John Luther Adams

Born 1953

John Luther Adams



Award-winning American composer John Luther Adams has found a way to combine the nature of his beloved Alaska with the music he hears. He has been described in The New Yorker as ‘one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century’.Adams grew up in the deep South before moving to the suburbs of New York. After high school, he moved to California to study with James Tenney at the California Institute for the Arts, from which he graduated first in his class in 1973. He eventually moved to Alaska as a young man in search of a home, as he felt out of place in the ‘several different homogenous suburban environments’ in which he grew up. 

He recalls that from the first moment he arrived in Alaska, he knew he was home. He never stopped to consider the consequences of moving to such a remote place and admits he certainly had to give up some fame, but has no regrets as he was able to discover his musical voice and build a life in his new home. In his own words, moving to Alaska ‘has also given me a certain sense of detachment from the fame game, and has allowed my music to develop more naturally, in its own time.’

As a kid, Adams took piano lessons, sang in choir and played trumpet in the school bands and orchestras. He got really interested in music, however, while playing rock ‘n roll with various garage bands. After performing countless songs others had written, the band members got bored and began writing their own music, which gradually became more and more experimental.

They were inspired by the music of Zappa, who on his early records included the quotation by Edgard Varèse, ‘The present-day composer refuses to die!’ They always wondered who this Varèse man was until they stumbled upon one of his albums in a local record shop in about 1967. Fascinated, Adams recalls that together with his bandmates, ‘we quickly wore out the grooves’.

Soon after discovering the music of Varèse, the band became exposed to Cage, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Partch, Oliveros, Reich and Nancarrow, though it was probably the LP Morton Feldman: The Early Years that had the greatest impact, especially the Piece for Four Pianos, during which Adams remembered thinking he’d ‘died and gone to heaven.’ It was at this moment that he decided to become a composer. 

Despite sharing a name with the composer John Adams, John Luther Adams has been able to claim his own identity. At one point, after the success of Nixon in China, John Luther considered his changing his name, but settled instead on using his middle name ‘Luther’. Now that he lives in Alaska, this confusion rarely occurs. In addition, the music of the two men is very, very different. 

In the mid-70s, after moving to Alaska, Adams began working for the Alaska Coalition, for which he lobbied for the Alaska Lands Act—’the most sweeping land preservation law in history’. While working there, Adams met his wife, Cynthia. Together they worked for many years at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center and were married in the Arctic National Refuge.

Alaska’s influence on his music has been tremendous as it reflects the landscapes and its extremes. In his music, this is translated to ‘dense clouds of sustained tones, to explosive fields of percussion sound’. The music represents the sensuality of Alaska, while maintaining strict formality. With his music, Adams hopes ‘to immerse the listener in suspended time and sense of endless space’, he continues, ‘I want music to be a wilderness. And I want to get hopelessly lost in it.’

In addition to the influence of Alaska’s landscapes, Adams is also influenced by European ‘classical tradition’ and the music of American experimentalists such as Ives, Cowell, Cage, Feldman, Nancarrow and Tenney.

Adams has a unique take on the composition experience, which he says is ‘not about finding the notes. It’s about losing them,’ as he claims ‘the most difficult thing is knowing what to write down. Its knowing what not to right down.’

Before beginning a new piece, Adams spends much time walking, sketching, reading, looking at art and just thinking. He also questions the ‘essential nature of the music and what it wants to be’ and then tries ‘to let everything grow directly out of the instruments and the sounds themselves’. He also composed for Lou Harrison (2003) for string quartet, two pianos and strings in memory of Lou Harrison.

Adams is currently working on Become Desert, a work for large orchestra which will be ready in 2017. His other recent works or orchestra or large ensembles include Ten Thousand Birds (2014), Sila: The Breath of the World (2013) and Become Ocean (2013), which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for ‘Best Contemporary Classical Composition’.

He is also currently working on an hour-long string quartet Everything That Rises (2017) along with there is no one, not even the wind (2017) for a mixed chamber ensemble. Other string quartets include Canticles of the Sky (2015), untouched (2015) and Dream of the Canyon Wren (2013), among others.

Some works featuring very unique instrumentation include songbirdsongs (1974-80) for two piccolos and three percussionists, Five Athabascan Dances (1992/96) for harp and percussion and Dark Wind (2001) for bass clarinet, vibraphone, marimba and piano.

For four choirs and vocal soloists, Adams composed the 75-minute Canticles of the Holy Wind (2013). He also composed Canticles of the Sky (2013) for four choirs and a number of songs for voice and piano, including magic song for one who wishes to live and the dead who climb up to the sky (1990).

Adams has composed works for percussion, the most well-known is Inuksuit (2009) for 99 percussionists, lasting 75 minutes!

While Adams has not composed for the theatre since the 1990s, he has more recently began composing for electronic instruments, beginning with Veils and Vesper (2005) and The Place Where You Go to Listen (2004-06) which served as a continuous sound and light environment as the Museum of the North.

Adams has received several other awards including Columbia University’s William Schuman Award ‘to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance’. He also received Northwestern University’s Nemmers Prize ‘for melding the physical and musical worlds into a unique artistic vision that transcends stylistic boundaries’.

In addition to his busy composing schedule, Adams is still an activist, though he no longer does it full-time. His wife still serves on the boards of numerous environmental groups while their son, Sage, went to Oregon to study environmental law.