November 15, 2018

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Composer's work came to him in waves

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/2/2015 (1378 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For most people, a wake-up call usually means a clock radio, buzzer or soothing voice announcing it's time to rise and shine.

But for American composer John Luther Adams, it meant a phone call out of the blue with the jaw-dropping news that he had just won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. The artist earned the prestigious award for his symphonic ode to the sea, Become Ocean, which will be performed tonight as part of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival's gala finale, Back to the Beginning.

"I had just drifted off for an afternoon power nap," Adams recalls from his New York City home. "I was leading a composition residency at Michigan Tech University and had forgotten to turn my cellphone off and it rang. So that was my wake-up call."

The 2015 festival marks the first time that the WSO has performed Adams' music; the orchestra played the composer's Night Peace during its Luminous Cry program on Monday. Friday's concert also gives Adams the chance to visit the city for the first time.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/2/2015 (1378 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For most people, a wake-up call usually means a clock radio, buzzer or soothing voice announcing it's time to rise and shine.

But for American composer John Luther Adams, it meant a phone call out of the blue with the jaw-dropping news that he had just won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. The artist earned the prestigious award for his symphonic ode to the sea, Become Ocean, which will be performed tonight as part of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra New Music Festival's gala finale, Back to the Beginning.

New York-born composer John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic work Become Ocean.

DONALD LEE PHOTO

New York-born composer John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his symphonic work Become Ocean.

"I had just drifted off for an afternoon power nap," Adams recalls from his New York City home. "I was leading a composition residency at Michigan Tech University and had forgotten to turn my cellphone off and it rang. So that was my wake-up call."

The 2015 festival marks the first time that the WSO has performed Adams' music; the orchestra played the composer's Night Peace during its Luminous Cry program on Monday. Friday's concert also gives Adams the chance to visit the city for the first time.

The rugged individualist, hailed as "one of the most original thinkers of the new century" by The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, was also shocked because he felt he didn't fit the typical profile of past winners.

"I didn't study with the right people; I didn't go to the right schools. In fact, I made all the wrong choices, professionally speaking. But they turned out to be the right choices because it allowed my natural proclivity — who I am," he says. "As a result, I developed my own profile."

Born in 1953, Adams spent his formative years in the New York suburbs before eventually heading north to Alaska to pursue a full-time occupation as an environmental activist. After spending nearly 40 years in the boreal forest near Fairbanks, Adams, with his wife, Cynthia, returned to the "wilds of Manhattan" last year for a lifestyle change.

He divides his time between the Big Apple and an oceanside home in Mexico. He also maintains his northern log cabin studio that he visits regularly to recharge and create.

"Alaska is home and always will be," he says emphatically.

Coincidentally, his profoundly moving, 42-minute Become Ocean evokes heaving waves and is titled after a poem by John Cage. It was also performed by the Seattle Symphony at Carnegie Hall's 2014 Spring for Music festival, two days prior to the WSO's appearance there last May.

The audience that night included Alexander Mickelthwate, who leads the work's Canadian première.

"Become Ocean made a big splash in the music world," the maestro says. "John Luther Adams' music is so honest; it's worked out to the detail. While his piece is completely architectural in conception, all the listener experiences is this deeply emotional journey where time stops with the work's almost tectonic sense of motion."

Naming maverick American composers James Tenney, Lou Harrison and Frank Zappa as his mentors, Adams has long rooted his music deeply in the natural world. He credits the Pacific Ocean for inspiring the unusually scored work, with the musicians divided into three separate "mini-orchestras."

"It's the feeling of being in the presence of something so much bigger, more powerful, bigger and deeper and older than I am," he says of his watery muse. "I find that at once terrifying and reassuring. It's as close to what I'd call a religious experience for me."

Composers often struggle with the creative process as they strive to hit the right note between expressive art and pragmatic craft. It took Adams less than five months to compose his piece, almost unheard of for a work of epic scale.

"We would sleep every night with the windows open," he explains. "The music of the sea would go deeply into my subconscious mind and I'd get up in the mornings and write what I had heard in my dreams. It felt like I was surfing — riding the waves. Become Ocean wrote me."

An earlier "prototype" in 2007, his much shorter Dark Waves, includes an electronic soundtrack.

"I realized with that particular piece I had stumbled into a sound world that I wanted to explore in a deeper way," he says of the work.

When every day brings dire headlines about global warming and unprecedented climate change, it's easy to imagine Adams is still an activist at heart.

"I'm an artist," he quickly responds when asked if he considers himself more artist or advocate. "I made that conscious decision many years ago, to dedicate myself entirely to my art. But I also believe art matters more than politics, because it embodies creative thought.

"You have to think differently. You have to have new ideas, experience new understanding and reconnect with older ideas that maybe we've lost along the way. I believe art has a unique power to do that. It's also an expression of our highest aspiration and the deeper core of our spirit."

Adams has also composed the chamber work Become River (2013) and is working on his latest, Become Desert, based on what his experiences in Mexico.

"I'm hoping to inspire people to listen more carefully to the world and reconsider how we fit into the larger web of life," Adams says of his environmental theme. "But I also personally have a deep longing to feel a part of all these different places on the Earth.

"I'm trying to compose home."

The concert also includes Mason Bates' The B-Sides and Giya Kancheli's Dixi performed by the Canadian Mennonite University Chorus with the WSO.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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