John Luther Adams

Last updated

John Luther Adams Jla.Baseball.jpg
John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams (born January 23, 1953) is an American composer whose music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014. [1] His orchestral work Become Ocean was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. [2]


Early life

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Adams began playing music as a teenager as a drummer in rock bands. He attended the California Institute of the Arts as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, studying with James Tenney and Leonard Stein, and graduated in 1973. [3] After graduating, Adams began work in environmental protection, and through this work Adams first travelled to Alaska in 1975. Adams moved to Alaska in 1978 and lived there until 2014. He now splits his time between New York and the Sonoran desert in Mexico, [4] though his time in Alaska continues to be a prominent influence in his music. [1] From 1982 to 1989, he performed as timpanist and principal percussionist with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra. [3]


Adams's composition work spans many genres and media. He has composed for television, film, children's theater, voice, acoustic instruments, orchestra, and electronics. From 1998 to 2002, Adams served as Associate Professor of Composition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Influence of nature

Adams has described his music as, "[...] profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place. Through sustained listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography—that region between place and culture...between environment and imagination". [5]

His love of nature, concern for the environment and interest in the resonance of specific places led him to pursue the concept of sonic geography. Early examples of this idea include two works written during Adams's sojourn in rural Georgia: Songbirdsongs (1974–80), a collection of indeterminate miniature pieces for piccolos and percussion based on free translations of bird songs, and Night Peace (1977), a vocal work capturing the nocturnal soundscape of the Okefenokee Swamp through slow-changing and sparse sonic textures. [6]

His work, Sila: The Breath of the World, represents the "air element", following the representation of water in Become Ocean and the "earth element" in Inuksuit, an outdoor percussion piece. [7] His music, he says, is "our awareness of the world in which we live and the world's awareness of us". [8]

His more recent works include, Across the Distance, for a large number of horns, was premiered on the 5th of July, 2015 at the Cambo estate in Fife, Scotland as part of the East Neuk Festival. His recording of Ilimaq ("spirit journeys"), a solo work for percussion, played by art-music percussionist, composer, and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, was released in October 2015. [9] A combination of contemporary classical music, Alaskan field recordings, and found sounds from the natural world, it evokes the travels of a shaman riding the sound of a drum to and from the spirit world. [10]

Awards and honors

In 2014 Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral piece Become Ocean , which Alex Ross of The New Yorker called "the loveliest apocalypse in musical history". [11] It was premiered in 2013 by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony and performed by the same conductor and orchestra at the 2014 Spring For Music music festival at Carnegie Hall. Adams had never been to Carnegie Hall before hearing his work played there to a sold-out house. [12] The surround-sound recording of Become Ocean on Cantaloupe Music debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, stayed there for two straight weeks, and went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. [13] All his works are published by Taiga Press (BMI) and available from Theodore Front Musical Literature n.d..

In October 2015, Adams received the William Schuman Award from Columbia University. The events surrounding the award included a series of concerts of his music at the Miller Theater, including Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, For Lou Harrison, and In the White Silence. [14]

List of works


  1. Dream in White on White The Apollo Quartet and Strings, JoAnn Falletta (cond.)
  2. Night Peace The Atlanta Singers, Cheryl Bray Lower (sop.), Nella Rigel (harp), Michael Cebulski (perc.), Kevin Culver (cond.)
  3. The Far Country of Sleep The Cabrillo Festival Orchestra, JoAnn Falletta (cond.)
  1. The Farthest Place
  2. The Light That Fills the World
  3. The Immeasurable Space of Tones
  1. Dark Waves Stephen Drury, Yukiko Takagi (piano)
  2. Among Red Mountains Stephen Drury (piano)
  3. Qilyuan Scott Deal, Stuart Gerber (bass drum)
  4. red arc/blue veil Stephen Drury (piano), Scott Deal (Vibraphone, Crotales)
  1. Four Thousand Holes
  2. . . . and bells remembered . . .
  1. songbirdsongs Callithumpian Consort, Stephen Drury (cond.)
  2. Strange Birds Passing New England Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble, John Heiss (cond.)


Related Research Articles

Seattle Symphony

The Seattle Symphony is an American orchestra based in Seattle, Washington. Since 1998, the orchestra is resident at Benaroya Hall. The orchestra also serves as the accompanying orchestra for the Seattle Opera. Their rendition of Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9, opus 125: Molto vivace" had appeared as a music sample on Windows XP.

The Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition was first awarded in 1961. This award was not presented from 1967 to 1984.

Julia Wolfe

Julia Wolfe is an American composer and professor of music at New York University. According to The Wall Street Journal, Wolfe's music has "long inhabited a terrain of its own, a place where classical forms are recharged by the repetitive patterns of minimalism and the driving energy of rock". Her work Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for chorus and instruments, was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music. She has also received the Herb Alpert Award (2015) and was named a MacArthur Fellow (2016).

Alfred Whitford (Fred) Lerdahl is the Fritz Reiner Professor Emeritus of Musical Composition at Columbia University, and a composer and music theorist best known for his work on musical grammar and cognition, rhythmic theory, pitch space, and cognitive constraints on compositional systems. He has written many orchestral and chamber works, three of which were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Music: Time after Time in 2001, String Quartet No. 3 in 2010, and Arches in 2011.

Gloria Coates is an American composer who has lived in Munich since 1969. She studied with Alexander Tcherepnin, Otto Luening, and Jack Beeson. Her father Roland E. Kannenberg served as a Progressive in the Wisconsin State Senate from 1935 to 1939, and she sang at his rallies as a child.

Nicolas Oreste Flagello, was an American composer and conductor of classical music. He was one of the last American composers to develop a distinctive mode of expression based wholly on the principles and techniques of European late romanticism.

Stephen Montague American musician (born 1943)

Stephen Rowley Montague is an American composer, pianist and conductor who grew up in Idaho, New Mexico, West Virginia and Florida.

Miguel del Águila is an Uruguayan-born American composer of contemporary classical music.

Frank Corcoran is an Irish composer. His output includes chamber, symphonic, choral and electro-acoustic music, through which he often explores Irish mythology and history.

Nancy Van de Vate is an American-born composer living in Austria.

Dylan Mattingly

Dylan Mattingly is an American composer from Berkeley, California.

James Harley is a Canadian composer, author, and professor of music born in Vernon, British Columbia. His creative output consists of orchestral, chamber, solo, electroacoustic, and vocal music.

Become Ocean is an orchestral composition by American composer John Luther Adams. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra commissioned the work and premiered it at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, on 20 and 22 June 2013. The work won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. In 2019, writers of The Guardian ranked it the 10th greatest work of art music since 2000.

John Buckley is an Irish composer and pedagogue, a co-founder of the Ennis Summer School and member of Aosdána.

Scott Wollschleger is an American composer based in New York City.

Dark Waves is a 2007 musical composition in one movement by the American composer John Luther Adams. It was commissioned by Musica Nova for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, who premiered the composition in 2007. The piece is dedicated to the Alaskan conductor Gordon Wright, who died a few days before the world premiere.

Dani Howard is a British composer originally from Hong Kong, where she attended the South Island School.

Nicole Lizée is a Canadian composer of contemporary music. She was born in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan and received a MMus from McGill University. She lives in Montreal, Quebec. At one time, she was a member of The Besnard Lakes, an indie rock band from Montreal.


  1. 1 2 3 Garland 2007.
  2. Huizenga 2014.
  3. 1 2 Kosman 2001.
  4. Service 2015.
  5. Anon. & n.d.(b).
  6. Feisst 2013.
  7. Patner 2012.
  8. Friedman 2014.
  9. Clements 2015.
  10. Sigler 2012.
  11. Ross 2013, p. 92.
  12. Fonseca-Wollheim 2014.
  13. Davis & Adams 2014.
  14. Oestreich 2015.
  15. NewMusicBox Staff 2014.
  16. Moore 2010.
  17. Ross 2011.
  18. Anon. & n.d.(c).
  19. Anon. & n.d.(a).
  20. Smith 2014.
  21. Molleson 2015.
  22. Adams 2014.
  23. Presto 2015.
  24. Adams 2019.


Further reading