomena directly (or as directly as possible) into sound and light. The input is disarmingly simple: electromagnetic variations in the atmosphere, slight tectonic shifts in the earth, gradations of the intensity of sunlight at different times of day, different seasons and in different weather conditions, and the brightness of the moon all are picked up by sensors, mediated by computers, and the signals translated into sounds. (Frankly, this sounds like a tremendously evocative installation, and I'm almost tempted to hitchhike to Alaska just to witness it.)

The book is much larger than that, of course: it's partly a journal, partly a set of essays, some technical, some philosophical, partly a reverie on art and its place in the human sphere, and humanity and its place in the world. Adams points out that Alaska -- the North as a whole -- is one of the places feeling the effects of global warming most severely, and illustrates his point with eyewitness views of its effects on his daily life, backed up by statistics and analysis. He doesn't preach, though: on this topic, he merely points out what's going on and wonders if we can't do better. It becomes an understated and very powerful elegy.

It's also about the act of creating, which I have to confess I found the most exciting part of the book: my bookmark, a 4x6 index card that I grabbed by chance, is now full of notes -- not about the book, particularly, nor about this review, but just ideas that Adams' words sparked in my own mind that will someday go into my own projects, which is the kind of excitement that I'd most like to have from any experience.

In fact, Adams has provided here a unifying thread for many endeavors and in a larger sense is giving us all a new connection to the world. Tectonic shifts, Northern Lights, wildfires, sunrise, high winds, the stillness of an Arctic night, all become part of our own conceptual world in a narrative both subtle and powerful. It's also an extraordinarily poetic book, which I think must be a necessity if we are truly to understand what Adams is saying: it's not all in the words, any more than his music is notes on a page (which is this case it is not and never was); most of the meaning happens outside, around and between the marks we assign to give definitions. The book resonates in that way.

As a parting note, let me point out something that Adams says that I think should be, if it is not already, a universal realization: "And as we've forgotten where we are, we've also forgotten who we are." I'm reminded of a story told by Isak Dinesen in Shadows in the Grass about a village that was being broken up, the villagers forced to move to new places. They were frightened, not at the prospect of relocating itself, but at the thought of losing contact with their neighbors: if there was no one in their new home who knew them from before, how could they prove they existed?

review by
Robert M. Tilendis

17 October 2009

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