Contemporary composer John Luther Adams has published Winter Music, a collection of autobiographical essays. Appropriate to our multimedia age, he has also included a CD of three of his compositions with the book.
Adams is one of those composers who take umbrage at the term “Minimalist.” They hate the pigeon-holing that such labelling involves. Nevertheless, it’s somewhat helpful to approach Adams as a minimalist. Like some of his best contemporaries, he constructs his music in primordial blocks that have the deceptive simplicity of Stonehenge.
Adams has long lived in Alaska, and through his pieces we feel the bleak coldness of a northern landscape. We may travel long miles in this landscape without seeing anything beyond the white horizon, or hearing anything but the silence of frost.
While a number of academic composers still hang on to threadbare traditions, the avant-garde has moved beyond the twelve-tone system of Schoenberg. Adams’ music is quite diatonic. He is also open to other influences than those embraced by former modernists. These include the chants of Native Americans and rock music.
Adams started his musical career as a rock drummer. Percussion remains the core of his musical sound. The second piece on CD features only drums. The third piece emphasizes the jangling of bells.
The essays in his book deal with the intersections of his life in Alaska with his music. Adams worked as a tour guide before music could support him. He speaks often of his contact with Native Americans. He is a passionate environmentalist, and has been active in the fight to keep Alaska pristine.
Perhaps the most compelling essay is the one which concludes the book. In this Adams speaks of the artist as a citizen. He recognizes the need for artists to be actively involved in the making of a better world.
He also knows what so many other artists are reluctant to accept: that life is more important than art. It is this recognition, and consequent involvement, that gives art its value.
Adams recognizes this, and his music is all the more original and important for it.