Listening to Smart People

Steve Volk, February 6, 2017

When the inarticulate blathering radiating out of Washington becomes too much to bear, I think about turning to really smart people as a kind of lime-scale remover for the brain, dental floss for the mind, if you will. Smart people help me reconnect my moorings with reality and build my confidence that we actually can rise to higher levels, think clear thoughts, and do the work of education.

With that in mind, I recently returned to the composer John Luther Adams. I have been mesmerized by his work for some time, and wrote about him in this space a few years ago. To refresh your memories, let’s not confuse John Luther Adam’s with John Coolidge Adams, the composer of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” among other master works, and certainly not with John Quincy Adams, whose greatest hit was the Monroe Doctrine, the prelude to a long suite on U.S. expansionism. The music of John Luther Adams is deeply bound to the natural world; some have called it “sonic geography.” So, stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll soon get to some lessons that this smart person offers to teachers.

As a kid, Adams played drums in a number of rock bands, one of which, Pocket Fuzz, opened for the Beach Boys at a local New Jersey gig. Like many of us of a certain age, he was drawn to Frank Zappa, and it was through Zappa’s music – or, actually, because of a quote (“The present-day composers refuse to die”) in the liner notes of one of Zappa’s LP’s, that Adams stumbled upon Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, a 20th century French avant garde composer. As I wrote in an earlier post, the music of Varèse was not easy going; Adams couldn’t figure out how to make sense of what the composer was doing. “It all sounds…just like a bunch of noise to me,” he lamented. Which wasn’t too far from the mark since Varèse once observed that music was, in essence, “organized noise.”

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

In any case, Adam’s response, as he told Nina Serota, the host of WQXR’s “Q2” Meet the Composer program, was to immerse himself in Varèse’s “noise.” This approach was his typical response to any new and challenging material: “Gimme more.” After throwing himself into Varèse’s work, he began to hear what he hadn’t earlier: “Oh, there’s that repeated note on the oboe; OK that’s a landmark, I can grab on to that. And here’s this place where there’s sort of this tattoo figure with the snare drums…” And gradually, he said, he began to hear the forbidden deserts of Edgar Varèse. And here’s Adam’s first lesson for teachers. We occasionally encounter students who, when faced with seemingly impenetrable problems, will throw themselves at them, banging away without our assistance until they see what they previously couldn’t. But many more students will need our help to find their way in, to find something that they can grab on to. Teaching is about appreciating the difference between these kinds of students: standing back and letting the John Luther Adams among them find their own solutions while helping the others discover their particular ways in.

Making All the Wrong Choices

James Tenney

James Tenney

As Adams’ interest in composition developed, he was invited to study music at Columbia. Which he never did. Before committing to the school, a friend grabbed him “by the scruff of the neck” and told him, “You’re not going to Columbia, you’re going to this new place in California.” So, one fine day, Adams finds himself in the office of James Tenney at the California Institute of the Arts. Tenney, another giant of contemporary music, had studied with Varèse among other composers, but this was his first year on the job at Cal Arts. As Adams tells it, here was this young kid — himself — “knowing nothing, thinking [he] knew everything, walking into” James Tenney’s studio at Cal Arts and immediately launching “into some tirade.” Adams continues:

Jim sat very patiently and listened to this mouthy kid. And then I took a breath, and he looked at me and asked in a wonderfully innocent way, ‘Why are you here?’ And so it began. Jim Tenney had my number from the get go. He realized that nobody was going to teach me anything. That I had to feel that yes, I was reinventing the wheel, rediscovering fire like primitive man, but he had this uncanny knack for asking just the right gently pointed question at just the right moment. I cannot imagine what would have become of me if I had not had that supreme good fortune.

This the second lesson Adams offers to those of us to teach and advise our students. A lot comes down to asking just the right question at the right moment. It’s not a skill easily learned. Tenney seems to have had it from the get-go. Many of us never can develop that deep instinct. But if there’s a key to it, it is in listening carefully, patiently, and without prejudice to the young people who come into our offices, ready to tell us how little we have to offer, serving up something that can sting, or simply feeling lost and perhaps alone…and then responding with just the right question.

Adams talks about how he “made all the wrong career decisions” in his life. He didn’t go to Columbia, didn’t study with the right people, didn’t enter the proper competitions, dropped out of graduate school and everywhere else as well. He ended up in a remote corner of Alaska. “I’m not sure that really I knew what I was doing but, in retrospect, I find that every time I came to a crossroads and had a choice to make, I made the wrong choice…which turned out, of course, to be the right choice.” He was neither courageous nor insightful, he notes. Rather he was running away: from his family, from competitive careerism, from academia, “from all the right things.” But, as he puts it, he was “actually running to something, I just didn’t know what it was until many years later.” Lesson three: Students often feel they need to know with certainty what they will be doing years after they graduate, what they will be when they “grow up.” Certainly, as the pressure builds to turn higher education into nothing more than job-preparation (“college and career ready” has become a constant theme literally from kindergarten on), students (and their parents and state legislators) feel panicked if they can’t answer that question. Without ignoring skills preparation, however, it is up to us to do more than prepare students for a career that they can’t yet imagine. We can provide them with the dispositions, resilience, and reflective insight they will need to run towards a goal that they may not recognize for many years.

Weaving into Dense Fabrics

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

Adams moved to Alaska in 1975, interested in hearing new things still employing acoustic sound. “I lived alone in a cabin down in the black spruce forest,” he later wrote in the New Yorker. There I would roll out of bed in the morning, crawl down the ladder from the sleeping loft, and find myself standing in the middle of my work. I loved it. And I couldn’t imagine living any other way.” He listened, in particular, to the birds, trying simply “to take dictation” from them. “The birds became my teacher, after James Tenney.” The result was songbirdsongs which he composed between 1974-79. (He later wrote of an oriole nest that the writer Barry Lopez gave him and which he placed on a windowsill in his Alaskan cabin: “Woven into the dense fabric of moss and twigs are long strands of cassette tape. In the note that accompanied it, [Lopez] wrote, ‘songbirdsongs, no doubt. But where do they buy the tapes?’”)

Adams sees composition as a process of “sculpting away the whole field of sound” in order to work with “one big shape, or image or color or atmosphere that I had in mind that I can’t quite hear that I want to hear.” I often think of teaching (lesson four) as a process of building up, of gradual accretion through multiple iterations. But perhaps, at its heart, it is also a process of “sculpting away” until we reach the central principles, the key lessons.

This is probably a good point to pause and note that Adams was appointed Associate Professor of Composition at Oberlin’s Conservatory in 1998, where he taught for four years. He was drawn to Oberlin by the “lushness and diversity” of the eastern hardwood forest, the songbirds and, to be sure, the artistic and intellectual community at the College and Conservatory. He was excited to be able to connect his work with the contemporary visual arts displayed in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and taught a course on “Music, Language, and the Sounding Image.” Adams describes himself as having a chronic case of “painter envy”: “I’ve always envied the hands-on relationship that painters and sculptors have with the materials of their art, the way they can get paint and clay on their clothes and under their fingernails.” He often elaborates on the impact of artists, including Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns, on his own work, Stella in particular. Living in Alaska, Adams frequently travels by way of the SeaTac airport at Seattle where he has spent countless hours contemplating Frank Stella’s “York Factory A” which hangs in Concourse A. The work is one of Stella’s “Protractor Series,” loosely based on Persian designs, with “sweeping arcs of brilliant colors weaving in and out of each other” in an impossible fashion. Adams argues that it “doesn’t add up visually,” but that he was eager to do “something similar” on the piano. The result was Among Red Mountains. “If those ensemble and orchestral pieces are multi-dimensional sculptures,” he writes, “then Among Red Mountains is more like a drawing.”

Frank Stella, "York Factory A," SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Frank Stella, “York Factory A,” SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Adam’s music explores the boundaries between nature and culture. “I think of sounds of musical forms as forces, as natural elements in some way. It may sound ridiculously grandiose or laughably naïve,” he continued,

but I’ve always imagined that I might be able to work in a space that’s just outside of culture. Of course, it’s patently absurd. There’s no way that we work outside of culture, and these days so many cultures. And yet, as my friend Barry Lopez, the writer, says landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures. And I believe that everything we do, everything we think, everything we think we create, everything we are derives from the world we inhabit: our language, our music, our minds, everything is shaped by this incredibly complex and wondrous world that we inhabit. So, ultimately this nature/culture dichotomy in a way doesn’t exist. But it’s been a useful conceit for me to feel that I’m after something that is not part of a musical tradition; it’s not specifically cultural, it’s somehow more elemental.

Adam’s music represents a desire to connect with the world that “we still inhabit,” but that we’ve forgotten. His attempt to connect the earth and its sounds directly to his music led him to Jim Altieri, an Oberlin double degree student who graduated in 2000 with majors in geology and TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts). Adams called Altieri out of the blue one day and, as Altieri recalls, says, “So, hey, I’m beginning to write a grant for this piece; not sure yet what it is but I want to take all these geophysical data streams and it’s going to make sound and light with them.” Altieri didn’t hesitate: “I said, great, I’m your man.” The idea was to translate raw geophysical data into music. Currently installed in the Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, the Place Where You Go To Listen takes data from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations across Alaska and feeds them into a computer where they are transformed into a “vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.” (Adam’s book, The Place Where You Go To Listen, is available from Wesleyan University Press.)

The Lessons of John Luther Adams

As I noted earlier, higher education faces a continual challenge to respond to those who argue that education is only, and narrowly, about “preparing students to be maximally productive, economically speaking.” At a moment in which selective liberal arts colleges have been shown to actually widen social inequality by imposing a tremendous debt burden on those less able to pay, the aims of higher education do, indeed, raise serious “problems of morality and justice,” as the subtitle of a recent book (The Aims of Higher Education, Univ. of Chicago, 2015) by Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson put it. But, as well, John Luther Adams’ work provides a compelling argument for the expansive and inclusive role of higher education can play when we take advantage of all that it offers. Adams’ life and work tells us of the critical and timely importance of the advice that we give students, the imperative to be attentive to the different paths to success that they will follow, how to best nurture, encourage, challenge and defend students as they prepare for a bewildering world. From his work at Oberlin, we learn the critical importance of taking advantage of the opportunities for connection that exist in these small but powerful communities, how geology can enrich composition, how art informs biology. From his music, we learn about the beauty of our surroundings, and how we are shaped by the world that enfolds us.

Adams left Alaska a few years ago. What had been the source of much of his creativity began to diminish. The impact of climate change was profound, he began to have problems with his eyes, which made the long Alaskan winters very difficult, good friends had died or moved away, and “the vision we’d shared of an ecological utopia…had faded…Even as so-called reality TV perpetuated the myth of the last frontier, it had become painfully evident that Alaska was a colony of Big Oil.” He and his wife moved to the Sonoran desert in Mexico where “any lingering fears I had about losing my inspiration soon disappeared.” It was there that he composed “Canticles of the Holy Wind,” “Become River” for chamber orchestra, and “Become Ocean” which won the 2014 Pulitzer for music.

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams

Adams tries to “resist composing” for as long as he can. He told Nina Serota in the Q2 interview that “I really want to get at something essential before I start manipulating the notes, pushing things around. I try to hold things in my mind’s ear as long as I can … I find that if I try to hear something that I can’t quite name it focuses my attention in a certain way…” Good advice for us all as we are barraged by the cosmic radiation of tweets, social media, and news feeds. It’s time to focus our attention…in very certain ways.

—-

You can access John Luther Adam’s music on YouTube and a number of other online sites, many of which are linked in the article, besides purchasing it on iTunes, Amazon or elsewhere.

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