John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams (born January 23, 1953) is an American composer whose music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014.[1] His orchestral work Become Ocean was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.[2]

Early life

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Adams began playing music as a teenager as a drummer in rock bands. He attended the California Institute of the Arts as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, studying with James Tenney and Leonard Stein, and graduated in 1973.[3] After graduating, Adams began work in environmental protection, and through this work Adams first travelled to Alaska in 1975. Adams moved to Alaska in 1978 and lived there until 2014. He now splits his time between New York and the Sonoran desert in Mexico,[4] though his time in Alaska continues to be a prominent influence in his music.[1] From 1982 to 1989, he performed as timpanist and principal percussionist with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra.[3]


Adams's composition work spans many genres and media. He has composed for television, film, children's theater, voice, acoustic instruments, orchestra, and electronics. Early in his career, Adams was influenced by the music and writings of Frank Zappa, whose enthusiasm for Edgard Varèse intrigued Adams. Through his careful listening to Varèse, Adams developed an interest in and was influenced by the music of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, among others.[5] From 1998 to 2002, Adams served as associate professor of composition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Influence of nature

Adams has described his music as, "... profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place. Through sustained listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography—that region between place and culture...between environment and imagination".[6]

His love of nature, concern for the environment and interest in the resonance of specific places led him to pursue the concept of sonic geography. Early examples of this idea include two works written during Adams's sojourn in rural Georgia: Songbirdsongs (1974–80), a collection of indeterminate miniature pieces for piccolos and percussion based on free translations of bird songs, and Night Peace (1977), a vocal work capturing the nocturnal soundscape of the Okefenokee Swamp through slow-changing and sparse sonic textures.[7]

His work, Sila: The Breath of the World, represents the "air element", following the representation of water in Become Ocean and the "earth element" in Inuksuit, an outdoor percussion piece.[8] His music, he says, is "our awareness of the world in which we live and the world's awareness of us".[9]

His more recent works include, Across the Distance, for a large number of horns, was premiered on the 5th of July, 2015 at the Cambo estate in Fife, Scotland as part of the East Neuk Festival. His recording of Ilimaq ("spirit journeys"), a solo work for percussion, played by art-music percussionist, composer, and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, was released in October 2015.[10] A combination of contemporary classical music, Alaskan field recordings, and found sounds from the natural world, it evokes the travels of a shaman riding the sound of a drum to and from the spirit world.[11]

Awards and honors

In 2014 Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral piece Become Ocean, which Alex Ross of The New Yorker called "the loveliest apocalypse in musical history".[12] It was premiered in 2013 by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony and performed by the same conductor and orchestra at the 2014 Spring For Music music festival at Carnegie Hall. Adams had never been to Carnegie Hall before hearing his work played there to a sold-out house.[13] The surround-sound recording of Become Ocean on Cantaloupe Music debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, stayed there for two straight weeks, and went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.[14] All his works are published by Taiga Press (BMI) and available from Theodore Front Musical Literature n.d..

In October 2015, Adams received the William Schuman Award from Columbia University. The events surrounding the award included a series of concerts of his music at the Miller Theater, including Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, For Lou Harrison, and In the White Silence.[15]

List of works

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  1. Dream in White on White The Apollo Quartet and Strings, JoAnn Falletta (cond.)
  2. Night Peace The Atlanta Singers, Cheryl Bray Lower (sop.), Nella Rigel (harp), Michael Cebulski (perc.), Kevin Culver (cond.)
  3. The Far Country of Sleep The Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta (cond.)
  1. The Farthest Place
  2. The Light That Fills the World
  3. The Immeasurable Space of Tones
  1. Dark Waves Stephen Drury, Yukiko Takagi (piano)
  2. Among Red Mountains Stephen Drury (piano)
  3. Qilyuan Scott Deal, Stuart Gerber (bass drum)
  4. red arc/blue veil Stephen Drury (piano), Scott Deal (Vibraphone, Crotales)
  1. Four Thousand Holes
  2. . . . and bells remembered . . .
  1. songbirdsongs Callithumpian Consort, Stephen Drury (cond.)
  2. Strange Birds Passing New England Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble, John Heiss (cond.)




Further reading

  • Adams, John Luther. 2004. Winter Music: Composing the North. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 0-8195-6742-6.
  • Adams, John Luther. 2009. The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. ISBN 978-0-8195-6903-5.
  • Alburger, Mark. 2000. "A to Z: Interviews with John Luther Adams". 21st-Century Music 7, no. 1 (January): 1–12.
  • Cooper, Michael. 2015. "John Luther Adams Wins William Schuman Award" [alternate title: "John Luther Adams Wins a Lifetime Achievement Award"]. The New York Times 2015-01-08
  • Feisst, Sabine. n.d. "Adams, John Luther." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed October 21, 2014. (subscription required)
  • Feisst, Sabine. 2001. "Klanggeographie–Klanggeometrie: Der US-amerikanische Komponist John Luther Adams". MusikTexte: Zeitschrift für Neue Musik, no. 91 (November): 4–13.
  • Gann, Kyle. 1997. American Music in the Twentieth Century. New York: Schirmer Books; London: Prentice Hall International. ISBN 0-02-864655-X.
  • Herzogenrath, Bernd (ed). 2012. The Farthest Place. The Music of John Luther Adams. Northeastern University Press.
  • Morris, Mitchell. 1999. "Ecotopian Sounds, or, The Music of Luther Adams and Strong Environmentalism". In Crosscurrents and Counterpoints: Offerings in Honor of Bengt Hambræus at 70, edited by Per F. Broman [sv], Nora A. Engebretsen, and Bo Alphonce. 129–141. Skrifter från Musikvetenskapliga Avdelningen 51. Göteborg: Göteborgs Universitet. ISBN 91-85974-45-5.
  • Pulitzer 2014. Press release.
  • Ross, Alex. 2008. "Letter from Alaska: Song of the Earth: A Composer Takes Inspiration from the Arctic", The New Yorker 84, no. 13 (May 12, 2008): 76–81.
  • Young, Gayle. 1998. "Sonic Geography of the Arctic: An Interview with John Luther Adams". Musicworks, no. 70 (Spring): 38–43.