I'm standing alone on a beach, listening to the Pacific. As each wave rolls in—booming, roaring, growling, hissing—I listen to its voice: the unique contours of its rising and falling, its singular crescendo and diminuendo. I listen for the interval between this wave and the wave before it, and the one that comes after. I listen as the waves advance and retreat, melding and passing through one another, crashing like cymbals on the shore. I listen to the small stones clattering over one another, pulled inexorably back into the unimaginable vastness of water that stretches away toward Asia. I do my best to listen as intently, as deeply as I can. Even so, my mind wanders. A plastic bottle among the rocks reminds me that there are vast islands of garbage drifting far out at sea. A strong gust of wind reminds me of the increasingly capricious weather, and of the storms that lash this and other shores with growing ferocity. The burning sunlight reminds me of melting tundra and expanding deserts, of diminishing polar ice and rising seas all over the Earth. I do my best to refocus my attention, to return only to listening. Yet how can I stand here today and not think of these things?
Looming threats to the biosphere compel me to write music that is more than entertainment.
The Earth is 4,540,000,000 years old. The entire written history of the human species has unfolded in the 11,700 years since the most recent ice age, a brief moment of geologic time known as the Holocene. Throughout our history, we humans have altered the surface of the Earth. But over the past century or so we have become an undeniable geologic force, making deep, troubling changes to the Earth and its living systems. Today a growing number of geologists believe we have left the Holocene and entered a new period—the Anthropocene—in which the dominant geologic force is humanity itself. What does this mean for music? What does it mean for my work as a composer, or for any artist working in any medium today? These looming threats to the biosphere compel me to write music that is more than entertainment, more than a personal narrative or a celebration of the heroic struggle of the individual. But can music be engaged with current events and at the same time detached from them? Can music resonate with the world around us, and yet still create a world of its own?
When I was younger, I was a full-time environmental activist. In the 1970s and ‘80s I worked for the Wilderness Society, the Alaska Coalition, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. The small role that I played in the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (the largest land preservation law in history) and in helping to prevent destructive dams, highways, mining, and oil drilling in Alaska remains among the most satisfying experiences of my life.
But the time came when I realized that I had to choose between a life as an activist and a life as an artist. In that moment, I decided that someone else could take my place in politics, and no one but me could make the music I imagined. So I took a leap of faith, in the belief that music and art can matter every bit as much as activism and politics. And over the years, as climate change and other global environmental threats have accelerated, and as our political systems have become increasingly dysfunctional, I’ve come to believe that, fundamentally, art matters more than politics.
As a composer, I believe that music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture, and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art. More often than not political art fails as politics, and all too often it fails as art. To reach its fullest power, to be most moving and most fully useful to us, art must be itself. If my work doesn’t function powerfully as music, then all the poetic program notes and extra-musical justifications in the world mean nothing. When I’m true to the music, when I let the music be whatever it wants to be, then everything else—including any social or political meaning—will follow.
As global environmental threats have accelerated, and as our political systems have become increasingly dysfunctional, I’ve come to believe that, fundamentally, art matters more than politics.
My desire for greater freedom for discovery—by the listener, the performing musicians, and the composer—has led me into new musical territory. For much of my life, I’ve made music inspired by the outdoors—but it was almost always heard indoors. Several years ago it finally occurred to me that it might be time to compose music intended from the start to be heard outdoors. Making music outdoors invites a different mode of awareness. You might call it “ecological listening.” In the concert hall, we seal ourselves off from the world and concentrate our listening on a handful of carefully produced sounds. Outdoors, rather than focusing our attention inward, we are challenged to expand our awareness to encompass a multiplicity of sounds, to listen outward. We’re invited to receive messages not only from the composer and the performers, but also from the larger world around us.
In outdoor works like Inuksuit and Sila, the musicians are dispersed widely throughout a large, open area. There is no conductor. Every musician is a soloist. No two musicians play exactly the same part. And each musician follows his or her own unique path through the physical and musical landscape of the piece. The same is true for the listener. There is no best seat in the house. You may choose to root yourself in one location and let the music move around you. Or you may wander freely throughout the performance, following your ears, actively shaping your own experience, creating your own “mix” of the music. For me, this relationship between the music and the listener simulates a human society in which we all feel more deeply engaged with the world, and more empowered to help change it.
Making music outdoors has also led me to a new understanding of musical polyphony, as a community of voices, an ecosystem of sounds. In a performance outdoors, it’s sometimes difficult to say exactly where the piece ends and the world takes over. Rather than a single point of interest, every point around the aural horizon is a potential point of interest, a call to listen.
With characteristically radical elegance John Cage defined music as “sounds heard.” The idea that music depends on sound and listening might seem as self-evident as the idea that we human animals are an inseparable part of nature. But both these simple truths challenge us to practice ecological awareness in our individual and our collective lives.
Cage’s definition of harmony was “sounds heard together.” Listening to the multiplicity of sounds all around us all the time, we learn to hear the marvelous harmony they create. Hearing this harmony we come to understand the place of our human voices within it.
Geologists today are engaged in a lively debate about whether the Anthropocene qualifies as a legitimate geological epoch. Regardless of the outcome of that debate, we can no longer deny the reality that human impacts on the Earth are unprecedented in our history. There are some who envision a “good” Anthropocene, in which we humans manage to save ourselves and minimize our impacts on the Earth through new technology. But blind faith in technology is part of what got us into this predicament. And we can’t simply engineer our way out of it. Others contend that the very concept of the Anthropocene leads us to the inevitable conclusion that it’s already too late for us to change anything. Maybe so. But I believe that even if it’s too late to avert disaster, we have both an ethical and a biological imperative to try.
My work is not activism. It is art. As an artist, my primary responsibility must be to my art as art—and yet, it’s impossible for me to regard my life as a composer as separate from my life as a thinking human being and a citizen of the Earth. Our survival as a species depends on a fundamental change of our way of being in the world. If my music can inspire people to listen more deeply to this miraculous world we inhabit, then I will have done what I can as a composer to help us navigate this perilous era of our own creation.
For me, it all begins with listening.
John Luther Adams is a composer whose life and work are deeply rooted in the natural world. He was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic work Become Ocean, and a 2015 Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. His music is recorded on Cantaloupe, Cold Blue, New World, Mode, and New Albion, and his books are published by Wesleyan University Press.