music at the edge of the earth

a desk job

Some days I feel like I’m living on the very edge of the earth, and in some ways I am. On the edge of the earth, there is a fire to make in the mornings, a cat to feed, a bird-feeder to fill with black sunflower seeds. There’s a book to revise, meals to make, laundry piled up at the top of the stairs. At the edge of the earth, no one comes to the door.

We go down the Coast usually one day a week to do our grocery shopping, other errands, and I take back the previous week’s library books, check out some for the week ahead. On the New Books shelf yesterday, I was surprised to find a copy of a memoir by John Luther Adams–Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know how much I love his music. Of course I brought the book home and I began to read it last night. I wondered how he’d felt compelled to write the book and there it is, in the Acknowledgements:

On a winter evening walk across frozen Lake Louise in the Alaska Range, the writer and critic Alex Ross asked me whether I’d ever considered writing a memoir. I hadn’t.

“You’ve lived an interesting life,” Alex said, quietly.

Alex Ross is one my favourite music writers. I found his wonderful The Rest is Noise on a trip to Europe in 2009 and it was the best of companions as we traveled on trains and walked to concerts in the evenings. His next book, Listen to This, led me to the music of John Luther Adams and I am grateful for the introduction. So many times I’ve sat at my desk, working on something, while Become Ocean resounds through my small room. (Like right now.) So I was intrigued to read about how he came to composition and how he listens to birdsong, ice, weather, bells, and explores how to bring them together in ways that take the listener to the locations of their origins. In an interview about his memoir in The Nation, Adams says this:

The construction of the music, the intellectual care, the mathematical rigor, the algorithmic detail—all that is essential, even if you don’t hear it or you choose not to listen to it. I’m not interested in showing you how much technique I have, how smart I am. The music is not about me, or even about my making it.

But I still think that if it’s well made, and if it has a formal coherence, like this mountain does or like the seasons do, it gives the music that elemental quality that I’m after. There are moments in Become Ocean or Become Desert when all these different tempos and sonic layers begin to converge, or diverge for that matter, and I believe when a listener hears that, even if she doesn’t hear it consciously, it creates a gravitational pull or a magnetic field in the music.

I read far longer into the night than I normally would and this morning I reached for the book first thing, with my coffee. In the fifth section, there’s a beautiful profile of Adams’ relationship with the late American poet, John Haines, in so many ways his kindred spirit. Mine, too. If you look at the photograph at the top of this post, you’ll see The Stars, The Snow, The Fire, a book I’ve treasured for decades. I keep it behind my computer so that I can easily reach for it and be taken away, to Alaska, in language so full of music, that it comes as no surprise to learn that John Luther Adams set a suite of John Haines’ poems to music, Forest Without Leaves:

A birch leaf held fast
in limestone ten million years
still quietly burns,
though claimed by the darkness.
Let earth be this windfall
swept to a handful of seeds—
one tree, one leaf, gives us plenty of light.

There’s music at the edge of the earth, sounding out as waves of ocean, as the anticipated song of the Swainson’s thrush which even a pandemic can’t take from me, as a croaky bell in the woods as ravens tumble and play, a ping on the roof as the rain begins. The sonic layers of a life, plenty of light.

redux: “…we may quite literally become ocean.”

From 2014, then reposted in 2019, and now, again, because this is music I need right now and maybe you do too.

____________________

Composer John Luther Adams has intrigued me for years.  In Listen to This, my favourite music writer Alex Ross describes The Place Where You Go To Listen,  a sound and light installation created by Adams in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska: “…a kind of infinite musical work controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of unseen birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that idea, the mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.”

As I write this, I’m listening to Become Ocean, the John Luther Adams orchestral composition commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, first performed in June 2013; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. The composer noted, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” What I’m hearing are the most ravishing harmonies, like wind, water, the swoosh of whales feeding. Dark chords ascend and everything is in them. A song of the universe in a time of crisis, it’s music for our time and I can’t help but think if enough of us listened to it, it might also serve as a call to us to fully address the huge issue of anthropogenic climate change.

Earlier this afternoon we walked over to Haskins Creek to see if the coho had entered this small swift stream from Sakinaw Lake where they’ve been waiting for some time now. And yes, there were fish undulating in the water, a dipper feeding on insects (and maybe eggs) near the creek’s mouth, and the low wintry light spangling everything dull gold. Everywhere huge trees, dense ferns, eagles on their way to feed on the spawned-out carcasses and then distribute them over the ground. The marine-originating isotope Nitrogen 15 is found in the big trees of our coastal rain forests as well as in the hair of bears, wolves, and other animals that feed upon salmon and distribute their remains on land. (I eat salmon weekly and imagine I have my own stores of marine nitrogen too!)

It’s the final movement now, the tidal crescendo of what Alex Ross suggests might “be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”, and it makes me want to weep — for the beauty of our waters, the salmon cycle, the humpback whale and her calf we saw feeding in Davis Bay earlier this year, and the falling of the sun over the western horizon I am watching from my south-western window as I listen and write. Sometimes music takes us so utterly by the heart and the soul into mystery that we are unwilling to come back to a room, a chair, a wooden desk. In contemplating this beautiful piece of music, I am entirely willing to become ocean.

https://theresakishkan.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/p10705881.jpg

 

redux: “…we may quite literally become ocean.”

From this day in 2014:

Composer John Luther Adams has intrigued me for years.  In Listen to This, my favourite music writer Alex Ross describes The Place Where You Go To Listen,  a sound and light installation created by Adams in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska: “…a kind of infinite musical work controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of unseen birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that idea, the mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.”

As I write this, I’m listening to Become Ocean, the John Luther Adams orchestral composition commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, first performed in June 2013; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. The composer noted, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” What I’m hearing are the most ravishing harmonies, like wind, water, the swoosh of whales feeding. Dark chords ascend and everything is in them. A song of the universe in a time of crisis, it’s music for our time and I can’t help but think if enough of us listened to it, it might also serve as a call to us to fully address the huge issue of anthropogenic climate change.

Earlier this afternoon we walked over to Haskins Creek to see if the coho had entered this small swift stream from Sakinaw Lake where they’ve been waiting for some time now. And yes, there were fish undulating in the water, a dipper feeding on insects (and maybe eggs) near the creek’s mouth, and the low wintry light spangling everything dull gold. Everywhere huge trees, dense ferns, eagles on their way to feed on the spawned-out carcasses and then distribute them over the ground. The marine-originating isotope Nitrogen 15 is found in the big trees of our coastal rain forests as well as in the hair of bears, wolves, and other animals that feed upon salmon and distribute their remains on land. (I eat salmon weekly and imagine I have my own stores of marine nitrogen too!)

It’s the final movement now, the tidal crescendo of what Alex Ross suggests might “be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”, and it makes me want to weep — for the beauty of our waters, the salmon cycle, the humpback whale and her calf we saw feeding in Davis Bay earlier this year, and the falling of the sun over the western horizon I am watching from my south-western window as I listen and write. Sometimes music takes us so utterly by the heart and the soul into mystery that we are unwilling to come back to a room, a chair, a wooden desk. In contemplating this beautiful piece of music, I am entirely willing to become ocean.

P1070588

 

a little night music

drip

Last night I slept on the couch downstairs because John has a bad chest cold and I a)knew he would cough for a good portion of the night and b) I don’t want to catch the cold myself. The window above me was open wide and sometime after midnight I heard the rain begin. We have a metal roof and the sound amplifies. It’s lovely to listen to. I found the rhythm very regular and I tried to think how I would write it down. There is a pergola above the section of deck the window opens to and it’s covered densely with wisteria, grape vine, and clematis. When it had rained for a time, the water began to drip down from the green vines, irregular in tempo. There’s a capiz shell windchime hanging over the table (I think of it as our summer chandelier) and it periodically shook in the light wind. After a bit of fuss when the cat came in with some small creature, wanting to be praised while the catch ran away and hid (a shrew, either Sorex vagrans or S. monticolus, whom I believe has made an escape this morning through the door we left open for it after we watched it race across the kitchen floor), who could sleep? Not me. I turned on a light and picked up the book I was reading before bedtime: Listen to This, by Alex Ross. I read this collection of writing about music some years ago, not long after it was released in 2010. This past weekend, the young violist Evan Hesketh and his wife Farrah O’Shea were staying with us during the Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival and we talked about how much we enjoyed Ross’s earlier book, The Rest is Noise. I left Listen to This out so they could sample its pleasures. Before bedtime, I re-read the essay on Bob Dylan and in the night I went to my favourite essay in the book, “Song of the Earth”, a piece about visiting John Luther Adams in Alaska and talking to him about music. I love JLA’s Dark Waves and so much more of his work, including the ravishing Become Ocean, an orchestral composition that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Somehow it was exactly right to be reading about him, reading his sources for music:

When the ice breakup comes, it makes incredible sounds. 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.

In a room with high ceilings, I was reading about ice and listening to water, the lush harmonies of leaf rustle, shell chimes, water pinging on metal, and finding its way through dense green vines.

single lantern on Schooner Cove trail

Yesterday it rained. When we woke, we watched surfers wait for the perfect wave in torrential rain. And then we drove to a favourite trail, the one to Schooner Cove. There was a single lantern of skunk cabbage, its leaves eaten to the quick by a bear.

skunk cabbage

Sometimes I think it’s hard to find the truly wild places on this earth. The ones we haven’t damaged. Looking out at Schooner Cove or here at Cox Bay or at Florencia Bay where I camped as a 19 year old, I know there’s plastic in the ocean between us and Japan, there’s contaminated flotsam from Fukashima, the detritus of populations who’ve taken this earth for granted. Were we always this way? So the heart is compromised, even in the beloved places.

At the foot of the Schooner Cove trail, long canes of rose off in the huckleberry. Not a native rose, not Nootka or bald-hipped, but something with curved thorns. Seeded by birds? Planted decades ago by one of the free spirits living at the high tide line in a driftwood shelter?

We ate a delicious lunch at Wolf in the Fog and came back to think our respective thoughts, make notes in our books, dry our jeans by the fire. And later, slept to the boom of the surf. What does it say to us? What it’s always said, its own music. I think of John Luther Adams’s extraordinary “Become Ocean“, and his words: “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

“…we may quite literally become ocean.”

 

Composer John Luther Adams has intrigued me for years.  In Listen to This, my favourite music writer Alex Ross describes The Place Where You Go To Listen,  a sound and light installation created by Adams in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska: “…a kind of infinite musical work controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of unseen birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that idea, the mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.”

As I write this, I’m listening to Become Ocean, the John Luther Adams orchestral composition commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, first performed in June 2013; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. The composer noted, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” What I’m hearing are the most ravishing harmonies, like wind, water, the swoosh of whales feeding. Dark chords ascend and everything is in them. A song of the universe in a time of crisic, it’s music for our time and I can’t help but think if enough of us listened to it, it might also serve as a call to us to fully address the huge issue of anthropogenic climate change.

Earlier this afternoon we walked over to Haskins Creek to see if the coho had entered this small swift stream from Sakinaw Lake where they’ve been waiting for some time now. And yes, there were fish undulating in the water, a dipper feeding on insects (and maybe eggs) near the creek’s mouth, and the low wintry light spangling everything dull gold. Everywhere huge trees, dense ferns, eagles on their way to feed on the spawned-out carcasses and then distribute them over the ground. The marine-originating isotope Nitrogen 15 is found in the big trees of our coastal rain forests as well as in the hair of bears, wolves, and other animals that feed upon salmon and distribute their remains on land. (I eat salmon weekly and imagine I have my own stores of marine nitrogen too!)

It’s the final movement now, the tidal crescendo of what Alex Ross suggests might “be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”, and it makes me want to weep — for the beauty of our waters, the salmon cycle, the humpback whale and her calf we saw feeding in Davis Bay earlier this year, and the falling of the sun over the western horizon I am watching from my south-western window as I listen and write. Sometimes music takes us so utterly by the heart and the soul into mystery that we are unwilling to come back to a room, a chair, a wooden desk. In contemplating this beautiful piece of music, I am entirely willing to become ocean.P1070588