Alaska’s Seismic Symphony

A groundbreaking composer turns the Alaskan landscape into an orchestra

Seismic Symphony

image by Patricia Fisher / www.fisherphoto.com

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On a recent trip  to the Alaskan interior, I didn’t get to see the aurora borealis, but I did, in a way, hear it. At the Museum of the North, on the grounds of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, the composer John Luther Adams has created a sound-and-light installation called The Place Where You Go to Listen—a kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The name refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, an Iňupiaq woman went to hear the voices of birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that magical idea, The Place translates raw data into music. Information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations across Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.

The Place occupies a small room on the museum’s second floor. You sit on a bench before five glass panels, which change color according to the time of day and the season. What you notice first is a dense, organlike sonority, which Adams has named the Day Choir. Its notes follow the contour of the natural harmonic series—the rainbow of overtones that emanate from a vibrating string—and have the brightness of music in a major key. In overcast weather, the harmonies are relatively narrow in range; when the sun comes out, they stretch across four octaves. After the sun goes down, a darker, moodier set of chords, the Night Choir, moves to the forefront. The moon is audible as a narrow sliver of noise. Pulsating patterns in the bass, which Adams calls Earth Drums, are activated by small earthquakes. Shimmering sounds in the extreme registers—the Aurora Bells—are tied to fluctuations in the magnetic field that cause the northern lights.

The first day I was there, The Place was subdued. Checking the Alaskan data stations on my laptop, I saw that geomagnetic activity was negligible. Some minor seismic activity in the region had set off the bass frequencies, but it was an opaque ripple of beats. Clouds covered the sky, muting the Day Choir. After a few minutes, there was a noticeable change; the solar harmonies acquired extra radiance, with upper intervals oscillating in an almost melodic fashion. Certain the sun had come out, I went to look out the windows of the lobby. The Alaska Range was glistening on the far side of the Tanana Valley.

When I arrived the next day, just before noon, The Place was jumping. A mild earthquake, measuring 2.99 on the Richter scale, was causing the Earth Drums to pound more loudly and go deeper in register. (If a major earthquake were to hit Fairbanks, The Place, if it survived, would throb to the frequency 24.27 Hz, an abyssal tone that Adams associates with the rotation of the earth.) Even more spectacular were the high sounds showering down from the ceiling. On the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute’s website, aurora activity was rated 5 on a scale from 0 to 9, sufficient to make the Aurora Bells come alive. The Day and Night Choirs follow the equal-tempered tuning used by most Western instruments, but the Bells are filtered through a different harmonic prism, one determined by various series of prime numbers. I had the impression of a carillon ringing miles above the earth.

On the two days I visited The Place, various tourists came and went. Some, armed with cameras and guidebooks, stood against the back wall, looking alarmed, and left quickly. Others were entranced. One young woman assumed a yoga position and meditated; she took The Place to be a specimen of ambient music, the kind of thing you can bliss out to, and she wasn’t entirely mistaken. At the same time, it is a forbiddingly complex creation that contains a probably irresolvable philosophical contradiction. On the one hand, it lacks a will of its own; it is at the mercy of its data streams, the humors of the earth. On the other hand, it is a deeply personal work, whose material reflects Adams’ long-standing preoccupation with multiple systems of tuning, his fascination with slow-motion formal processes, his love of foggy masses of sound in which many events unfold at independent tempos.

The Place, which opened on the 2006 spring equinox, confirms Adams as one of the most original musical thinkers of the century. Talking about his work, Adams admits it can sound strange, that it lacks familiar reference points, that it’s not exactly popular—yet he’ll also say that it’s got something or, at least, “It’s not nothing.”

Above all, Adams strives to create musical counterparts to the geography, ecology, and native culture of his home state, where he has lived since 1978. He does this not merely by giving his compositions evocative titles—his catalog includes Earth and the Great Weather, In the White Silence, Dark Waves—but also by literally anchoring the work in the landscapes that have inspired it.

“My music is going inexorably from being about place to becoming place,” he says.

“I have a vivid memory of flying out of Alaska early one morning. . . . As we crested the central peaks of the Alaska Range, I looked down at Mt. Hayes, and all at once I was overcome by the intense love that I have for this place. . . . Over the next 15 minutes, I found myself furiously sketching, and when I came up for air I realized: There it is.

“I knew that I wanted to hear the unheard, that I wanted to somehow transpose the music that is just beyond the reach of our ears into audible vibrations.”

 

A longer version of this essay first ran in The New Yorker and will appear 
in Alex Ross’ book Listen to This  in fall 2010. We encountered it as the foreword to John Luther Adams’ The Place Where You Go to Listen, from Wesleyan University Press.  www.wesleyan.edu/wespress