The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music

The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music

by John Luther Adams

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<P>Did Alaska create the music of John Luther Adams, or did the music create his Alaska? For the past thirty years, the vastness of Alaska has swept through the distant reaches of the composer's imagination and every corner of his compositions. In this new book Adams proposes an ideal of musical ecology, the philosophical foundation on which his largest, most complex musical work is based. This installation, also called The Place Where You Go to Listen, is a sound and light environment that gives voice to the cycles of sunlight and darkness, the phases of the moon, the seismic rhythms of the earth, and the dance of the aurora borealis. Adams describes this work as "a place for hearing the unheard music of the world around us." The book includes two seminal essays, the composer's journal telling the story of the day-to-day emergence of The Place, as well as musical notations, graphs and illustrations of geophysical phenomena.</P>

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819569899
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 180
File size: 2 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

<P>JOHN LUTHER ADAMS is one of the most distinctive voices in the American musical landscape, and is the author of Winter Music (2004). He lives outside Fairbanks. ALEX ROSS is the music critic for the New Yorker, and author of The Rest Is Noise (2007).</P>

Read an Excerpt


A Composer's Journal Part I — Always Getting Ready

* * *

DECEMBER 21, 2003

It's midwinter, the time of darkness and rebirth. In the deep stillness, I begin again.

The Place Where You Go to Listen is the largest, most complex work I've ever undertaken. It extends my journey of the past three decades toward what I hope will be a rich period of discovery. The Place calls me to explore new media and new ways of working. I sense, too, that it may lead me to a new conception of music. After this my work may never be the same.

As I begin this work, I begin this journal. Here I'll record my thoughts and impressions as the work unfolds. This is not a sketchbook for the work itself. This is a chronicle of my thoughts and impressions, my notes from the journey.


As always, it begins with questions: What exactly is this work? Is this a musical composition? Or is it an architectural space? Will it be unique to this specific geographic location? Or will it be global in conception? Can it somehow be both?

Will the sounds suggest familiar musical instruments? Will they resemble sounds in nature? How loud, how soft will the sounds be? How continuous? Will there ever be silence?

And what about the lighting? What colors will it encompass? How bright, how muted will they be? Will the space ever be completely dark?

The instruments will be electronic, the sounds and colors entirely synthetic. Yet can this Place somehow convey the richness and subtlety of acoustical sound and natural light? Can it sound and feel natural?

JANUARY 4, 2004

As I begin my research for The Place Where You Go to Listen, I'm working hard to finish another large project. For much of this past year I've been composing for Lou Harrison, an hour-long piece for string quartet, two pianos and string orchestra. I was not commissioned to write this new piece. I was compelled to do so, in response to the passing of one of the most important people in my life. Lou was a role model, a wise mentor and a generous friend to me for thirty years. I hope this new work expresses something of the love and gratitude I feel toward Lou, perhaps echoing a little of the exuberance of his life and music.

Stephen Drury and his ensemble will premiere and record for Lou in Boston next fall. In the coming weeks I hope to complete the piece before immersing myself entirely in The Place.


I've been dreaming and thinking about The Place for the past five years. But its scale and complexity are daunting, as I face the intimidating question: How do I begin?

The answer came from my drywall man, Dave. Yesterday Dave came in to begin taping, applying corner bead and mud, sanding and painting the interior of our house. It's a huge project for one man, with countless details. But Dave just walked in, laid out his materials, opened his toolbox and started working.

When I asked him about this, Dave told me that inexperienced rockers sometimes walk around a new job and try to sort everything out in their minds before beginning work. This can be overwhelming, leading to paralysis. In his fifty years of doing masonry, Dave has learned that the best way to learn the details of a particular job is by doing the job. So he just begins.


The omnipresent sonic atmosphere of The Place will be harmonic fields associated with night and day, light and darkness. As I move deeper into this work, I find myself waking up each morning wondering: "How would this light, how would this weather sound?"

My hope is that this new work will deepen the listener's awareness of the world around us. Last night my wise wife, Cindy, observed: "In The Place we should learn more about what's going on outside than we knew when we entered."


As I put the finishing touches on the score, it occurs to me that for Lou Harrison completes a trilogy that I didn't know I was writing. This is my third full-length orchestral work composed in memory of a loved one. I composed Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1991–95) for my father. In the White Silence (1998) was composed for my mother. And now comes for Lou Harrison, in memory of the man who was a musical parent to me.


for Lou encompasses the most saturated textures in my music to date. But in form it's the simplest of the trilogy. Clouds is composed from four different musical textures. White Silence contains three. In for Lou, I've pared it down to two. Rising arpeggios sweep out of sustained harmonic clouds. And the quartet floats long solo lines over slow, procession-like music in the pianos and orchestra. These two textures alternate in nine continuous sections, each of which is grounded in a different five-, six- or seven-tone harmony. The formal structures recur from section to section throughout the piece. But the sound of the music is always changing.


Dirk Lummerzheim has become one of my principal science advisers for The Place. Tonight Dirk and I drive out to the Poker Flat research facility, where we spend the evening touring the facility, watching the aurora and talking about science and art.

I'm delighted not only by Dirk's sheer intellect but by the creativity of his thinking. The parallels between what he does and what I do are intriguing. Central to both our disciplines is the painstaking process of sorting through countless possibilities, trying to articulate the right questions. There's one essential difference, though. In Dirk's work there can be right answers. In my work there are none. Although I may solve compositional "problems" and arrive at solutions that feel right, final answers and ultimate meanings are always beyond my reach.

I'm deeply immersed in the science of The Place and enjoying it thoroughly. But my challenge is to make this more than a mere "science project." The Place is not a demonstration of natural forces. This is a work of art. Ultimately it will succeed or fail on its own terms, as art.


Lou passed away in the spring of 2002. Not long afterward I dreamed I was rehearsing a new piece for chorus and gamelan. When I woke up, I wrote down the musical fragments and images I could remember from the dream. I was convinced this was the memoriam I would compose for Lou.

I played a while in the gamelan during my student days at Cal Arts, and I participated in performances of Lou's gamelan music when he visited Alaska. But that's as far as my experience goes. I've never composed for the medium, and in the months following my dream I came to feel it would be presumptuous for me to compose a gamelan work in memory of the master of American gamelan. So as the new instrumentation emerged, the gamelan dream faded … or did it?

This evening I played through one of the processional sections of for Lou. Suddenly it struck me that the interlocking layers of repeated melodic cells, the longer phrases punctuated by gonglike octaves in the low register of the piano, the stately pacing and solemn tone of the whole thing sounded a lot like Javanese gamelan. Trick on me! Despite my resolve not to invoke Lou's musical world directly, it struck me that I'd been unwittingly seduced by its charms. I laughed out loud. And in my mind I could hear Lou's hearty, joyful laugh.


This is the season of change. Winter is moving toward spring. The weather fluctuates from day to day, sometimes wildly. Yesterday was warm and golden. Today is raw and gray.

The earth is moving more rapidly in its orbit. We're gaining seven minutes of daylight each day. At the other end of the year, as autumn moves toward winter, the rate of change is the same. But the feeling is different. Then the mood is one of rest or resignation, tinged with sadness. Now there's a palpable euphoria in the air. This is the time of new life and the ecstatic sense that comes with the return of "the light that fills the world."


I'm thinking about the scale of The Place, in space and in time. In temporal terms this work is large. It's continuous, it never repeats and it never ends. But the physical space of the work is more intimate. It exists within a relatively small setting. So I'm wondering: How will the sense of time and space in The Place extend beyond the physical dimensions of the room? How can I evoke a sense of vastness in a small space? Can I find what Gaston Bachelard calls "intimate immensity"?


Cindy and I are in New York City. Shortly after we arrived, we attended a concert of my music at an art gallery in SoHo. In the two days since then I've been visiting sound galleries here in Manhattan. I've enjoyed a lot of what I've heard, but without exception all these sound works are loud, continuous and presented in dark rooms. Amid the constant visual and aural overload of New York, retreating into a darkened cave may be the only way to focus on something other than the sensory-saturated environment of the city. (Everywhere you look here people are walking around absorbed in their cell phones, earphones and personal electronic devices.) Yet the deeper we retreat into our electronic caves, the more un-inhabitable our world becomes. I can't help but wonder: What might happen if we turned our attention outward, as well as inward?


Today at Paul Zinman's studio we had the final mastering session for Strange and Sacred Noise. Almost six years after we recorded it in Cincinnati, the piece sounds fresh and stronger than I remembered. It was a special joy for me that Al Otte was there to share this occasion. Our collaboration on Noise was one of the richest experiences of my creative life. It was also the point of departure for my continuing work with noise as a primary source for music. Although the media and the sounds are quite different, the route from Strange and Sacred Noise to The Place Where You Go to Listen is clear and direct.


My dear friend Fred Peters is a diehard opera buff. Yesterday Fred took me to see Die Wal küre at the Metropolitan Opera. I'm less interested in individual opera singers than I am in Major League pitchers. But this was, in Fred's words, "the cast of a lifetime." The singing was so strong it was transparent, and transcendent. In the third act, when Wotan put his favorite child, Brunhilde, to sleep amid the "magic fire music," I was almost moved to tears.

Wagner was a genius. But it's no disparagement of his achievement to say that he also caught the perfect wave. The social, economic and cultural currents of nineteenth-century Europe converged and crested just at the moment that Wagner emerged, giving him access to resources far beyond the wildest dreams of most composers today. Which makes me wonder: What waves may be rising in our time?


I'm in Massachusetts for a brief residency at Williams College. Yesterday my host, the composer Bonnie Miksch, took me to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, where I wanted to hear the permanent sound installations and to visit the large temporary installation by Ann Hamilton with sound by Meredith Monk.

Today I've had several sessions with composition students, coached a rehearsal and given a reading from Winter Music. The culmination of this busy day was a concert this evening, including a performance of Red Arc/Blue Veil.


On my way back to Manhattan, I hop off the train to meet Frank Oteri at the Dia Beacon. This is my first visit to the new museum, which is dedicated to some of my favorite artists: Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman and Gerhard Richter.

As I often do in response to visual art that moves me, I imagine how the art might sound. In the Ryman rooms I hear soft white noise, floating in lush, enveloping veils. Inside the Serra sculptures I hear dark rumbling clusters, like the earth turning in sleep.

The real surprise of the museum is the string sculptures by Fred Sandback. With only a few wispy strands of yarn, this artist I've never before encountered creates magical force fields. The works are hardly there. You can see right through them. You can walk right through them. And yet you tend to walk around them, as if repelled by a powerful magnet of the same polarity as your body. When you finally summon the strength to pass through, there's a vivid sense that you've somehow crossed a threshold into a fractal dimension between dimensions.

Sandback does this with next to nothing. And I love the matter-of-fact way he states his aspiration to "assert a certain place or volume in its full materiality without occupying and obscuring it."

If only I could find a similar energy in musical space and place.


Tomorrow we will fly home. Today Cindy and I take in a baseball game at Shea Stadium. Baseball is such an elegant game, so rich in precision and detail. Whenever I go to the ballpark, I keep a scorecard. Keeping score keeps me in the game. It's a kind of meditation aid that helps me stay focused on the present moment and the unfolding intricacies of the game. At the ballpark as in my life's work, scorekeeping seems to be what I do.

I love pitching. I love defense. I love base running. I love hitting. I love the strategy, the continuing calculations of the probabilities and possibilities of each situation. But my favorite thing about baseball is the simplest thing of all: the arc of the ball. That short interval between the pitcher's mound and home plate is so powerfully charged. And the arc of a high fly ball is a mesmerizing sculpture of time and motion.


I've just returned home to learn that The Place has been moved. It seems there isn't enough funding to construct the space we've been designing. So the project is being moved to a space originally designated for a tiny office and an alcove off the main art gallery. This is one of the busiest locations in the museum, directly above the main entry-way, near the convergence of two major stairways. I'm frustrated and distressed by this change. Rather than compromise the work, I'm seriously considering withdrawing from the project.


As I ponder what to do, it occurs to me that if someone gave me a room somewhere, a workable budget, and asked me to create something special, I'd be delighted. This will be my attitude. I will embrace this as an opportunity. I will find a way to make the new space work.

So I'm back to square one. The Place may now be different from the work I've been imaging. But if I stay open and pay careful attention, the work will be strong.


Maybe The Place shouldn't be dependent on the room. Yet how can it not be? My conception of the work must be broad and strong enough to make any inadequacies of the setting disappear. Yet the specificity of the work must grow from the specificity of the setting.

This piece needs to be created within the space. It needs to embrace the challenges and the possibilities of the space. Construction of the building is already well under way. So my job now is to survey the circumstances and exert whatever influence I can on the completion of the room. I'm told I'll be able to move into the space by next fall. From then until the opening (scheduled for the following year) this will become my studio.

Robert Irwin speaks of working with "anything that references against the specific conditions of the site." As he puts it: "Whether it works is my only criterion."

The new location is noisier. It's situated directly above the busiest corridor in the museum. This suggests that the sound world of The Place should be fuller and more sustained than I've been imagining. Instead of the elliptical space I'd envisioned, the new space is narrow and much smaller. There won't be much room for either the sounds or the listeners to move around. I'll probably cover the large bank of windows on the south side of the room with some translucent material. Even so, the windows will still define a strong sense of front and back to the room.

In response to all this, the work needs to be simpler, more concentrated. My conception may remain orchestral, but the listening experience will be more intimate, more refined, more like chamber music.

MAY 16

Last week we passed that day when the air sounds as it does on no other day of the year. Here at sixty-five degrees north latitude, the leaves come out quickly. Almost overnight we move from the sound of wind on bare branches to the sound of rattling leaves. But on that one day the air has a special softness, the sound of the forest breathing through half-opened leaves. The leaves are now fully unfurled. I relish these days of constant light. And I cherish the feeling of settling into a steady rhythm of work.

It's a great privilege to live as an artist. It's also a responsibility and a discipline. Without the routines of conventional employment, an independent artist must create his or her own structures for life and work. The work is difficult enough. And it's a constant challenge to resist distractions and busyness.


Excerpted from "The Place Where You Go to Listen"
by .
Copyright © 2009 John Luther Adams.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

<P>List of Illustrations<BR>Foreword – Alex Ross<BR>Preface<BR>IN SEARCH OF AN ECOLOGY OF MUSIC<BR>The Breath of the World<BR>Locus ex Machina<BR>Real Time<BR>Working in Place<BR>Two Minds<BR>A COMPOSER'S JOURNAL: PART I – ALWAYS GETTING READY<BR>December 21, 2003, to August 18, 2004<BR>COMPOSER'S JOURNAL: PART II – STUDIO NOTES<BR>September 1, 2004, to May 18, 2005<BR>COMPOSER'S JOURNAL: PART III – IN THE PLACE <BR>May 27, 2005, to March 30, 2006<BR>HEARING WHERE WE ARE<BR>The Romance of the Real<BR>The World is Listening<BR>Resonant Space<BR>Things We Haven't Heard Before<BR>AN ECOSYSTEM OF SOUND AND LIGHT<BR>Mapping the Terrain<BR>The Colors of Noise and Tone<BR>"An Orchestration of Untouched Material"<BR>The Light That Fills the World<BR>The Choirs of Day and Night<BR>The Voices Within<BR>The Voice of the Moon<BR>Aurora Bells<BR>Earth Drums<BR>The Sonic Space<BR>The One Who Listens<BR>Afterword<BR>Acknowledgments<BR>Author Biography<BR>Bibliography and Discography Compiled by Noah Pollaczek<BR>Selected Works<BR>Selected Discography<BR>Selected Writings by John Luther Adams<BR>Selected Interviews and Writings About John Luther Adams</P>

What People are Saying About This

David Abram

"Only John Luther Adams, one of our most audacious and visionary artists, could compose a piece to be played by the sun and the cycling moon, by stresses and quakes in the earth's crust and fluctuations in the planet's magnetosphere! Uncanny, metamorphic, ethereal, telluric--Adams' music compels our participation, often using the most up-to-date technology to draw the human body into a deeper rapport with the elemental forces of nature. This book provides a necessary glimpse into the sensuous alchemy of his creative process."
David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous

From the Publisher

"Only John Luther Adams, one of our most audacious and visionary artists, could compose a piece to be played by the sun and the cycling moon, by stresses and quakes in the earth's crust and fluctuations in the planet's magnetosphere! Uncanny, metamorphic, ethereal, telluric—Adams' music compels our participation, often using the most up-to-date technology to draw the human body into a deeper rapport with the elemental forces of nature. This book provides a necessary glimpse into the sensuous alchemy of his creative process."—David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous

"John Luther Adams is the John Muir of music, reporting back to us from not only the wilderness of the world, but of the soul.""—Kyle Gann, composer, former music critic for the Village Voice

"Only John Luther Adams, one of our most audacious and visionary artists, could compose a piece to be played by the sun and the cycling moon, by stresses and quakes in the earth's crust and fluctuations in the planet's magnetosphere! Uncanny, metamorphic, ethereal, telluric—Adams' music compels our participation, often using the most up-to-date technology to draw the human body into a deeper rapport with the elemental forces of nature. This book provides a necessary glimpse into the sensuous alchemy of his creative process."—David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous

Kyle Gann

“John Luther Adams is the John Muir of music, reporting back to us from not only the wilderness of the world, but of the soul.”

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