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Winter Music, Composing the North

by John Luther Adams
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2004
228 pp., illus. b/w, with Audio CD. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 0-8195-6742-6.

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Composer John Luther Adams — not to be confounded with John Coolidge Adams, the composer of ‘Nixon in China’ and ‘Quakers Loops’ — has been working in Alaska since 1974. His love for the northern environment is reflected in his writings and his music as well as in his political activism. His musical career started as a drummer in a rock band. Soon he discovered Zappa, through Zappa Varèse, through Varèse Cage and finally Morton Feldman. So this is where we have to start when we listen to JLA’s music and reading his musings: Feldman in Fairbanks.

Winter Music is a series of short essays and diary notes spanning more than a decade. Adams combines and connects his most private observations and emotions with descriptions of his musical intentions. Sometimes the prose is lyrical; sometimes it borders on the technical, but it is always murmuring on from description to anecdote and from confession to bon mot. Like a true romantic, Adams is fascinated by nature, by the expression of the awe and the range of other emotions he experiences in the barren wastes of the north. Both in his music and in this book, he tends towards a spiritual interpretation of the environment, stopping just short of exaltation — Adams is no environmental hysteric. Switching between the descriptive and the expressive, his music needs to be meaningful, laden with messages for the listener even if his musical vocabulary tends more towards the (post)minimal. Henri Cowell, Conlon Nancarrow and Morton Feldman are never far away.

There is an interesting introduction by Kyle Gann from The Village Voice and a CD with three previously unrecorded pieces: "roar" for tam-tam and processed sounds, "velocitoes crossing in phase-space" for four drummers and "Red Arc/Blue Veil" for mallet percussion, piano and processed sounds.



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