Renowned Alaskan composer visits NU to teach musicians, promote sustainability

Sammy Caiola

The Bienen School of Music and Weinberg’s Program in Environmental Policy and Culture teamed up for the first time last week to coordinate the visit of John Luther Adams, a renowned composer who is also a global warming activist in his home state, Alaska.

Adams is the recipient of the 2011 Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, a $100,000 prize awarded to one composer from anywhere in the world who has made a significant impact in the field of composition.

When Adams first received the accolade last April, he spent a four-week residency at Bienen during which he spoke in classes, gave student lessons and conducted student performances of his pieces. He returned last week to share some words of wisdom, but said he was happy to be able to talk about something other than “the nuts and bolts of the music.”

In the Wildcat Room in Norris University Center on Tuesday, about 40 people gathered to hear Adams discuss the intersection of art and activism. After opening with a clip of his composition “In the White Silence,” Adams discussed how the Alaskan environment has influenced his music.

“Over the years, my work has been profoundly rooted in place, in the landscapes of the north,” Adams said. “Originally it was a landscape painting in music, and then it transpired into a sonic geography, a place where nature and culture intersect.”

Adams first ventured to Alaska in 1975 and immediately joined young environmentalists who were trying to make Alaska an “ecotopia.” He joined the Alaska Coalition, a group set on protecting large areas of the Alaskan wilderness from exploitation.

Though he left activism in order to further pursue music, Adams stayed up north to compose and is still highly concerned with the environmental issues facing the tundra. In a reading of his 2003 essay “Global Warming and Art” he described the dramatic climate changes he observed in Alaska.

“The promise of the Arctic is no longer the promise of the pristine,” Adams said. “Now it’s the promise that we must find a new way of living on the earth.”

Ellen Schantz, Bienen’s director of external affairs, contacted Prof. Yael Wolinski when she first learned of Adams’ other passion. Wolinski encouraged environmental policy students to attend Tuesday’s events.

After the lecture, Wolinski used Adams’ ideas as a basis for discussion in her seminar about the social, cultural and political aspects of climate change.

“We talked about how art can affect our thinking about environmental protection,” Wolinski said. “It was a great opportunity for us to have John Luther Adams discuss his perspective on these issues.”

Adams’ visit will culminate this Saturday with the International Contemporary Ensemble’s performance of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Because the piece requires more string players than the ICE could provide, Bienen officials were asked to choose ten students to perform in Saturday’s shows.

Schantz said the collaboration with Weinberg, as well as Adams’ visit, will be beneficial to the music community as a whole.

“Being a music school, we make music,” Schantz said. “To be able to collaborate with other areas of the University is not the easiest thing to do. John is a fabulous composer. I saw it as an opportunity to reach out.”

Students also had the opportunity to attend a screening of “Strange and Sacred Noise,” a documentary by Leonard Kamerling about Adams’ work, followed by a question and answer session.

“I think it’s interesting to see how he’s using art to address climate change,” said John Rodier, a Communication senior. “It brings a new perspective to it and makes it more real than numbers and charts.”

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