What Alaska Sounds Like

Winter Music, a book of the essays of John Luther Adams, has just appeared from Wesleyan University Press, with a foreword by yours truly. The title is from John Cage’s music, the publisher the same as Cage’s seminal tome Silence. Adams is the most geographically-identified of recent composers, the composer who writes from Alaska about Alaska, filling his scores with vast, white, sometimes featureless but luminous surfaces. A little reminiscent of Morton Feldman but less nettly, John writes like an artist, not analytically or even literally, but in evocative epigrams that give insight into his wonderful music:

We hear sounds in measurable space. And in physical terms, sound is audible time. But we perceive sounds as something qualitatively different, less like objects and more like forces. This dynamic quality of sound creates its own kind of space and place….

In visual space there’s a phenomenon called ganzfeld. Immersed in pure color, the viewer loses all sense of distance and direction. I long for a similar experience in music. I want to find that timeless place where we listen without memory or expectation, lost in the immeasurable space of tones.

He also writes as a concerned citizen of the world (and environmental activist by former profession) who can see things going on that we lower-48-ers can’t, and even here he writes with no journalist’s argument, but an artist’s eye:

Some say the world will end by fire. Others say by ice. Here in Alaska, the land of snow and ice, we’re beginning to feel the fire.

In the summer of 2000 the Iñupiaq community of Barrow – the farthest-north settlement on the mainland of North America – had its first thunderstorm in history. Tuna were sighted in the Arctic Ocean. No one had ever seen them this far north before.

The following winter Lake Illiamna on the Alaskan Peninsula didn’t freeze over. No one, not even the oldest Native elders, could remember this happening. In Fairbanks for the first time in memory the temperature never dropped to 40 below. Months of unseasonably warm temperatures, scant snowfall, and constantly changing winds were followed by an early spring. This was not the exhilarating explosion, the sudden violence of the sub-Arctic spring. It was the slow attrition of dripping eaves and rotting snow.

Once again this year, winter never really arrived. South central Alaska experienced a violent storm with the highest winds ever registered there. The Iditarod dogsled race had to be moved hundreds of miles north because there was not enough snow. Here in Fairbanks the mean temperature from September through February was the warmest on record. In November and again in February, we had freezing rain. As the small community of Salcha, the ice on the Tanana River broke free of the banks and jammed up, flooding nearby homes and roads. This is something that happens in April or May, not in the middle of winter.

What this all refers to, of course, is that global warming, of which we receive only vague intimations in lower latitudes (like multiple hurricanes?) is a fact of daily life nearer the poles. John’s article was completed a year ago and the news it brought depressed me then; more recently I’ve read similar descriptions in Salon and National Geographic. At a reading last night John said if he wrote the article over this year, the picture would be even darker. On the bright side, as temporary consolation while we prepare to bid farewell to our habitat planet, the book comes with a CD of three previously unreleased John Luther Adams works: Roar from The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies, Velocities Crossing in Phase-Space from Strange and Sacred Noise, and Red Arc/Blue Veil. This last will be up on Postclassic Radio very shortly.