By Dan Joling
Monday, August 7, 2006
FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- When the next big earthquake hits, John Luther Adams jokes, he'll be running into the University of Alaska Museum of the North while everyone else runs out.
He won't be able to resist hearing music the quake generates in the provocative gallery he designed, The Place Where You Go to Listen.
What nature left quiet, Adams has assigned sound. The 53-year-old avant-garde composer gave digital notes to natural phenomena such as earthquakes, the aurora borealis and the moon, then let their movements dictate the composition in a never-ending chamber music performance. He calls it tuning the world.
"It's a self-contained world of sound and light that is directly connected to the real world," Adams says. "My job was to map that world, tune it, set it in motion and trust the forces of nature to provide the moment-to-moment music and atmosphere in the space."
The space is roughly 21 feet by 9 feet. All is white, except for five coated glass panels measuring 10 feet high and 20 feet wide, lighted by colors that change with the position of the sun.
Data feeds from five seismic stations north and south of Fairbanks send readings of earthquake activity to a computer that translates them into sound. Likewise, magnetometers from Kaktovik on the Arctic coast to Gakona in the Alaska Range send in live readings of disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field, which on dark nights are reflected as the aurora borealis.
Sky conditions and the position of the sun and moon add to the concert. Sound pours through 14 speakers in the walls and ceiling.
Under bright skies a few days after summer solstice, the glass panels glowed yellow across the top and a deep blue along the bottom. As might be expected with nearly 22 hours of daylight, the sun sound dominated, high and bright, like fairies gabbing. Rumbling below, tied to feeds from the seismic stations, were dark, foreboding rumblings of what Adams calls "earth drums."
The moon -- a soloist in the composition -- was just a sliver. Likewise, aurora activity was minimal, leaving those two voices out of the sound landscape except to the keenest ear.
The moon showed up a few days later, almost reedy, like a child blowing on an empty Coke bottle. It took the edge off the bright sun sound, like putting on a pair of sunglasses on a radiant day.
To the first-time visitor, it can be just so much noise. But people who linger may detect subtle changes, feeling the sounds pulsate, picking out voices in the choir.
The juxtaposition of sounds is a mix of audacious, unearthly tones that baffles anyone expecting a traditional melody.
Adams is used to causing such sensations. His compositions have been described as mesmerizing, abrasive or unsettling -- and, if nothing else, challenging. His album "The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies," a 70-minute piece for a percussion soloist, includes eight minutes of crashing cymbals and an entire movement written for an air raid siren.
As planning began for a $42 million museum expansion, director Aldona Jonaitis wanted something that appealed to the ear. She credits Adams with the concept. Adams said it was her idea. "She asked me for a quiet, contemplative space within this busy, vibrant museum," he says.
"I thought this was a great opportunity to have a sound experience that communicated the sense of place in Alaska, which is what the whole museum is about," Jonaitis says.
That part was easy for Adams, who has looked for inspiration from the landscape, birds, Yukon River and Native Alaskans.
He likes to say he's not interested in telling stories or painting pictures with music, but evoking the experience of visiting a special place.
"I want music to be a kind of wilderness, and I want to get hopelessly lost in it," he says. "Some of the moments when I've felt most alive, most aware, have been times when I've been out, miles and miles from roads, in the middle of all that expanse."
Just as the wilderness doesn't come with directions, Adams provides minimal explanation.
"I could have used natural sounds," he says. "I could have been much more illustrative and given the sounds much higher profiles and made the thing much more active than it is, but that isn't what I wanted to do. This is about extending our awareness."
Adams lets the elements control the music's pacing. The sound changes on real time. Many visitors walk out with the comment, "It doesn't change." The gallery has no way to let them hear how the room might sound on winter solstice with northern lights shimmering above. If you want to hear that, you have to come back in December.
"This piece requires, and I hope, seduces and invites, the listener to become a participant and to find her own way into this and have her own experience inside this work," Adams says.
Adams didn't so much compose the music as unleash it.
"Every time I walk in that door I'm as surprised as anyone," he says. "I can't predict the actual moment-to-moment atmosphere and texture and coloration of the moment."
The music is tied to natural phenomena, but there's little natural about the digital sound.
Jonaitis said the room will ring true to Alaskans who have experienced the aurora, the midnight sun or a storm sweeping in from the Alaska Range.
"There's nothing like it in the world," she says.