Charting Creative Genesis

The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music
John Luther Adams (160pp, Wesleyan University Press)

The Place Where You Go to Listen is a mixture of diary-entries, mini-essays, and graphic representations documenting the composition of John Luther Adams' site-specific music installation of the same name. The subtitle 'In Search of an Ecology of Music' is somewhat misleading in that the book, for the most part, documents a personal search for the means to express particular large-scale natural events as music, rather than seeks to theorise a general methodology for musical ecology (or ecological music). In terms of genre, the book is somewhere between an extended programme note and an exhibition catalogue, which is not surprising given that the installation piece it describes appears to blur the boundaries between musical performance and site-specific performance art. 

As for the composition itself, the harnessing of natural forces to make music is not a new thing (the Aeolian Harp being the obvious example); neither is the use of site-specific spatial manipulation (take Vaughan Williams' positioning of string-groups in Gloucester Cathedral for his
Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis); and nor is technology or chance-mediated semi-random composition (such as Percy Grainger's Free Music). This is without even mentioning John Cage, Stockhausen etc.

So what makes
The Place Where You Go to Listen different? For me it's the sense of an evocation of a particular place of significance to the composer, mediated by technology to restore a sense of interaction with that place that the audience is invited to inhabit - the piece is less a reaction to a place than a synthetic realisation or collaborative re-imagining of it. The composer chooses the sonic representation of various possibilities, but allows the place to realise these possibilities in real time. It's a kind of displaced psychogeography of music if you like - the influence of place is distilled into the psychologically affective and emotive medium of music, then transplanted to the controlled and enclosed space of an art gallery.

In order to create the piece Luther Adams teamed up with scientists and sonic engineers to find ways to translate the meteorological, seismic and ambient events of Alaska into sound. As Luther Adams puts it:

The Place Where You Go to Listen is a virtual world that resonates
     sympathetically with the real world... Streams of data tracing
     natural phenomena... are transformed into sound through a
     process that is sometimes called
sonification. Sonification is not to
     be confused with
audification, which is the direct rendering of
     digital data with inaudible frequencies into the audible range,
     using resampling...  Sonification is the process of mapping data
some other meaning into sound.

If the whole book were written like this it could be heavy going. But Luther Adams is interested in charting the creative genesis of the piece in discursive prose as well as documenting the technical means of realising it. The diary sections dealing with the day to day process of composition, tangential influences and chance discoveries, offer a fascinating glimpse of Luther Adams' creative process, and an insight into his motivations for creating the piece:

     In Inuit tradition the force that maintains everything is
sila, the
     breath of the world. 
Sila is wind and weather, the forces of nature.
     But it's something more. 
Sila is intelligence. It's awareness: our
     own awareness of the world, and the world's awareness of us. If
     we listen carefully to the breath of the world, perhaps our music
     can become filled with this awareness.

Luther Adams' prose style is relaxed and readable when he's not in technical mode, and even when the subject matter is both serious and emotive he is seldom preachy. (Given the potential for sermonising inherent in this kind of subject matter, that the book manages, on the whole, to avoid descending into what Rupert Loydell has elsewhere termed 'hippy dipshit' is pretty impressive in itself). Having said that it is clear that Luther Adams is ecologically aware, as who couldn't be in Alaska (potential Republican presidential candidates aside), and that
The Place Where You Go to Listen offers itself up for potential polemical interpretations insofar as it is charting the changing climate of a threatened environment.

The piece is also ecological in the sense that it is engaging with real-world processes as a compositional technique, using the forces that go into constructing a sense of space and synthesising them creatively without marshalling them or compelling them. Luther Adams' methodology, creating a musical environment in which climatic and seismic processes interact and shape performance, is in itself an act of collaborative ecological creation. The means of creating the piece resonate with the final art-work/composition, and with its potential message - that art, technology and nature can collaborate to achieve a beautiful, sustainable balance. 

The Place Where You Go to Listen is well worth reading even if, like me, you are unlikely ever to get the opportunity to experience the composition it describes. It provides an insight into the working methods of a fascinating composer capable of original, and topical, creative thinking on a large-scale  It's the kind of book that gets you wondering about how such methods might be applied creatively in other fields, and encourages a creative engagement with difficult and pressing issues that often seem near-impossible to tackle, simply because they are on such a large scale. That said, music, being essentially abstract while operating in real time, is perhaps the best-suited of the arts to engage with such imaginatively abstract processes as climate change and ambient space (which is not to argue that the effects of climate change are not concrete - simply that the process itself is difficult to articulate, or chart creatively, without reference to its end results).

The book itself is beautifully produced and laid out. The illustrations, detailing some of the specifics of the piece's composition, illuminate the text and provide points of musical reference that help to create a sense of how the composition itself might sound. The structure of the book is well thought out too - it opens with a preliminary essay that contextualises the composition as ecology, moves on to journal entries charting the creation of the piece, and finishes with illustrated essays on the work, its aesthetic, and the compositional and technological methods used to create it. The only thing missing is the opportunity to experience the piece in the flesh. Anyone fancy flying me out there? Hmmm, that wasn't very ecologically sensitive was it?

      Nathan Thompson 2011