John Luther Adams at the Evolution Contemporary Music Series


Tuesday, May 7, 2013, Baltimore, Maryland

“Cranks, Iconoclasts, Rugged Individualists”

If I were to be straightforward, I like music that is in some way iconoclastic: individualistic, perhaps with a hint of the bizarre, or with a sense of commitment to a personal truth. For an iconoclastiphile, the opportunity to hear an all-chamber-music concert of music by composer, writer and activist John Luther Adams––presented as the eighth season closing concert of Judah Adashi’s phenomenal Evolution Contemporary Music Series at An Die Musik in Baltimore––was a feast.

“I write to figure out what the music wants of me.”

JLA (not to be confused with John Adams of Dr. Atomic, nor with the Justice League of America) points to other iconoclasts as early inspirations–Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, and John Cage–that ultimately diverted him from his cover-band days (playing in such groups as the delectably titled “Pocket Fuzz”). Throughout his preconcert conversation with Dr. Adashi, Adams emphasized the importance of questions and questing in his life and music.

Adams dropped out of graduate school to pursue environmental activism, ultimately taking him to Alaska, where he met his wife and lived for many years before becoming something of an itinerant, bardic figure. (He and his wife now travel exclusively, home being wherever Adams’ trademark hat is.) Though he pursued activism and politics for in his early years, Adams ultimately returned to composing music out of a feeling that many could carry on the fight for the environment, but only he could write the music that was his. In his words, “I only compose when the state of not composing is more unbearable than the state of composing.” For many of the Peabody Conservatory composition students in the audience, this likely rang true in the midst of the seemingly endless plunge to the end of the semester.

JLA-tooIn moving to Alaska, Adams pointed out that he was escaping from the consumer culture of two-car-cat-and-a-dog-and-two-point-five-kids urbia and suburbia; but, in escaping, he found that he was seeking, and, ultimately, questioning, “reinventing, rediscovering the world.” “If I know what I’m doing,” he emphasized, “then I’m probably not doing my job.” In the commodity culture that has overrun much of the “Western” world, surety is inevitably prized: surety is necessary for value, exchange, and production. But the act of artistic creation seems to exist in opposition to commodity, particularly such creation that has at seeking and questioning at its core. Rather than embracing a postmodern aesthetic that questions meaning by fragmenting it, Adams seems to follow Rilke’s suggestion in attempting to “live the questions themselves.”

“Political art is ineffectual art and ineffectual politics”

When the audience had the opportunity to ask their own questions, one young composer (full admission: my brother, Benjamin Buchanan, now a Master’s student at Peabody) asked concerning balancing activism (particularly environmental) and artistic creation. Adams’ wholeheartedly positive response was to “keep asking the question,” that this was the essential act for an artist who is in the world, but not of the world, and yet cares for the world. Adams’ caveat, however, was that “political art is ineffectual art and ineffectual politics.” This echoes James Joyce’s breakdown of art into “kinetic” and “static,” where “kinetic” art sought to move people in some public or political fashion, whereas “static” art sought to attain the realm of aesthetic arrest.

While Adams’ music is certainly kinetic, sometimes fiercely so, it is not political (at least, it does not seem to have specific activist policy or propaganda at its heart). Indeed, Adams purports that he has “no interest in expressing [him]self.” Though his music can often be heard to utilize a harmonic palette that could be characterized as “Neo-Romantic,” his pacing of form and structure seems to be more that of a gradual wilderness than an expressive ego.

Part of Adams’ compositional quest is “protecting the music against the bad taste of the composer.” It seems that this abandonment of ego is central to Adams’ process, as “music is worthy of a lifetime’s devotion, because it’s bigger than us.” It is worth it, it seems, to give oneself to the completion–or, more likely, the questioning–of something that is beyond one’s ken. Indeed, his music, so often evocative of emptiness, seems the larger for it, a music of mountainous emptiness and glacial climax.

“My teachers, my native neighbors;

       My family, the wild animals;

             My school, the wilderness.”

Ken Osowski opened the program with a firm and impeccably timed performance of the solo piano work Nunataks (Inuit: “exposed peak”) which gradually unfolded with expanding upward gestures controlled with intent potency. Despite Adams’ own admission that the piece is a “sleeper,” it seemed the perfect opener for the program by establishing a sense of both place and pace. The Farthest Place, for violin (Lauren Rausch), vibraphone (Terry Sweeney), marimba (Ian Rosenbaum), piano (Ta-Wei Tsai), and double bass (Joe Magar), opened with depth and richness, proceeding through five large-scale arcs of lustrous harmonies that belied the slow affirmation of glorious melody, resonating with Adams’ own assertion that he writes a “polyphony of harmonic clouds,” and that “no matter what we do, sooner or later, it all sounds melodic.”

Among Red Mountains was one of the highlights of the concert, featuring Ta-Wei Tsai at the piano. The score, which realizes five different time-streams with sustained intensity, is rhythmically daunting and potentially invites a metronomic approach. Tsai’s performance, however, felt entirely natural, offering the glimpse of an approaching mountainous horizon. Whereas Brahms writes the melody of the mountains in his double concerto, Adams seems to be writing the mountains themselves, with enrapturing harmonic changes between glacial passages and pillars of stony sound. Adams seemed duly impressed by Tsai’s performance, offering a Popeye-like, strong-man arm-flex to call attention to the sustained prowess needed for the forceful work.

Equally vertiginous, yet with a completely different character, violinist Lauren Rausch offered Three High Places, written wholly for open strings and natural harmonics. The first movement flirted with silence, to the degree that the performer’s breathing merged with the gentle rasp of bow and harmonic bell-tones. The second movement proceeded with a moto perpetuo, arpeggiando virtuosity, leading to the last movement’s opening of confidence and surety, before receding into silence once more. Adams seemed pleased, offering a gentlemanly kiss of Rausch’s hand as she exited the stage. The concert ended with Red Arc/Blue Veil, for piano (Tsai), keyboard percussion (Rosenbaum), and electronics. The combined forces created an eventual textural crescendo, an arpeggiated apotheosis that, like Three High Places, submerged again into quiet.

 “Art is a spiritual practice…an act of faith…the belief in the future of humanity”

Though Adams may have eschewed the America that consumes and commodifies, his aesthetic champions the America that embodies the do-it-yourself spirit. His music is pioneering, not in any colonial sense, but insofar as he seems to see and seek wonder in the world about him, and to explore that sense (though not necessarily translate or express it) in tones, in numbers, in words and gestures. His music reminds us of the America that explores knowledge and that continually questions, and reminds us to (occasionally, at least) reject surety for the potential of art that is true to oneself.


Evolution logo designed by ycArt Design. Photo of JLA by Donald; accessed here, 5/9/13.