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Becoming John Luther Adams: The evolution of one of America's hottest composers

Becoming John Luther Adams: The evolution of one of America's hottest composers
John Luther Adams takes a bow after a Seattle Symphony performance on April 7 of "Become Desert" at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. (James Holt/Seattle Symphony)

John Luther Adams is a composer who has come out from the cold.

Los Angeles and its lost horizons, I'm afraid, are what first drove him into frigid isolation. Suburban sprawl, environmental negligence and the emphasis on careerism were unfortunate turnoffs from being among the first students at California Institute of the Arts, when the college opened in 1971. But the far more important takeaway was studying with experimental composer James Tenney, who supplied the notion that music exists on more exalted ground.

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Adams found that ground in Alaska. He set himself up in a one-room cabin in the woods outside Fairbanks, endured winters during which the temperature would not rise above 40 degrees below zero for weeks on end. He made uneasy peace with bears of all colors. He became an outsider artist in both senses of the term.

He practiced environmental activism. He wrote glacially uneventful, fabulously colorful, interminable music reflecting his attachment to his landscape that asked you to enter on its own Thoreau-esque terms. He developed a certain following on the new music circuit, and despite his long retreats, he got more widely known through recordings. By the mid-'90s, he had become an insider's outsider.

All that has changed. In the last couple years, Adams has become one of the hottest composers on the American scene.

The acclaim began with "Become Ocean," a 45-minute work for large orchestra in which oceanic sounds wash over the listener, over and over and over again. The Seattle Symphony gave the premiere in 2013, leading to a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy-winning recording. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's transfixing 2015 performance — conducted by Seattle's music director, Ludovic Morlot, and enhanced by Walt Disney Concert Hall's immersive acoustics — is reputed to be the most remarkable performance yet of the score.

Enthusiasts found the work to be a life-enhancing experience, but a minority likened it to being trapped on a raft in the middle of a vast, ever-same sea. Stick with it, and after a while, you find that every instance brings subtle, barely audible changes. The L.A. musicians appeared a little shell shocked from playing endlessly repeated figures. You could love the piece or hate it, but something happened.

Now, something more has happened. A month ago, the Seattle Symphony premiered a sequel, "Become Desert," which was international news. A week later, the orchestra brought the work to Berkeley, where I heard it, for the California premiere.

Compared to "Become Ocean," "Become Desert" is a study in stupefying stillness. High string harmonics reminded me of the relentless sun. In real life, Adams is often seen wearing a hat. But in this music, there is no protection from aural ultraviolet light. Rustling sounds are like insects or plucked cactus or shifting sand. After a long while, you begin to lose a sense of reality, the shimmer stimulating aural mirages.

They may be mirages, but Adams, 65, has found his lost horizons. After four decades in Alaska, where the composer loved the dark and drastic winters more than anything else, he has been prompted by failing eyesight to move to the desert for half the year. He began in the Sonoran Desert by the ocean in Mexico, where he wrote "Become Ocean" and "Become Desert." Ever the outlier, he has moved farther afield to a desert in Chile.

For the other half of the year, Adams has chosen the other extreme. He and his wife, Cynthia, bought a co-op in Harlem, and a more unlikely New York musical success story would be hard to imagine.

Little known outside a very small, patient, West Coast-admiring New York new music minority before he received the Pulitzer and the Seattle Symphony brought "Become Ocean" to Carnegie Hall four years ago, Adams almost overnight became a celebrity. The New York Times even featured him in its weekly "Sunday Routine" column, usually reserved for entertainers, sports figures, restaurateurs and the like. Adams revealed his Sunday breakfast routine, his Central Park jogging preferences, his favorite bakery and that he and Cindy are major Mets fans.

At the Seattle Symphony concerts in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, I mulled over Adams' marvel. The audience tended to be older (this was the last weekend of spring break). Morlot, the outgoing music director, has revitalized the ensemble with inventive, with-it programming, but he also took pains to put Adams' two big orchestral scores, which are so much about the lack of context, into a larger symphonic context.

"Become Desert" was followed by Sibelius' Second Symphony. The following afternoon, "Become Ocean" followed two oceanic works, Sibelius' "The Oceanides" and Britten's Four Sea Interludes, and Passacaglia from "Peter Grimes."

That the Sibelius and Britten performances tended to be atmospheric and amorphous may have been of necessity. Adams asks for a different kind of listening. I heard the suggestion more than once that the most becoming presentation would have been simply a single concert devoted to Adams' ocean and desert.

That brings up the major questions about Adams. Is his a music of enlightenment or escape? Is the attraction that of having sensations heightened or dulled, a dose of uppers for the ears, or downers? Is this for tuning in or chilling? The answers have to be personal and may not even be either/or. For one woman, "Become Ocean" was music to knit by.

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I come down on the side of enlightenment. The score for "Become Ocean" is as complex a document as putting the wave structures of oceanic movement in graphic notation would be. Throughout, some sections of the orchestra play repeated (though minutely changing) rapid five-note patterns, against other sections' six-note patterns, against other sections' seven-note patterns.

It's impossible to pick out the details. Other conductors may be able to bring out more textural transparency than is Morlot's preference, although the very fact that he can keep the whole thing together is remarkable. For the listener, the challenge is to try to hear differently, to build sensitivity to foreign sounds that can be likened to learning to distinguish syllables in a new language. The overwhelming temptation, however, is to fall into a trance. Most of us probably do some of both, which can be a very satisfying mix of virtue and pleasure.

Beethoven does that too, of course. But he used narrative structure. Adams works in the non-narrative void, where you are spared the existential whom-do-you-trust crisis.

"Become Desert" was even more immersive. The score called for five separate choirs of musicians spread around the hall. Strings, harp and percussion remained onstage. Elsewhere, in the boxes upstairs and in the back of the hall, were brass and wind groups, and one with a small chorus of voices (Volti from the Bay Area).

Zellerbach wasn't ideal for this; its bone-dry (desert-like?) natural acoustics have been, of necessity, modified through careful electronic enhancement. But you got the point of utter stillness on a monumental scale, with a million little things happening just under your perceptual radar. Give yourself in to it, and the world became both desert and dessert. You had your cake and were eating it too.

By coincidence, a week later, the Redlands Symphony gave the California premiere of Adams' "there is no one, not even the wind," which is a chamber-orchestra sketch of "Become Desert" and scored for 11 players. It lasts 22 minutes, about half the length of the big orchestral piece.

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This seemed an unlikely ensemble, place and audience for an Adams' premiere, of which the orchestra was a co-commissioner. In fact, Redlands happens to be one of the last stops on the 10 Freeway before the desert looms. Ransom Wilson, in his second season as the orchestra's music director, has long been a persuasive champion of new music. The orchestra includes L.A. freelancers who happen to be new music specialists and even composers of meditative music themselves. The 1,100-seat Memorial Chapel on the University of Redlands campus has surprisingly vivid acoustics.

Adams' preface to the score of "Become Desert" is a quote from the late Mexican writer and diplomat Octavio Paz: "Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light." That was perfectly possible in Redlands. The performance was terrific, and although the members of the audience may not have resembled a big-city hipster new music crowd, they knew the desert.

In this chamber version, which is just as still as the big orchestral score, you hear the details, the singing of the hot sand and the tingling mixture of fear and excitement that under any rock might be a scorpion in wait. People listened with riveted attention. No one in her right mind would knit.

Lest he overwhelm "there is no one" with other pieces for many players, Wilson surrounded Adams with chamber works — Christopher Theofanidis' neo-romantic ballet "Artemis" and Jean Francaix's easygoing "Sérénade." The concert ended with the original chamber score of Copland's "Appalachian Spring."

Copland wrote this music for Martha Graham before she had decided on the title of the ballet, and he liked to say how amused he was when people would remark, "Oh, Mr. Copland, I can just hear the Appalachia in your music." This time, Adams' ability to electrify the atmosphere with a sense of place made a lasting impression. Sorry, Mr. Copland, but in this striking performance, I could just hear Appalachia.

That, I think, is the secret of Adams' success. He was born in Mississippi and grew up in New Jersey and elsewhere. He has said that he moved to Alaska because it was the first and only place in his life where he felt he belonged. In writing a vast variety of pieces that reflect the far North, its snow and silence, its miraculous light and miraculous darkness, its isolation and tectonic majesty, its determined pace of life, Adams went, as a composer, from describing that place to becoming that place, then any place.

That even includes Los Angeles and its environs, bringing Adams back full circle to Southern California, where the composer found his voice. His music has become a regular feature of the Ojai Music Festival in recent years. In January, the San Diego Symphony performed Adams' percussion piece, "Inuksuit," with musicians on both sides of the Tijuana border.

Most of Adams' major recordings, moreover, have come out on Cold Blue, a label devoted to the post-Minimalist, immersive L.A. sound (whether the composers happen to be Angelenos or not). On a recent evening devoted to the Cold Blue crew, the Eclipse Quartet gave the L.A. premiere of a movement from Adams' "untouched" at Tuesdays @ Monk Space. The players' fingers never touched the sound fingerboards of their instruments, producing pure harmonic that seemed to set the entire gallery vibrating in some mysteriously shamanistic way.

Cold Blue's latest release is of Adams' hour-long Fourth Quartet, "Everything That Rises," in which this technique is taken to an even more arresting extreme of seemingly supernatural resonances whistling from four string players that sound like a thousand. Although it is not on the brochure for the upcoming Ojai Festival, a late addition will be a free late-night performance of "Everything That Rises" by the JACK Quartet.

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