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Close Look: John Luther Adams, 2013 Letter of Distinction Recipient

Close Look: John Luther Adams, 2013 Letter of Distinction Recipient
December 03, 2012

This week, we’re taking a closer look at John Luther Adams, one of our 2013 Letter of Distinction award recipients. Profoundly innovative, sometimes breathtakingly visceral, and often ravishingly beautiful, John Luther Adams’s music is a modern-day successor to the American maverick tradition that has produced such iconic composers as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Harry Partch, John Cage, and Morton Feldman, as well as his own personal mentors, Lou Harrison and James Tenney. Adams has been a consistent and deeply committed artistic citizen whose creative activities are motivated by his humanitarian concerns and an intense engagement with the environment.


About JLA

Hailed as “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker), John Luther Adams, or JLA as his friends and admirers frequently call him, is a composer whose life and work are deeply rooted in nature. For the past twenty-five years, he has made his home in the boreal forest near Fairbanks, Alaska, and from there he has created a unique musical world grounded in the elemental landscapes and indigenous cultures of the North. His music, which encompasses compositions for orchestra, chamber ensembles, percussion groups, and one-of-a-kind combinations as well as electronic installations, has been heard around the world in live performances as well as in more than a dozen recordings (including discs devoted exclusively to his music on Cantaloupe, Cold Blue, Mode, New Albion, and New World Records). His insightful writings about music have appeared in The Book of Music and Nature (Wesleyan, 2000) and The Best Spiritual Writing (Harper Collins, 2002) and have been collected in Winter Music: Probing The North (Wesleyan, 2004) and The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music (Wesleyan, 2009). The Farthest Place: The Music of John Luther Adams, an anthology including essays by Alex Ross, Kyle Gann, and Glenn Kotche of Wilco, was published in May 2012 (Northeastern). John Luther Adams’s artistic achievements have earned him Northwestern University’s prestigious Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition “for melding the physical and musical worlds into a unique artistic vision that transcends stylistic boundaries”as well as the highly coveted Heinz Award, which was bestowed on him for his contributions to raising environmental awareness.

Although he has taught briefly at Harvard University, the Oberlin Conservatory, Bennington College, and the University of Alaska, and has served as composer in residence with the Anchorage Symphony, Anchorage Opera, Fairbanks Symphony, Arctic Chamber Orchestra, and the Alaska Public Radio Network, John Luther Adams has for the most part remained an outsider to the greater musical community.  Yet he has always been an extraordinarily conscientious musical citizen. At New Music USA, we have a special gratitude for his commitment to the greater new music community when he served as the President of the Board of Directors of the American Music Center from 1999 to 2002, during which time NewMusicBox was launched.


JLA on NewMusicBox

John Luther Adams was an important contributor in the early years of NewMusicBox, writing a monthly essay specifically designed to elicit reader comments; these essays served as the basis for NewMusicBox’s subsequent Chatter posts and the Blogs which continue on the site to this day. He still writes for NewMusicBox from time to time and we are deeply honored whenever he does so. For a real treat from the NewMusicBox archives, check out the conversation between JLA and his mentor Lou Harrison, originally posted in 1999. (You can access everything he has written for NewMusicBox here.)

JLA has also appeared in NewMusicBox as an interviewee, first in 2004, when Molly Sheridan spoke to him following the publication of his book, Winter Music (read a transcript of that talk here), then again in March 2011 when he appeared as NewMusicBox’s Cover (again in conversation with Molly) right after the indoor premiere of Inuksuit, his remarkable composition scored for 9 to 99 percussionists. Watch it below or over on NewMusicBox.


Listen further

You can also listen to excerpts of some of JLA’s music on his own website. May we suggest some of our favorites? Perhaps one of the four chamber pieces collected on the Cold Blue CD red arc/blue veil or, to go along with the 1999 conversation on NewMusicBox, his deeply moving orchestral composition, for Lou Harrison.


Photo by Donald Lee/Banff Centre.

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