Between Solitude and Politics
Early on the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. Two years later, on the anniversary of the assassination, my girlfriend and I climbed over the locked iron gate of our all-white boarding school on the north side of Atlanta and hitchhiked downtown to join the candlelight vigil at Ebenezer Baptist Church. She was a regular volunteer there in Dr. King’s parish, and we were both frequent participants in civil rights and antiwar demonstrations around the city.
Dr. King was one of our great heroes. I knew that he had drawn inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent resistance. I also knew that Gandhi had been inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” which I’d first encountered in my ninth-grade literature class in New Jersey. I revisited that essay now with a deeper sense of purpose. And then I turned to Walden.
Thoreau’s retreat to Walden, together with his outspoken opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War, made it seem perfectly natural to me that an artist could work in solitude yet also be deeply engaged with the great social issues of his time. I still believe this, and throughout my life I’ve steered an uneasy course between the Scylla of solitude and the Charybdis of politics, between my desire to help change the world and my impulse to escape it. The vessel in which I navigate these turbulent waters is music.
Eventually, as the United States finally withdrew from the war in Vietnam, the passion that I’d felt marching in the streets of Atlanta would lead me to Alaska. I went north with big dreams—to be part of the campaign to save the last great wilderness in North America, and perhaps to help create a model for a new society. In Alaska, I also imagined that I could leave the world of contemporary culture behind, to search for a new kind of music drawn directly from the earth.
I grew up all over the eastern seaboard. My father had studied law and passed the bar exam, but he spent his professional life climbing the corporate ladder with the phone company (back in the days when there was only one phone company). For my younger brother and me, it was a bit like growing up in a military family. We moved around a lot.
I was born in Mississippi, but by the time I was three we were living in Atlanta. My first year of school found us in Columbia, South Carolina, where we rode out the Cuban Missile Crisis (with drills at school crouching under our desks), the Kennedy assassination, and the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. When I was in fourth grade, my dad was transferred to lower Manhattan, and the family moved into a small Tudor house in Short Hills, New Jersey. This was home for longer than any other place in my childhood.
In New Jersey I began to come of age. My friends and I lived in our own world, carving out identities in increasingly open rebellion against the values of our parents. (Years later, my mother said to me: “You divorced the family when you were fourteen.”) We played in garage bands and listened to all kinds of edgy music. We read poetry and artsy literature. We experimented with drugs. And our aspirations turned us toward New York City, which beckoned like a shining mountain range on the horizon of our circumscribed suburban world.
We were regulars at the local record shop. Most afternoons we’d go there after school. LPs cost $1.79 apiece. We bought lots of them. The proprietor of the shop, Floyd, became our musical mentor. A real live old-school beatnik who sported a classic goatee and the occasional beret (as I recall, he was also openly gay), Floyd had musical knowledge and tastes that were up to the minute and wide-ranging. In his shop we discovered Freak Out!, the first album by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
In the fine print on the jackets of those early Zappa albums, this defiant quote always appeared: “The present-day composer refuses to die!—Edgard Varèse.”
We would scratch our heads and ask ourselves: “Just who is this Vah-REEZ-ee guy?”
Then we found the answer. Flipping through the bins in a Greenwich Village record shop, one of my pals came across an album with a photograph of a mad scientist on the cover. The man had long bushy brows rising above intense dark eyes, and a shock of thick wavy hair erupting from his forehead. The title on the disc was The Music of Edgard Varèse—Volume Two.
We soon tracked down Volume One as well. And we immersed ourselves in the fierce sonic geometries of Intégrales, Ionisation, and Poème Électronique. We devoured this music the same way we’d devour a new album by the Beatles. As soon as it would finish playing, we’d flip the record over and play it again. At first the sound was incomprehensible. There seemed to be no rhythm, no melody, no harmony, and no apparent logic to the way one sound followed another. I remember thinking: “There’s nothing to grab on to here. I’ll never be able to know where I am in this stuff!”
But after listening innumerable times we began to hear a few landmarks, certain distinctive constellations standing out amid the chaotic firmament: a single insistent tone from an oboe reiterated like Morse code, an irregular tattoo from a snare drum accented by unison outbursts from the other percussion, a jagged peak of brass and woodwinds piling up to a howling crescendo. We were learning how to listen and how to hear in the forbidding deserts of Varèse. From Varèse to Stravinsky, it didn’t take us long to discover John Coltrane and John Cage, and a whole new world that twisted our ears and expanded our notions of just what music could be.
* * *
From the nearby station it was a short ride on the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad (with a transfer in Hoboken to the IRT “tube” train) to the wonders and temptations of Manhattan. (This was the same commute my father made every day to his office at the downtown headquarters of AT&T.) Whenever we could sneak away, my pals Richard Einhorn and Dennis Keeley and I made forbidden forays into the city. We were all rock drummers, so we’d occasionally go up to Forty-second Street to check out the instruments and buy drumheads, sticks, and hardware at Sam Ash or Manny’s Music. Sometimes we’d go to hear the legendary street musician Moondog, who was usually in the neighborhood of Sixth Avenue and Fifty-third Street. But more often we’d make a beeline for the West Village.
We found out where Varèse had lived, in a narrow town house on Sullivan Street. We’d get off the subway at Christopher Street and walk directly to our hero’s door. By this time, he was no longer alive. Still, we’d stand there, basking in his aura, waiting perhaps for the Sage of Sullivan Street to appear before us. To this day whenever I find myself in the West Village, I walk to 188 Sullivan. Next to the doorbell is a small engraved plate that reads: “Edgard Varèse lived here. 1925–1965.” Standing at that door never fails to stir at least an echo of the awe that I felt as a kid.
The Village had been a mecca for the Beat Generation. And now it was a hothouse for the nascent hippies. The folk scene was thriving in clubs like the Bottom Line. The greats of jazz were playing at the Village Vanguard. The Mothers and the Fugs would occasionally appear at various joints in the neighborhood. Now and then my underage buddies and I managed to finagle our way into places we had no business being. But mostly we just walked around, our mouths agape, among the ragged longhairs, exotic/erotic-looking women, flamboyant cross-dressers, street-corner preachers, and socialist orators. Just passing through Washington Square was titillating, exhilarating, and a little bit intimidating. My pals and I always picked up The Village Voice or, better yet, The East Village Other. It made us feel like we really belonged there. We bought records. We bought drugs on street corners. We got our money taken by con men. Yet somehow we never got ourselves into serious trouble.
And then one evening in 1968 my dad came home and announced that the company had transferred him to Macon, Georgia. I felt as though the world as I knew it was coming to an end.
Both my parents were alcoholics. In Georgia, their drinking escalated. So did my rebellion. And as my parents’ marriage began to come apart, I got booted out of two prep schools—first in Macon, then in Atlanta: the one where my girlfriend and I scaled the wall to join that candlelight vigil in memory of Dr. King. I never graduated from high school but somehow, at eighteen, I found myself in the music school at the newly established California Institute of the Arts.
As I started at CalArts, my girlfriend, Margrit, entered UCLA as an engineering student. We’d found ourselves an apartment on West Palm Avenue in West Hollywood, just a block downhill from the Sunset Strip. Our parents pretended not to know we were living together in the fleshpots of decadence. We pretended to be adults.
Each day I made the commute, by L.A. city bus and Greyhound, from Hollywood up to CalArts, fifty miles north. The Sylmar earthquake of 1971 had killed sixty-five people in the San Fernando Valley, and laid waste to a dam, two hospitals, and two freeway interchanges, which still lay as huge piles of rubble along my daily route. At the Greyhound station I’d listen for the announcement of my bus, sung out by a stentorian baritone, like something right out of a piece by Harry Partch: “San Fernando, Newhall, Saugus, Palmdale, Lancaster, Mojave, Inyokern, Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine, Bishop…”
I loved the poetry of those names and the places they conjured in my imagination—sere, empty desert places; clean, high mountain places that I longed to see, places in the much larger world out there beyond the teeming Los Angeles basin. I dreamed of staying on the bus past my stop and disappearing into those open spaces. But that would have to wait. Right now, for the first time ever, all I did was music.
* * *
Before CalArts I’d unconsciously subscribed to the notion that to be truly new and interesting music had to be complicated. Now here I was surrounded by music that was formally simple yet sonically rich and bracingly new. In my teacher James Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, for instance, a single protracted swell on a tam-tam revealed a rainbow of sonic colors. The music of the faculty members Harold Budd and Charlemagne Palestine, as well as that of my classmates Peter Garland and Michael Byron, was similarly exciting. The fact that this music was both intelligent and immediately alluring helped me understand what until then had been more of a concept than a real conviction: Music is all about sound.
I entered a piece in a contest sponsored by the San Jose chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Several months later I received a letter informing me that I’d won second prize. I was thrilled. There was a cash award of $250, and the piece would be performed and recorded. Most exciting, the primary judge had been none other than Lou Harrison, who by this time had become one of my musical heroes. I wasn’t wild about my organ piece, but the fact that Lou Harrison had apparently liked it was a tremendous encouragement to me. Emboldened, I made the pilgrimage to San Jose, where Lou was teaching at the time. I was delighted to find the man himself every bit as scintillating and engaging as his music. His matter-of-fact embrace of my aspirations removed any shred of doubt that I would make a life as a composer.
* * *
If the pinewoods of Georgia had felt like a cultural desert to me, the arid landscapes of Southern California felt like a lush forest. I’d never been exposed to so much music and so many musicians in one place. But I was there for just two years. My father had never bought the idea that his rock drummer son could make a life as a composer. He’d always hoped I’d become a lawyer. So, facing a contentious divorce and a large settlement, my dad decided he no longer wanted to subsidize me at one of the most expensive and “experimental” schools in the country. I didn’t argue. It wouldn’t have done me any good. Besides, I was ready to escape the buzzing sprawl of Los Angeles. I applied for accelerated graduation, and in the spring of 1973, at the age of twenty, I was among the first class of students to graduate from CalArts. Then I got out of L.A. as quickly as I could.
While I was there, the California condor was teetering on the verge of extinction (as a result of habitat loss and DDT contamination). Some years later a captive breeding program would manage to restore a small population of the great birds, which now seem to be holding their own. But at that time the last few individuals in the wild lived in Los Padres National Forest, not far from CalArts. I became obsessed with the condors. Although I never saw one, they came to represent to me the fate of the original place that was so rapidly disappearing beneath the rapacious expansion of Los Angeles.
* * *
The whole time I was there, I had a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. I blamed this on L.A. Eventually, though, I would come to understand that the hollowness wasn’t really in the place. It was in me.
Soon enough, I found myself back in Georgia, living with my girlfriend in an old farmhouse in the countryside south of Atlanta. A few hours a week I worked at the public library in the nearby town of Stockbridge. (I was the librarian. If I wasn’t there, the library wasn’t open.) But I spent most of my days working as a farmhand for our landlord, the old mule trader J. Waymon Stokes, and tending a half-acre garden of organic vegetables that I worked with a donkey named Jerry—selling what Margrit and I couldn’t use to specialty markets and restaurants.
Early each morning and again around sunset, I would walk, among oaks and poplars, sycamores and flowering dogwoods. At the edge of the woods and out in the fields were choruses of birds. But most often I would walk farther into the trees, following silvery, limpid phrases that floated through the cool air. Now and then I would catch a glimpse of the singer, always deeper in the forest. This music filled me with longing, an aching hunger to feel at home in the world. In time I learned that this was the wood thrush—the favorite singer of my hero Thoreau. I listened to this music for weeks before trying to write down something of what I was hearing and feeling.
In time, with the aid of a field guide and binoculars, I learned which birds sang which songs. I began to recognize the distinctive voices of the cardinal, Carolina wren, eastern towhee, tufted titmouse, redwing blackbird, and eastern meadowlark. Following my studies at CalArts, my teachers now were the birds. With the self-consciousness of the young artist, I assiduously avoided the music of Olivier Messiaen and other composers who had incorporated birdsong into their music. I chose not to use field recordings to help with my notations. I began to carry a music notebook on my walks. I wanted to take dictation directly from the birds themselves—as Annie Dillard writes: “learning the strange syllables one by one.”
* * *
Margrit was the younger daughter of Wernher von Braun, who was then directing the U.S. government space program in Huntsville, Alabama. (When I’d fallen for her at that boarding school in Atlanta, I’d never even heard of her father.) Margrit and I had been living together for several years when, in spite of her father’s disapproval, we decided to get married. The ceremony took place at the justice of the peace in Folkston, Georgia—the gateway to Okefenokee Swamp. Our honeymoon was a canoe trip across the swamp. Soon, my pal Ernie Collins and I began making regular trips into Okefenokee, and floating rivers throughout southern Georgia—the Satilla, the St. Mary’s, the Suwanee, and the Flint. We made backpacking trips in the Appalachians of north Georgia, and in the Tetons of Wyoming. Then, in the summer of 1975, we made the trip that changed my life.
Ever since encountering the film version of Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North, I’d dreamed of traveling in northern Canada and Alaska. Now, in Audubon magazine and The Sierra Club Bulletin, I was reading more and more about the campaign to preserve large areas of wilderness in Alaska. My imagination was captivated, and I wanted to experience Alaska for myself.
* * *
In early July, Ernie and I flew north. As the plane touched down in Juneau, I caught my first glimpse of the Mendenhall Glacier, tumbling off the ice field. Within an hour we were hiking up its west ridge. The spruce-scented air was intoxicating, and I was astonished by the deep cobalt blue of the ice. As we climbed amid boulders, rubble, and orange columbine, my ear caught a faint tinkling—like glass wind chimes in a gentle breeze. Looking down, I realized it was meltwater, resonating from deep within a crevasse. Such a delicate sound for such an immensity of ice! In that moment of epiphany, I knew that something fundamental had changed.
For the next week we paddled and portaged our way across Admiralty Island, through a chain of jewel-like lakes. The old-growth rain forest of spruce, fir, and hemlock was filled with a luxuriant stillness, occasionally punctuated by the excited percolations of winter wrens, the cascading arpeggios of hermit thrushes, and the low drumming of ruffed grouse. As I traveled on through Alaska—to Denali, Glacier Bay, and Katmai—I imagined there was music that could be heard only there, music that belonged there like the plants and the birds, music that resonated with all that space and silence, cold and stone, wind and fire and ice. I longed to hear that music, to follow it wherever it might lead me.
Copyright © 2020 by John Luther Adams