John Luther Adams is a composer whose life and work are deeply rooted in the natural world. On Monday’s Access Utah, Adams joins Tom Williams to talk about political art versus art, listeners’ interpretations of his works, and composing music for outdoor performance, among other topics. We’ll also hear some of John Luther Adams’ music.
Adams was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic work Become Ocean, and a 2015 Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Classical Composition.” Inuksuit, his outdoor work for up to 99 percussionists, is regularly performed all over the world. Columbia University has honored Adams with the 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.” The New Yorker’s Alex Ross has called him "one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century." A recipient of the Heinz Award for his contributions to raising environmental awareness, John Luther Adams has also been honored with the Nemmers Prize from Northwestern University “for melding the physical and musical worlds into a unique artistic vision that transcends stylistic boundaries.”
Born in 1953, Adams grew up in the South and in the suburbs of New York City. He lived for many years in Alaska and now splits his time between New York City and the Mexican Pacific coast. He studied composition with James Tenney at the California Institute of the Arts, where he was in the first graduating class (in 1973). In the mid-1970s he became active in the campaign for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and subsequently served as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Adams says he’s proud of the achievements in protecting the environment that he was a part of, but that at a certain point in his life he felt he needed to choose between being a full-time environmental activist and being a composer. He chose music.
Adams has taught at Harvard University, the Oberlin Conservatory, Bennington College, and the University of Alaska. He has also served as composer in residence with the Anchorage Symphony, Anchorage Opera, Fairbanks Symphony, Arctic Chamber Orchestra, and the Alaska Public Radio Network. The music of John Luther Adams is recorded on Cantaloupe, Cold Blue, New World, Mode, and New Albion, and his books, which include “Winter Music: Composing the North” and “The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music,” are published by Wesleyan University Press.
This episode of Access Utah is made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires Initiative for a collaboration between Utah Public Radio, Utah Humanities, the Salt Lake Tribune, and KCPW. Campfires is a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board and the Federation of State Humanities Council in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the Prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer Prize-winning work. The Campfires Initiative is supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, and Columbia University.