Elbphilharmonie Talk with John Luther Adams

The composer talks about the special features of his piece »Inuksuit«, about why music and nature belong together for him, and why he sometimes feels intimidated by Debussy.

John Luther Adams is an unusual composer. He spent over 40 years living in northern Alaska, whose landscape had a strong influence on his music. Some of his works are explicitly written for performance outside, in the open air. Among these is his »Inuksuit«, which is being played in the Planten un Blomen park as part of the 2022 Hamburg International Music Festival. The piece was inspired by the stone formations of the same name that the Inuit people have been setting up for centuries as signposts in the bleak Arctic landscape. In this podcast, Adams explains how he came to write the piece, and how nature inspires his music.

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The title of Adams's work »Inuksuit« refers to stone formations that the Inuit have been using for hundreds of years to mark particular routes, e.g. to a good place for fishing or hunting. The composer explains that the word »inuksuit« translates into English as »the way people act«. He goes on: »When I started composing »Inuksuit« in my secluded studio in the Alaskan forests, these out-of-the-way stone structures kept coming to mind.« They inspired him to write a piece of music that is completely different from everything else we know: it is written not only for open-air performance, but for a flexible number of percussionists, anywhere between 9 and 99.

Inuksuit © Unbezeichnet

While he was working on the score, the composer imagined all the performers of »Inuksuit« as  individual miniature stone formations. He had the lonely forests in mind and wanted the composition to portray the sweeping expanses of the landscape. But things worked out differently: »All the time I was working on the score, I thought I was writing a piece about solitude. Until the first performance of ›Inuksuit‹: then I realised that I was quite wrong – this is a piece about community!« As the work was written for open-air performance, all the musicians are soloists at the same time – what each of them plays is unique.

And this applies equally to the audience. There are no seats, so the listeners can decide for themselves where they want to stand. The movements of the audience actively shape the music. »You can create your very own ›Inuksuit‹ mix!«, Adams says. This principle runs through all his music: when he is composing, Adams knows no boundaries or rigid patterns. »I follow the music wherever it takes me,« he says. »That's how I compose, and listeners should experience my music in exactly that way.«

On the pulse of our time

But how does he feel about recordings of his piece, where the listener cannot influence the sound? Would he recommend people to listen to the recording of »Inuksuit« on Spotify? John Luther Adams says »Definitely! –  There is no one definitive performance of ›Inuksuit‹! The point is to discover music where it's performed. The music is influenced by its surroundings, which don't need to be the wilds of Alaska: they can also be the place where the audience is at the time.« And for that purpose, a recording is sometimes sufficient.

In the meantime, »Inuksuit« is his most frequently-performed piece. Why is that? »It's a sad fact that we are living in times where violence and inhumanity towards others and towards our own home, Planet Earth, are no rarity. In this work I wanted to create my ideal society, so to speak – society as I would like to see it. The focus is on community and closeness between human beings and the Earth with all the creatures that live here.«

Another factor certainly plays a role here: »Inuksuit« invites its audience to lose itself in the music, taking in the surroundings all the more clearly in the process. In a New York performance, after the roaring climax of the music people suddenly heard urban noises from outside as part of the silence – children playing, birdsong, the sound of traffic on the street. This is music that catches the spirit of our time: it helps people to wind down and feel a stronger connection with nature.

»What is space, and where are sounds located within it? One could compare the central idea of my music with time spent in a forest. In the forest, you find yourself immersed right away in all the sounds of nature, in the rustling of the trees, the play of light on the leaves, the scents of the forest and the feeling of the ground beneath your feet. I want to create this integral experience in my music, enabling the listener to lose himself in space and time, and in the music itself.«

John Luther Adams

Of course, John Luther Adams was not the first composer to come up with the idea of incorporating the surroundings into his music. Ligeti comes to mind, or Debussy's »La Mer«. Does Adams see himself as part of this tradition? Actually, no: he needs total freedom when composing, he needs the feeling that he is breaking new ground. He likes to compare himself with someone from the Stone Age who has just discovered fire. What's more, he admits with a laugh, »Debussy intimidates me! If I started to think about following in his footsteps while I was composing, I wouldn't get a single note down on paper.«

Towards the end of the interview, we ask Adams why he so rarely travels to performances of his works. He says it mainly has to do with the environment. »There are lots of superb performances of my music with great artists, put on at interesting locations. But the pandemic changed a lot for me. Before corona, I travelled around a lot, even though nature was always an important issue for me, not only in a musical context. The pandemic forced me to stay at home, and that in turn made me think about my own actions. Plus, there was a practical side effect: it made me more productive – I need the peace and routine of everyday life to compose. So it actually does me good to stay at home!« He adds that he often wonders what his purpose in society is. He hopes that his music will help the younger generation find new ways to live in harmony with our world and with nature.

Interview: Tom R. Schulz.
Text: Anastasia Päßler
English translation: Clive Williams

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