Books: ‘Silences So Deep’ by John Luther Adams

As the clouds break, a dazzling shining world appears, unearthly and quiet except for the mutter and boom of distant avalanches and the near thudding of fresh snow dropping from the pines.

In the summer of 1975, a 22-year-old John Luther Adams boarded a flight to Alaska for the first time. So began a journey into mountains, forests and tundra of the far north that would last for the next 40 years. Alaska would be Adam’s home and the place he wrote his minimalist music echoing the exquisite soft sounds and vast silence of the land, works with evocative titles like The Wind in High Places, and Dream in White on White.

Adams, who is a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy award, recounts his unusual life as a frontier journeyman and composer in a recent book, Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). It is a riveting read filled with poignant passages; I finished the book in three days.

In it, Adams tells the world what it was like to live in solitude in a remote corner of the world, writing music by day and spending evenings with a raucous crew of poets, philosophers, and fishermen. He details the influences that have shaped his music and his life, the nourishment he received from long-lasting friendships with the conductor Gordon Wright who died in 2007 at the age of 72, and Alaska’s poet laurate, John Haines, who died in 2011 at the age of 87, both of whom had a transformative impact on his life.

Adam writes with a voice both playful and meditative, one that evokes his love for the beauty of the Alaskan landscape and the people who call it home. The book is also about climate change and global warming and the impact it has on Alaska and on his difficult decision to leave the place in 2014 for new topographies and sources of inspiration. Ultimately, it is the story of one man’s singular passion for music inspired by nature in a land that was once pristine but now tainted by the selfish acts of man.

The following is my collage of excerpts from a chapter of Adam’s book in prose-poetry form to echo the sentiments the author felt seeing his cabin for the last time as he leaves the wild, beautiful landscape that was his home for forty years.

Walking Home Again

I’m walking through the spruce forest,
walking home again.
How many times have I traveled this trail
in boots or snowshoes, with a load on my back,
and a sled behind me?
I could’ve walked an entire mile without any light.
But after the long winter nights,
the sun is back.
Everything now is golden,
everything is visible.
Here are the paper birches
and these are the spruces,
both black and white.
And over there are the wild roses
that perfume these woods in spring.
Everything is visible,
but everything has changed.

I arrive at my cabin, now tilting badly.
I stand at a distance, and did not go in,
taking comfort knowing it’s still here,
waiting for me to walk down the trail
and open the door. Who knows whether
it will ever open again and whether
it will not sink into the flaccid earth?
But the silence will always be here,
a silence so deep you can hear the soul sigh.

I take one last look, and turn my back,
passing the dip where the tamaracks
meet the blueberry shrubs.
I cup my hands around my mouth
and call to the great horned owl,
the way we always did.
The owl did not call back.
I lower my head and continue walking.
And suddenly, an explosion of wings!
A great horned owl swoops up in front of me,
veered off and took to the sky.
I fall on my knees, voicing my gratitude
for all that we shared: the place,
the friendship, the music.
I continued walking home
from home.

Listen: ‘Beyond Ocean’ by John Luther Adams (42 minutes)

Beyond Ocean won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2014, the year Adams left Alaska. It is a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels. About his work, Adams writes: “As a composer it’s my belief that music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding. By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.”

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