What do the outdoors sound like?


Many outdoor enthusiasts have searched long and hard for a sound that truly captures what draws them into the wild. Mind you, we're not talking about Jack Johnson's benign, sandy nursery rhymes or hippy-dippy chime trips into New Age, patchouli-stink purgatory. We're talking about music with the weight and gravity to transfer the feeling of wilderness itself — a sonic accompaniment to the inward thrill that happens when one stumbles into an unmarred meadow, or witnesses the slow cracking of an ancient, retreating glacier.

Maybe no one's nailed it just yet, but contemporary composer John Luther Adams comes damn close. In a New Yorker profile, the Fairbanks, Alaska-based composer talks about how he experiences and interprets the wild landscapes around him and then translates them into ambient, flowing washes of sound. Sometimes his compositions mimic the gentle tinkling of falling icicles; other times, they crash in the discordance and percussive onslaught of an avalanche. Here, he talks about inspiration gleaned from a rafting trip in the Yukon:

“When the ice breakup comes, it makes incredible sounds,” he said. “It’s symphonic. There’s candle ice, which is crystals hanging down like chandeliers. They chime together in the wind. Or whirlpools open up along the shore or out in the middle of the river, and water goes swirling through them. Or sizzle ice, which makes a sound like the effervescent popping you hear when you pour water over ice cubes."

Adams started out as a rock-n-roll kid who even got to open for the Beach Boys once. But he soon became entranced by Zappa and then modern composers; when he later got involved in the environmental movement of the late 70s and moved to Alaska, his fate was sealed. He composes for both traditional instruments and electronics, and Adams isn't afraid to incorporate a bit of high-tech, forward-thinking art into his work. His piece "The Place Where You Go To Listen," takes feedback from the Alaska's weather, time of day, seismic data, and even magnetic field to create a real-time, never-ending composition coupled with changing visuals. When the aurora borealis hits for instance, the music in the room will change color and introduce otherworldly bell tones and chimes.

One of Adams' signature pieces, "Dark Waves," chronicles the rise and fall of its namesake water feature through the harmonic tones of perfect fifths. Over 13-plus minutes, what starts as atmospheric whispers slowly grows into an ominous crescendo, only to recede back to the hush from where it came. It's brilliant, weird, and it even rocks a little.

— Ted Alvarez

Song of the Earth (New Yorker, streaming audio of "Dark Waves available))