John Luther Adams (Music): “A Composer takes inspiration from the Arctic” (by Alex Ross)

Songs are thoughts which are sung out with the breath when people let themselves be moved by a great force, and ordinary speech no longer suffices.

- Orpingalik, a Netsilik elder

New Yorker – On a recent trip to the Alaskan interior, I didn’t get to see the aurora borealis, but I did, in a way, hear it. At the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the composer John Luther Adams has created a sound-and-light installation called “The Place Where You Go to Listen”—a kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that magical idea, the mechanism of “The Place” translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into an intricate, vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.

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Music Sample:

  • John Luther Adams: “Dark Waves” (A live recording of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, at the Saturday Matinee concert series at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on December 15, 2007).  Visit website to listen, or click below.

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