the place where you go to listen

Excerpt from “Song of the Earth: The Arctic Sound of John Luther Adams.” Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise. Originally published in The New Yorker, 2008. 

At The Museum of the North, the composer John Luther Adams has created a sound-and-light instillation called The Place Where You Go To Listen— a kind of infinite musical work that is controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meterological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.

The Place occupies a small white-walled room on the museum’s second floor. You sit on a bench before five glass panels, which change color according to the time of day and the season.

What you notice first is a dense, organlike sonority; the notes follow the contour of the natural harmonic series– the rainbow of overtones that emnate from a vibrating string– and have the brightness of music in a major key. The moon is audible as a narrow sliver of noise. Pulsating patterns in the bass are activated by small earthquakes and other seismic events around Alaska. And shimmering sounds in the highest registers are tied to the fluctuations in the magnetic field that cause the Northern Lights.

For  stellar audio of Adams’ complex, ambient compositions, check out his website and listen to his pieces, which he describes as “electro-acoustic soundscapes.”  Here’s a video of The Place in action (albeit with subpar sound quality):

Adams describes The Place in his own words:

“I knew that I wanted to hear the unheard, that I wanted to somehow transpose the music that is just beyond the reach of our ears into audible vibrations. I knew that it had to be its own space. And I knew that it had to be real– that I couldn’t fake this, that nothing could be recorded. It had to have the ring of truth.

“Actually my original conception for The Place was truly grandiose. I thought that it might be a piece that could be realized at any location on the earth, and that each location would have its unique sonic signature. That idea– tuning the whole world– stayed with me for a long time. But at some point I realized that I was tuning it so that this place, this room, on this hill, looking out over the Alaska Range, was the sweetest-sounding spot on Earth.”

The composer and artist, John Luther Adams

The composer and artist, John Luther Adams


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