Book review

Fairbanks, Alaska, isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you’re talking about the cutting edge in American contemporary classical music.

But that’s where composer John Luther Adams forged the distinctive sound-world that won him the Pulitzer Prize with his vast orchestral piece, “Become Ocean,” in 2014. The Seattle Symphony’s recording of “Become Ocean” — which the orchestra premiered in 2013 — won our city’s symphony its first Grammy Award in 2015, too, taking it and Adams to the very pinnacle of the classical music world.

A 45-minute evocation of oceanic tumult and calm, “Become Ocean” combines minimalist musical content with maximalist orchestration ingenuity. And it had crossover appeal: Pop star Taylor Swift liked it so much that she donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony.

In his new memoir, “Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska,” Adams draws a vivid picture of just how unusual his route to this success was.

Fleeing his alcoholic parents at an early age (“You divorced the family when you were 14,” his mother later said), he studied music briefly at California Institute of the Arts despite never having graduated from high school. In the summer of 1975, at the age of 22, he landed in Alaska and determined to stay.

His earliest works were composed in a primitive cabin — no running water, no electricity, a makeshift outhouse — on the outskirts of Fairbanks. He was thousands of miles away from the institutions that normally nurture a classical music composer: professional symphonies, schools of music. But Fairbanks wasn’t entirely devoid of musical talent.

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Adams soon connected with Gordon Wright who led the Fairbanks Symphony, described by Adams as “a volunteer orchestra on the edge of nowhere.” The two men eventually struck a deal. If Adams would play timpani for Wright’s orchestra, Wright would perform his works.

“There’s no doubt that I got the better of this deal,” Adams quips. Playing the standard repertoire, he says, shook him out of his “modern-music myopia” and steeped him in the orchestral inventiveness of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and other giants. 

Still, it took him years to discover “how to sustain a single musical texture for an entire large-scale work. I needed time to develop the compositional technique to do this. But I also needed more experience out on the land.”

A hike with a friend on the Arctic coastal plain was one such experience. “As Dennis strode out ahead of me,” he recalls, “I watched his feet rising and falling at a steady pace. But he looked as if he were walking in place, not moving forward at all. Immersed in that expanse with no trees and no prominent landmarks, we lose our sense of scale and distance — floating in undifferentiated space, suspended in time. This was what I was searching for in music.”

“Silences So Deep” doesn’t just focus on Adams’ music. His day job during his first decade or so in Alaska was as a director and lobbyist for the Fairbanks Environmental Center. This took him all over the state, as well as to Washington, D.C. His efforts during his tenure there helped lead to the creation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. But the job took a toll on him.

“During my years as an activist I’d learned how to project a confident public persona. But it exhausted me,” he recalls. “And in time I came to understand that, fundamentally, I’m an introvert. It became clear I had to make the choice between politics and music.” At age 36, he chose music.

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Adams’ portrait of the state and the sense of camaraderie he found there early on (“Despite its outsized geography, the whole of Alaska felt like a single small town”) are at the heart of the book, especially in its portraits of Wright and poet John Haines. His lamentations for the effect of climate change on Alaska, triggering record-high temperatures and unprecedentedly long and intense wildfire seasons, are another key strand of his narrative.

While he comments on some of his music-connected travels in the Lower 48 (“Since when did Seattle become Los Angeles?” he asks his wife on a visit here in the early 2000s), he says nothing at all, bizarrely, about the Seattle Symphony connection that helped bring such widespread acclaim for his work. (In a Seattle Times interview in 2013, he commented: “This is by far the most exciting orchestral opportunity I’ve ever received.”)

Still, the book gives an eloquent account of where his prizewinning composition came from.

“I try to draw my music directly from the earth,” he writes, “as unmediated as possible by culture — my own or anyone else’s.”

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Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska” by John Luther Adams, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 194 pp., $26