Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells the story of Coyote who is so in tune with its surroundings that it dances to everything, from the rustling of the grasses to the rotating wagon wheels. The others think it drunk and crazy but Coyote is aware, awake, listening, feeling, dancing, living to the sounds of life.
Alfonso Cuaron in talking about his latest film, Gravity, said that there is no sound in space other than the sound the astronauts hear inside their suits from the vibration of their movements. His challenge to Steven Price, the composer of the sound track, that while using no percussive instruments he was to immerse the viewer in the environment of the astronauts, in every experience they faced. Here is an example of one scene that is done to great effect. If you have seen this film, this audio track can transport you back into this particular moment (headphones are great here)
The sound design team’s construction of this film is designed to place the viewer in this filmic space. They literally and with some irony (to me) ungrounded the sound so that any object creating a vibration or sound is traveling all around the viewer. Quite an amazing experience!
Back on earth, when listening to and experiencing the work of John Luther Adams, a contemporary composer, you can also find yourself immersed in a landscape (or seascape) that can be overwhelming, delightful, frightening, calming, awe-inducing, peaceful, evoking dread.
He explained in a recent interview,
“If we’re listening deeply, if we’re listening carefully, if we’re listening with our broadest awareness, both noise and silence lead us to the same understanding, which is that the whole world is music.
…everything we human animals do — everything we think, everything we speak, everything we are — derives from the world in which we live, and the deepest, most inexhaustible source for my work is the world in which I live. And yet, I’m not trying to reproduce anything that I hear or experience in the world. I’m more interested in the resonances that a bird song or a peel of thunder or the dance of the aurora borealis or the noise of the traffic on Central Park West might evoke in me. That meeting of my listening, my consciousness, my awareness: that’s the music that’s happening around us all the time.
I can’t separate my music from my life. Music is not what I do; music is how I understand the world. I hope that if I find myself in a singular place: wilderness, urban, indoors, outdoors, real, imaginary—doesn’t matter—if I find myself in a real place, a true place, and I am paying attention, then maybe I hear something that becomes music. If that happens, then I hope the music floats away, takes on a life of its own, and becomes something else to you when you hear it.”
Molly Sheridan, who conducted this interview for New Music Box says,
“Adams has a careful, considered way of speaking which, by all indications, is quite similar to the way he works in the solitude of the small cabin he calls his composition studio in Alaska. In a pre-concert discussion before Inuksuit was performed, Adams noted that it wasn’t a site-specific work, but rather a site-determined piece. Listeners are invited to find the music in the space, wherever that may ultimately be. This takes his work beyond the idea that it is music that is about place and makes it music that is place. As an audience, we are invited to listen with him, hearing the world through his ears and also our own.”
As Adams continues, how he frames his life’s work, as an introverted creative person, certainly resonates with me.
His music is his muse, and he allows the process of discovery to take him where it will.
“My primary relationship with the work is still very much an introspective, lonely, solitary experience. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve always had this kind of bipolar life, but it’s a matter of keeping the internal and the external lives in balance. I can’t get enough of these wonderful performances by these incredible musicians, and it’s nice to occasionally get paid now for doing my work. It’s lovely that some people are taking note and writing about it. But I think as far as the rhythm of my life goes, the balance needs to be very much sort of 80/20, you know, solitary versus extroverted.”
“No one ever told me that I could have a career as a composer. No one ever told me I couldn’t. I just didn’t think in those terms, and I made all the wrong choices every step of the way. I made all the wrong career choices and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I think the music knew where it wanted me to go. By a series of happy accidents, and a few conscious choices and maybe the peculiarities of my own psyche, I kept making all the wrong choices, and that’s turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened for the music and for the composer. If I’d come to New York as a kid and had been that hotshot young composer, I think that would have been a bad thing for me.”
“I retreated into the woods, and I started listening to birds. I listened for six months, learning the strange syllables one by one before I began writing things down. That for me was the beginning of the life’s work that’s continued ever since. That would have been 1974; I was 21.
As I’m teaching at Harvard now, and I’ve been teaching at Northwestern, I’m starting to understand how unconventional a path it’s been. I wasn’t aware of that because it’s just my life. And I still don’t know what I’m doing, and I hope I never do. When I find that I know what I’m doing, I’ll know I’m doing the wrong thing. For me, it’s this continuing process of discovery and exploration and taking on new things, following the curiosity, the fascination, and occasionally the wonder of creative work. I don’t think that’s something you understand while you’re doing it.”
More about his latest work and what the implications of what the music is saying through him, in Part 2.