Monday 27 July 2015

John Luther Adams - Dream of the Canyon Wren

Until very recently, John Luther Adams (b.1953) spent most of his adult life in Alaska, where he moved to in the 1970s after becoming heavily involved in environmental activism. His activism started out in California, where he participated in the California Condor programme that saved them from extinction, he then travelled up to Alaska to protest against attempts to chew up the vast wilderness, leading to the Alaska Lands Act of 1980.

He belongs to the American tradition of counter-culture heroes in the arts, outsiders who drop out of normal life and forge a way forward that can often take a long time for the rest of the world to catch up with. Sadly, some of those heroes have only been appreciated posthumously; thankfully, John Luther Adams isn't one of them.

Being out in the middle of nowhere and away from mainstream music making, he's been able to write the music that he wanted to, without having to worry about silly trends in contemporary music. And what he does is, in a way, quite old fashioned - he looks out of the window at what's around him and he writes music about it. He calls his music 'sonic geography'.

As a way into the music he wrote in Alaska, have a go at Dark Waves, inspired by the Pacific Ocean of the Bering Sea. It was the first piece I heard by him, and I think it's pretty incredible. It's massive music, slow moving blocks of sound, gradually changing textures that rise and fall with intensity. It's as big and slow as the Alaskan landscape and ocean, the kind of open space and natural rhythms that I suppose we can't really comprehend in Britain, or even most of Europe.

He also writes quite a lot of music about birds. One of his most recent pieces is Dream of the Canyon Wren, released earlier this year on a recording by the brilliant JACK Quartet. John Luther Adams has now left Alaska - for the last couple of years he's been living on the Pacific coast in Mexico. He recently said that he's having a great time getting to know the birds around his new home, like Canyon Wrens.

First up, here's a real one ...

... and here's a dream about one.


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