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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Silences So Deep

Music, Solitude, Alaska

John Luther Adams

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Gordon Brooks Wright

We are in the middle of nowhere.

All the other musicians of the Arctic Chamber Orchestra have flown off to the next stop on our tour of villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. With only our backpacks, a duffel bag full of music stands, and a pair of kettledrums, Gordon Wright and I are here alone at this remote airstrip, waiting for the plane to return.

It is early April. The world around us is an endless expanse of white. After the long night of winter, the sun has come back to the north. The morning is resplendent, but the air is cold. So we stand on the south side of the little shack next to the airstrip, basking in the warm light. Everything is golden.

Gordon and I will share many such moments in the years ahead. But although I can’t yet imagine what a touchstone this golden light will become, even now I’m aware that this is a special moment. I am living a dream. I am not yet thirty. Here in Alaska I have found my own Walden—a rough cabin in the boreal forest. I’ve met the woman who will be my life companion, and together we are crusading to protect this place we so passionately love. I’ve composed my first piece for orchestra. I’m playing percussion and my best friend is conducting as we bring the music back out into the land that inspired it, sharing it with the people who have lived here longer than anyone can remember.

Out here amid the snow and sunlight, the world seems filled with possibilities as broad as the country around us. Standing here, I hold a vision of pristine landscapes protected from destructive human incursions, of music rooted deeply in those landscapes, and of a culture in which we newcomers learn from our Native neighbors how to live in deep harmony with this place. This is a vision that I share with the tall, bearded, moose-like man standing by my side.

Although I love Alaska more than any other place on earth, I was never all that enamored of Fairbanks. Even so, I chose this homely boomtown near the Arctic Circle as my hometown for three principal reasons: the woman I had fallen in love with was there, the mountains I had fallen in love with were nearby, and Gordon Wright lived there. From the moment we met, as I passed through Fairbanks between my wilderness travels in the summer of 1977, Gordon and I hit it off. It was clear we were going to become friends. But Gordon always had a plan, and I suspect that in fanning the flames of my passion to make my home in Alaska, he saw the potential for me to become part of both the musical and environmental activist sides of his life.

Gordon conducted a lot of my music over the years, and he gave me my very first orchestral commission. While still working full-time as an environmental crusader, I composed A Northern Suite for Gordon and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra. In those days I wrote my manuscripts with calligraphy pens and ink on vellum paper, which I would send down to a shop in Los Angeles for printing. I had just received the freshly printed and bound scores of A Northern Suite in the mail, so Gordon and I walked over to the student center at the university to have lunch and talk through the new piece.

As we sat down with our lunch trays, I realized I’d forgotten to get something to drink. So I went back for some orange juice. When I returned, I saw Gordon sitting with a puzzled scowl on his face.

“Uh-oh,” I thought. “He’s not happy with the score.”

Then I noticed that he hadn’t even turned to the first page of music. The focus of Gordon’s consternation was not the notes but the inscription inside the title page—one of my favorite passages from a poem by John Haines.

“This doesn’t make any sense!” Gordon protested. He read the words aloud:

‘There are silences so deep / you can hear / the journeys of the soul’ … What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Simultaneously flummoxed and relieved, I replied: “It’s poetry, Gordy! It doesn’t have to make sense … Just go with it. Just listen to the sound of the words.”

Apparently he did. In the years to come, Gordon became John Haines’s biggest fan, amassing a collection of the complete Haines—seeking out every chapbook, every broadside, every limited edition of every poem and essay that the bard of Alaska ever published. And over the years, he also came to feel that sound rather than syntax was the key to making sense of my music.

For my fiftieth birthday, Cindy and I were in New York, where our friends Fred and Alexandra Peters threw a surprise party for me. And there was Gordon, jumping out from behind the couch with the other guests. Later that week, we heard a performance of my piece Red Arc/Blue Veil at Juilliard. Our friend and fellow Alaskan Steve Williams was with us. Just before the performance Steve leaned over and said (somewhat facetiously) to Gordon:

“I’m not always sure how to listen to John’s music. Do you have any words of wisdom?”

In his most expansive tone, Gordon advised Steve:

“Just let it wash over you. Don’t try to make sense of it. Just go with the sound.”

In his midsixties, Gordon faced significant challenges. As he confronted his own mortality, he wrestled with regrets about the past and uncertainty about the future. We talked about this at length, when we were alone in the sauna, and on a series of float trips we made down the middle section of the Tanana River. But as he approached his seventieth birthday, Gordon told me that he felt as though he had achieved “a vast new plateau.”

Copyright © 2020 by John Luther Adams

Copyright © 1996 by John Haines