John Luther Adams: Music Without Walls

John Luther Adams: Music Without Walls
© Pete Woodhead

From the wilderness of national parks to the heart of the inner city, John Luther Adams’ pieces have been performed in locations as diverse as they are surprising. In this essay, he reflects on composing music for the world beyond the concert hall.


“Once there was a little boy. And he went outside.” — Harry Partch


For decades, I’d composed music inspired by the outdoors, but that music was almost always performed indoors. Then I heard my percussion work Strange and Sacred Noise performed in the Anza-Borrego desert of California, and everything changed. In the concert hall that piece sounds big, powerful, overwhelming, even frightening. Outside, a lot of it just blew away in the wind. The experience was at once humbling and provocative. And in that moment, it finally occurred to me that it might be time to step outside, to compose music intended from the start to be heard outdoors.

Making music outdoors invites us to a different mode of awareness. You might call it “ecological listening.” In the concert hall, we seal ourselves off from the world, concentrating our attention on a handful of carefully produced sounds. Outdoors, rather than focusing inward, we’re challenged to expand our awareness to encompass a multiplicity of sounds all around us, to listen outward. We’re invited to receive messages not only from the composer and the performers, but also from the larger world around us. Rather than a single point of interest, every point around the aural horizon is a potential point of interest, a call to listen. In a performance outdoors, it’s sometimes difficult to say exactly where or when the music ends and the world takes over.

In my outdoor works, the musicians are dispersed widely throughout a large area. Each musician follows her or his own unique path through the physical and musical landscape of the piece. The same is true for the listener. There is no best seat in the house. You may choose to root yourself in one location and let the music move around you. Or you may wander freely throughout the performance, following your ears, actively shaping your own experience, creating your own “mix” of the music. For me, this relationship between music and listener simulates a human society in which we all feel more deeply engaged with the world, and more empowered to help change it. Even as human society seems to be rushing headlong toward oblivion, I hold no dreams of escaping via messiahs or spaceships. My deepest longing is to be fully present in the present moment, here on this earth, the only home I will ever know.



Inuksuit (2009), a concert-length work for nine to ninety-nine percussionists, was inspired by the stone sentinels constructed over the centuries by the Inuit in the windswept expanses of the Arctic. Every performance of Inuksuit is unique, in response to the topology, vegetation and acoustics of the site. This is music as a kind of echolocation or GPS, a vehicle for reminding us where we are, and how we fit into the never-ending music of the world around us.

Composing Inuksuit in my cabin studio in Alaska, I imagined each performing musician and each individual listener as a solitary figure in a vast enveloping landscape. I thought I was composing a piece about solitude. It was only when I heard the first performances that I realized: This is a piece about community. Although the experience of each individual listener is unique, out of the experience of listening in shared solitude, an extraordinary sense of community emerges.

Over the years, Inuksuit has taken on a robust life of its own. From the Canadian Rockies to New York City, from Europe to Australia, from Hong Kong to Valparaiso, people around the world have utilized this music to celebrate their own communities, and their own unique places on the planet. One of the most extraordinary realizations of Inuksuit was given by musicians on both sides of border between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego in the United States. Before the performance began, the percussionist and conductor Steven Schick looked through the wire mesh of the wall and said to his fellow musicians on the other side: “Con la música nunca se puede dividirnos.” (“With music you can never divide us.”) For an hour or so, as the music sounded, the looming wall that divides the two countries seemed to disappear.


Sila: The Breath of the World

In Inuit tradition, the spirit that animates all things is sila —the breath of the world. Sila is the wind and the weather, the forces of nature. But it’s also something more. Sila is intelligence. It’s consciousness. It’s our awareness of the world around us, and the world’s awareness of us.

Sila: The Breath of the World (2013) is scored for five 16-part ensembles of woodwinds, brass, percussion, strings and voices. The work may be performed with any or all of these ensembles, arrayed in any combination, successively or simultaneously, in the same space or separate spaces.

The music of Sila comes out of the earth and rises to the sky. The piece traverses sixteen harmonic clouds, grounded on the first sixteen harmonics of a low B-flat. All the other tones in the music fall “between the cracks” of the piano keyboard —off the grid of twelve-tone equal temperament. Like the tuning, the flow of musical time in Sila is also off the grid. There is no conductor. Each musician is a soloist who plays or sings a unique part at her or his own pace, following his or her breath. A performance of Sila lasts approximately one hour. There is no clearly demarcated ending. As the music of the performance gradually dissolves into the larger sonic landscape, the musicians join the audience in listening to the continuing music of the place.


Ten Thousand Birds

My life’s work began with birds. From songbirdsongs (1974-80) to Canticles of the Holy Wind (2013), the songs of birds have engaged my ears and my imagination for more than forty years. Ten Thousand Birds (2014) is scored for a small orchestra, dispersed over the largest available space.

All the sounds in this music are specifically notated. However, the moment-to-moment sequence of events is not fixed. There is no master score. In the tradition of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison’s “performance kits”, this folio of unbound pages is an atlas of musical possibilities for performers to use in creating their own unique realizations of the music.


Across the Distance

Across the Distance (2015), for multiple horns, was first performed in the hills of rural Scotland. Subsequent performances have been given on the banks of the Thames in London, and on the riverfront in Philadelphia. I composed this music expressly for performance by a combination of younger musicians and adults. The duration is about 25 minutes.


In the Name of the Earth (2017)

In the Name of the Earth, for four choirs, is my musical map of North America —a refutation and a counterproposal to the official maps of state highway departments and the corporate worldview of Google— and a celebration of this beautiful continent where the only real borders are watersheds and coastlines.

The title of this work is a conscious reference to Christian liturgy. But in place of the father, the son and the holy ghost, I want to invoke the earth, the waters, and the holy wind. My texts for this musical map are litanies of names — the names of mountain peaks and ranges, rivers and glaciers, forests and plains and deserts — in English and Spanish, and the older indigenous names that reverberate like words spoken by the earth itself. By singing these names, I hope to draw music not only from my own imagination, but also from the older, deeper music of this continent.

John Luther Adams, May 2020

John Luther Adams’ memoir Silences so deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on 22 September.

(June 2020)