Interview: John Luther Adams / by Brian Howe

In the early 2010s I interviewed dozens of world-class performing artists for The Thread, the blog of Duke Performances. Since the blog is no longer online, Duke Performances has kindly given me permission to repost some of the interviews here, which I will do from time to time.

This Friday, Feb. 22, Duke Performances brings Wilco drummer and percussion composer Glenn Kotche to Reynolds Theater to perform Ilimaq, a 50-minute piece for solo drum set and electronics by the irreplaceable American composer John Luther Adams. (The bill also includes performances by Megafaun and Kotche’s duo On Fillmore.) Named “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century” by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, Adams writes brilliant, beautiful, uncanny music that is rich with the influences of natural sights and sounds in his adopted home of Alaska. In our exclusive interview, the composer generously helps us to understand Ilimaq and situate it in his remarkable oeuvre. 

How did you come to write Ilimaq expressly for Glenn Kotche?

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: Several years ago, I received an email from Glenn that said he was coming to town on tour with Wilco, that he had been listening to my music for quite some time, and that he wondered if I’d be interested in meeting. I was intrigued because I began life as a rock drummer myself. Glenn and I went out to dinner before the show and I quickly discovered what a wonderful human being he is, and then at the show, I discovered what a wonderful drummer he is. Sometime later, when he asked me about composing a piece for him and the drum set, I readily said yes.

What made you want to write for him after seeing him play?

The short of it is, Glenn is the drummer that I always imagined I could be! [Laughs] He’s capable of anything. He’s melodic and orchestral; he pays exquisite attention to touch and color, all the nuances of percussion that you don’t normally hear in rock music. Somehow he manages to bring this refined, almost chamber music sensibility to it. In the hands of a drummer like Glenn, the drum set is a one-man percussion orchestra. That was our point of departure for Ilimaq.

Kotche contributed to a new book of critical essays on your music, The Farthest Place. Did he write expressly about Ilimaq?

 No, but Glenn’s essay in the book is really wonderful. I’d recommend checking it out. It’s called “The Thunder That Smokes.” It’s an appreciation of my percussion music from the perspective of a musician who came of age in both worlds. He’s a classically trained percussionist and obviously a prominent rock drummer. I had both of those conventions in my background as well, so there’s a certain affinity that Glenn and I feel for one another, and that’s the perspective he brings to his essay. My percussion music is clearly rigorously composed and comes from the art music world, but it’s informed by my experience as a rock musician too.

I know you’ve written lots for percussion, but have you written other pieces for solo percussion?

Yes, there’s a concert-length work, The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies, which is also for solo percussion and electronic sounds. That was written for one of the other great percussionists in my life, Steven Schick. I hadn’t really thought of it, but I guess in some way these two pieces may be relatives. Mathematics has a different set of percussion instruments for each of the eight pieces, like a mural maybe—a series of monochrome panels of different colors. In Ilimaq, we start with the bass drum for the first 15 minutes of the piece. Then we enter the world of metal, of cymbals and gongs, for the middle third. In the final third, we put the two worlds together, which of course makes a drum set.

And there are some electronic pads or fixed media involved?

Yes, many of my pieces in recent years include electronic tracks and Ilimaq is no exception. As is usually the case, the electronic sounds are derived directly from the acoustic sounds of the instruments.

Clearly, Ilimaq is a very rhythmic piece. To what extent are you also working with pitches, whether through tuned percussion or the electronic sounds?

 In fact you’re right, it is highly rhythmic, and yet I don’t really think of it that way. There’s a lot of fast drumming, but it’s not about beats or riffs or licks or figures or even gestures. As in a lot of my music, I’m trying to get at something more elemental, something that’s less about human expression and more about wonder and discovery and exploration.

But you’re getting at the tone within the noise, and that’s something I’ve been exploring a great deal in my music over the last 20 years. I have a concert-length piece for percussion quartet called Strange and Sacred Noise that celebrates noise in the world as the essence of elemental forces. In the Mathematics piece we were discussing, I set about trying to extract tone from within noise—and when I say noise, I’m not talking about unwanted sound, but periodic sound that has complex vibrations and irregular wave forms, like most of what we hear around us. Most human music begins with tone and I certainly do that, but I’m also interested in working the other way around, beginning with noise and molding it to reveal the tone hidden within.

That certainly happens in Ilimaq. You were asking about the processed tracks—that’s what they’re all about. I’ll take the sound of a cymbal roll and zero in on the most prominent frequencies and voices I hear singing within that broad band of noise, and try to pull them out so we hear them clearly. I call that the “aura.” I’m not sure why. It’s a term I’ve used for years, maybe since Mathematics. These electronic auras distill what I hear as the inner life of these complex sounds. When you extract that and then reinsert the percussionist, you get this rich, complex, evolving sonority that encompasses both noise and tone.

And there are some Alaskan field recordings in the piece?

They’re in again and out again. [Laughs] I’m still tinkering with the piece. Glenn and Jody Elff, our sound designer, have been incredibly patient and flexible. But yes, there are field recordings. Many sounds we hear in Ilimaq were recorded underwater.

I wonder if the process of collecting these sounds is as important to you as how they’re finally used.

It’s funny, this is only the second time I’ve used my field recordings in a finished piece, although I have hundreds of hours of them. I don’t often use that material itself. Maybe it’s partly out of reverence for the sounds themselves and the forces or animals that make them. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to create something that is somehow a parallel world; that, as Stieglitz the photographer would have said, is some kind of equivalent, not the thing itself or an illustration of it.

So it’s not often that I use the recordings, but of course you’re quite right. My experience of listening to the world around me has shaped everything I am as an artist, whether I’m drawing on that explicitly or not. For me, music is a way of being in the world. It’s not what I do, it’s how I understand the world in which I live. It’s all about deepening and expanding our awareness of things that we haven’t heard before, things that are just beyond the reach of our ears. So a lot of times, the experience of making the recording is more important than the recording.

Could you tell us anything about the Inuit concept of Ilimaq?

I don’t want to say too much about it because while they’re my neighbors and friends, it’s not my culture, and also because I don’t want to limit the listener’s imagination. I’m really not all that interested in what I think the music is about or where it comes from or what I hope it does. I’m more interested in what you hear or discover in it that I perhaps didn’t know was there. So I don’t say too much about these things for fear that it becomes a roadmap someone feels they have to follow as they take the journey. But I’ll say this much: It’s an Iñupiat word that translates literally to “spirit journeys.” The journey is that of a shaman to and from the spirit world. The shaman’s vehicle is the drum. The shaman rides the sound of the drum under the ice, into the earth, up to the moon. I was just haunted by that idea.

Ever since Alex Ross wrote about it a few years ago, I’ve wished I could visit your installation in Alaska, The Place Where You Go to Listen. Is it still active, and does it feel at all like a summation of your concerns?

 It is still active, in its seventh year now. Knock on wood that smoke doesn’t start pouring out of the brain closet. It’s a very complex work that I hope will be up and running for a long time. I’ve spent virtually all of my creative life in Alaska and it’s been a touchstone of my work in many different ways, from birdsongs and landscape painting with tones to these explorations of noise and elemental violence, the idea of sonic geography—all this does come together in a certain culmination in The Place Where You Go to Listen, which I now recognize as a point of departure for the next stage of my journey. For years, I made music that you might say was about place. Then I aspired to music that somehow evoked its own sense of place without telling you a story or painting a picture of something else. Pieces like In the White Silence or Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing start to be musical landscapes in and of themselves. I guess it was just a matter of time before I made a piece that was physically a place.

I keep reading that Ilimaq is a “drum kit opera.” Is that just press chatter or is there a meaningful connection to opera?

Not long ago, going through my old journals and papers, I opened up a journal page from the early ‘80s and saw this quote from Brahms: “I fear only two things, marriage and opera.” Of course he never did either one. I’m very happily married for many years now, but I’m still a little bit skittish about opera. I don’t want to say it’s press chatter—but yeah, I don’t think that was my language. [Laughs] Glenn does not sing.