John Luther Adams

This article is about the Alaska-based composer. For the California-based composer, see John Adams (composer). For other persons named John Adams, see John Adams (disambiguation).
John Luther Adams watching a baseball game.

John Luther Adams (born January 23, 1953) is an American composer whose music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of Alaska where he lived from 1978 to 2014 (Garland 2007). His orchestral work Become Ocean was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music (Huizenga 2014).

Early life

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Adams began playing music as a teenager as a drummer in rock bands. He attended Cal Arts as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, where he studied with James Tenney and Leonard Stein, and graduated in 1973 (Kosman 2001). After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, Adams began work in environmental protection and through this work Adams first travelled to Alaska in 1975. Adams moved to Alaska in 1978 and lived there until 2014. He now lives between New York and the Sonoran desert in Mexico (Service 2015). It continues to be a prominent influence in his music (Garland 2007). From 1982 to 1989, he performed as timpanist and principal percussionist with the Fairbanks Symphony Orchestra and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra (Kosman 2001)


Adams's composition work spans many genres and media. He has composed for television, film, children's theater, voice, acoustic instruments, orchestra, and electronics. From 1998 to 2002, Adams served as Associate Professor of Composition at Oberlin Conservatory of Music.

Influence of nature

Adams has described his music as, "[...] profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place. Through sustained listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography—that region between place and culture...between environment and imagination" (Anon. n.d.(b)).

His love of nature, concern for the environment and interest in the resonance of specific places led him to pursue the concept of sonic geography. Early examples of this idea include two works written during Adams’s sojourn in rural Georgia: Songbirdsongs (1974–80), a collection of indeterminate miniature pieces for piccolos and percussion based on free translations of bird songs, and Night Peace (1977), a vocal work capturing the nocturnal soundscape of the Okefenokee Swamp through slow-changing and sparse sonic textures (Feisst 2013).

His work, Sila: The Breath of the World, represents the "air element," following the representation of water in Become Ocean and the "earth element" in Inuksuit, an outdoor percussion piece (Patner 2012). His music, he says, is "our awareness of the world in which we live and the world's awareness of us" (Friedman 2014).

His more recent works include, Across the Distance, for a large number of horns, was premiered on the 5th of July, 2015 at the Cambo estate in Fife, Scotland as part of the East Neuk Festival. His recording of Ilimaq ("spirit journeys"), a solo work for percussion, played by art-music percussionist, composer, and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, was released in October 2015 (Clements 2015). A combination of contemporary classical music, Alaskan field recordings, and found sounds from the natural world, it evokes the travels of a shaman riding the sound of a drum to and from the spirit world (Sigler 2012).

Awards and honors

In 2014 Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral piece Become Ocean, which Alex Ross of The New Yorker called "the loveliest apocalypse in musical history" (Ross 2013, ). It was premiered in 2013 by Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony and performed by the same conductor and orchestra at the 2014 Spring For Music music festival at Carnegie Hall. Adams had never been to Carnegie Hall before hearing his work played there to a sold-out house (Fonseca-Wollheim 2014). The surround-sound recording of Become Ocean on Cantaloupe Music debuted at #1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, stayed there for two straight weeks, and went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition (Davis and Adams 2014). All his works are published by Taiga Press (BMI) and available from Theodore Front Musical Literature (n.d.)

In October 2015, Adams received the William Schuman Award from Columbia University. The events surrounding the award included a series of concerts of his music at the Miller Theater, including Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, For Lou Harrison, and In the White Silence (Oestreich 2015).

List of works


  1. Dream in White on White
  2. Night Peace
  3. The Far Country of Sleep
  1. The Farthest Place
  2. The Light That Fills the World
  3. The Immeasurable Space of Tones
  1. Dark Waves
  2. Among Red Mountains
  3. Qilyuan
  4. red arc/blue veil
  1. Four Thousand Holes
  2. . . . and bells remembered . . .
  1. songbirdsongs
  2. Strange Birds Passing



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