The Influence of Place

IMG_1225Inuksuit, University of Richmond, 2013

This wonderful piece by John Luther Adams shows how twenty-five years in Alaska have shaped his music and life. Adams details his quaint studio on a plot outside of Fairbanks. The shelves inside survey his development: musical writings by Henry Cowell, John Cage, and his mentor, Lou Harrison, scores by Stravinsky and Debussy, and Frank Zappa LPs. However, what lies outside those walls is equally important. The influence of place is undervalued–cultural factors like language and shared history are just part of the story. We draw much artistic power from the physical landscape.

Adams moved to Alaska in his twenties. Over the years, friends often asked him, “Do you ever think about leaving Alaska?” His stock answer was “no” until self-doubt crept up in middle age. He thought of what he might leave behind. Would his inspiration run dry? Was his style uniquely wedded to this landscape? He struggled with this long enough to see his reputation grow on a national scale. (Alex Ross wrote a profile of Adams in 2008 which was my introduction.)

[O]ver the years, as my work matured, its “Alaska” qualities gradually become less overt and more deeply assimilated into the music. I began to feel that my music was no longer about place but had become a place of its own… Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the time came to leave Alaska.

And so he left. He was surprised to discover how his early work sounded not unlike what he composes today. His music had become its own place. He had come to Alaska because of who he was and he’s never lose that. He now calls several places home, like the outback of Mexico and New York City. But as we know, home is a complicated idea in the 21st century.

To my amazement, I’ve been in Washington, D.C. almost three years and I focused this past year on music. This city’s spatial profile is unique in the U.S.: short buildings, wide boulevards, odd geometric intersections. This gives D.C. a utopian demeanor only magnified by the National Mall’s imposing structures of art and learning. How does this landscape shape what I do? What would I make somewhere else?

To answer this, I think of how landscape facilitates movement, to concerts and rehearsals on the bike-friendly paths and promenades. I then think how our parks and public spaces encourage gatherings–most famously the long-standing drum circle at Meridian Hill Park. I think of the Kennedy Center, on the mighty Potomac, as a pean to high art juxtaposed with the plethora of house concerts each night. Finally, I have to acknowledge the sweeping gentrification that squeezes longtime residents and artists.

As Alain de Botton argues, the character of a city matters and good design should reflect our values. To me this means function in harmony with the natural landscape. I try not to forget that the capital of the “free world” was designed by a European and erected in a subtropical, malaria-ridden confluence. Maybe my playing is a bit swampier because of it. The landscape influences who we are whether we acknowledge it or not.

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