How an Acclaimed Composer Found His Musical Voice Through Birdsong

Decades after a songbird's whirling melody set him on a new artistic path, John Luther Adams is more determined than ever to help us hear the planet's power and wild beauty—and fight to protect it.
John Luther Adams in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 1999. Dennis Keeley

One day in 1974 John Luther Adams was walking through a forest outside of Atlanta when he heard a sound that would change his life forever: the song of a Wood Thrush. 

Adams was 21 and working as a librarian, farmhand, and organic gardener, plotting his next steps after studying composition at the California Institute of the Arts near Los Angeles. Consumed by what he has described as the bird’s “silvery, limpid phrases,” he began decamping to the woods before dawn or at dusk, when the thrushes are most vocal, with a three-by-five music notepad, doing his best to capture the sound in musical notation. “I began to understand in my body, my ears, and my spirit that here was my life’s work,” he recalls. “Here was my home. Here was my religion. Here was my doorway into a musical world that was worthy of a lifetime of devotion—because it wasn’t about me.”

Reproducing the thrush’s song was an exercise in the impossible: Using a vocal organ called the syrinx, birds can sound two unrelated notes at once and sing complex patterns. But to Adams, that inherent futility was central to its appeal. “I had this idea that I still adhere to, that there was an unattainability in it that made it feel right,” he tells me over the phone from his home in the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico. “It delighted me because something else was gained—something else was distilled out of the failing.”

Years later Adams integrated translations of the Wood Thrush and other avian species into what he considers to be his first finished work, songbirdsongs, written between 1974 and 1980 for two piccolos and three percussionists. Since then, Adams has built a reputation as one of the most visionary living composers in American classical music. He has written for symphony orchestra, staged music theater, built immersive sound environments for museums, and mounted thunderous percussion performances in outdoor locations across the globe. His works engage with environmental issues, evoking stunning natural locales, both real and invented. His best-known work is Become Ocean, a churning orchestral piece that emulates the natural movements of bodies of water as polar ice melts and sea levels rise. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014, as well as a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

While Adams has no intention of retiring anytime soon, he recently reflected on his journey so far while writing a memoir, Silences So Deep, published this month. Looking back, the avian influence was clearly integral to several of his most large-scale works. But at points in his musical evolution, especially in the 1990s, Adams shied away from birdsong. “I didn’t want it to become a shtick or a gimmick,” he says. “I didn’t want to become the American bird guy.”

And yet, throughout decades of creative exploration, Adams always figured he’d eventually return to his musical roots, that birds would continue to sustain and inspire him. “And I was right,” he says. “There was a lot more to discover.”


Adams got his first taste of avant-garde rock, jazz, and classical music as a teenage aspiring drummer by sneaking into Manhattan from his home in the New Jersey suburbs. In the West Village, he bought weird records and weirder mind-altering substances and caught as many concerts as he could. At CalArts he studied the music of influential American experimental composers like Morton Feldman, John Cage, and Lou Harrison. But it was by engaging with the natural world that he found his own musical voice. 

“To assess John’s real impact, you have to imagine him as a young person who left the centers of musical accomplishment because he cared about the planet, and wanted to be close to it in its rawest form,” says percussionist and conductor Steven Schick, one of Adams’ close collaborators and friends. “The music grows from that and not the other way around.”

In Georgia, Adams’ growing concern for birds and the environment spurred him to go well beyond compositional exercises. He joined his local Audubon chapter and, applying the same intensity to his advocacy that he did to his music, eventually became its president. His focus soon shifted thousands of miles northwest, when he learned of the immense threat that oil drilling, mining, and other development posed to Alaska’s vast and varied landscapes. He didn’t know it at the time, but the state’s rugged terrain, cultural heritage, and (of course) birds would come to define the sound of his music. 

In the ’70s, inspired by Audubon magazine coverage of the struggle to preserve large, intact ecosystems in Alaska, Adams made two long trips to the state and eventually settled there in 1978. He would stay for four decades. During the first few years following his move, Adams kept up an exhausting schedule working as an advocate as well as a composer. He worked with a coalition of grassroots conservation organizations that fought for the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which sought to protect large tracts of the young 49th state, enduring hostility from pro-development locals who were livid about the amount of land that the legislation would make off-limits to industry.

“John was a young sprout, and he was very devoted to the notion of preserving wilderness. I don’t know if I’d call it in a religious way, but I think he’d be comfortable calling it spiritual,” says Steve Williams, Adams’ longtime friend and a fellow activist in Alaska. “He was a very able advocate because of his intensity and commitment.”

Adams’ most pivotal contribution to the cause was helping to lobby President Jimmy Carter, his administration, and Congress to support ANILCA. Adams and Carter already had formed a positive working relationship in Georgia, while Adams was fighting a proposed channelization of the Flint River. Carter signed ANILCA into law in 1980, protecting more than 100 million acres. Today it stands as the largest piece of land-preservation legislation in American history.

Despite the thrill of that victory, before long Adams began to pull back from environmental advocacy to dedicate himself more to his music. It was in part a reaction to local Democrats who hoped to change the balance of the Alaska legislature and were pressuring Adams and other activists to run for office. (“The whole beauty contest aspect of being a politician really repulsed me,” he says.) To Williams, the narrowing of Adams’ focus seemed inevitable. “There was never any doubt in my mind that, if there was a fork in the road, he would follow the musical path,” he says. “It was obvious that that was what burned in him. He has to be a composer. He doesn’t have any choice.”


Adams entered what he calls his lost decade. He moved into an unplumbed cabin deep in a spruce bog outside Fairbanks and became smitten with the song of another thrush—this time, appropriately, the Hermit Thrush. At one point he painted a musical passage in the bird’s honor on a section of the boardwalk that miners used to navigate through his remote patch of land. He also combined the bird’s bright and florid melodies with those of Varied and Swainson’s Thrushes and the Ruffed Grouse’s drumming to compose “Evensong,” the final movement of songbirdsongs. 

Ironically, the power of songbirdsongs, like most of his work, does not come primarily from its melodies. Neither does it arise from the motion of chords, or propulsive rhythms, or from any conventional sense of musical growth or progression. Instead, Adams concerns himself with space and texture. He explores how seemingly disparate musical elements—wisps of birdsong and abstract percussion gestures in songbirdsongs, for example—can rub up against one another to create impressions bigger than the sum of their parts.

From his earliest compositions through his most recent work, Adams’ creations invite the listener to imagine a natural location and to linger there for the duration of the piece. Often the music is enveloping and richly three-dimensional; tectonic plates of sound shift in ways that are hardly perceptible at first. Any sense of tempo seems incidental, arising from evocations of breeze, waves, and—particularly in his percussion-heavy works—explosive bursts of natural violence from a wildfire, earthquake, or glacier. “It’s a different sense of time,” he says. “It’s not a movie unfolding. It’s not a novel. It’s not a narrative of any sort. At first, it’s like, ‘Okay, nothing’s really happening.’ But when you start listening, you realize, ‘Ah, there’s always something happening.’ ”

For listener and musician alike, the result is an experience both demanding and deeply rewarding, Schick says, one in which a vast aural landscape emerges only through careful attention to the finest musical details. “You have to be ready to be out on a kind of sonic tundra,” he says of performing Adams’ works. “His pieces aren’t pegged down in the middle ground of perception, but at the extremes. And that’s a distinct challenge that I don’t quite see in the same way in anyone else’s music.”

Though the dense orchestral works Adams has created in the past 10 years have garnered the most attention, he’s most invested in his outdoor pieces. These sprawling works last well over an hour and are performed out in nature. They also allow for the participation of audience members, who are encouraged to move around the performance area. “The way you listen when you walk in the woods is very different from the way you listen when you’re listening to a string quartet in a concert hall,” Adams says. “When we’re inside, we’re turning inward, and when we’re outside, we’re invited to expand our awareness. It’s a whole different way of listening and being present. And it requires a different mode of performance—a different kind of music.”

One of the most ambitious of these pieces is 2009’s Inuksuit, written as a wedding present for Schick and scored for anywhere from 9 to 99 percussionists with optional piccolo flutes. Inuksuit is named for Stonehenge-like stone structures built by the Inuit people. “This work is haunted by the vision of the melting of the polar ice, the rising of the seas, and what may remain of humanity’s presence after the waters recede,” Adams writes in a program note. At the end of the piece, birds play a pivotal role. In the recorded version, which captures a performance in the forest surrounding Guilford Sound in Vermont, piccolos play Adams’ transcriptions of local birdsong while actual birds call out overhead.

Adams describes his subsequent piece—2014’s Ten Thousand Birds, named for the approximate number of avian species on Earth—as an extension of the interplay of actual birds and musical imitations in Inuksuit. Each performer plays from a unique transcription of a particular bird’s song. The work begins with the sounds of daybreak and then moves through afternoon, evening, night, and back to morning. Outside of these guidelines, Adams offers only general suggestions about how the piece might be structured or choreographed. “It’s up to the musicians to discover the music in the place,” he says. 

If the project already sounds complicated, the logistics are negligible when compared with Adams’ unrealized vision for the work. “I’ve had in mind this idea of a continuing cycle featuring birds unique to specific geographies. My grand illusion is that we would have a 24-hour global performance, each installment happening at the time of the dawn chorus of birds in each location,” he says. “Grand enough for ya?”

The grandeur of Adams’ vision owes a great deal to his decades among Alaska’s dramatic landscapes, so it was with great apprehension that, nearly a decade ago, he and his wife, Cindy, left the cold, dark northern winters behind. Since then, they’ve maintained a semi-itinerant lifestyle in locales much different from the snowy wilds where they fell in love, from the Manhattan stomping grounds of Adams’ youth to the Atacama Desert in Chile to their current outpost in rural New Mexico.

If Adams feared that by leaving Alaska he risked losing his creative fuel, he need not have worried. He began and finished composing Ten Thousand Birds in a small third-floor walkup apartment amid the din of New York. And the desert has given him some of his most crucial inspiration of late, most overtly for his 2017 choral and orchestral work Become Desert. “Over the years as my work matured, its ‘Alaskan’ qualities gradually became less overt and more deeply assimilated into the music,” he writes in Silences. “I began to feel that my music was no longer about place but had in a real sense become a place of its own.”


In his modest desert home, Adams maintains a strict routine: Each morning he showers, kisses Cindy, and then gets down to work, composing at least from 8 a.m. to noon and sometimes through the afternoon, albeit with a siesta. After work, he clears the runway for creativity by taking long walks or climbing a mountain near his home. Evenings are entirely for reading and relaxation. To stay productive and stave off depression, he sometimes goes weeks at a time without checking the news. “I know that I’m where I want to be,” he says, “when I lose track of what day of the week it is.”

Suffice to say, then, that the enforced isolation imposed on so many during the coronavirus crisis hasn’t been too trying for the reclusive composer. “Social distancing has been my preferred mode of living for most of my life,” he says. 

Even as Adams has been hunkered down during the pandemic, the crisis has refueled interest among musical ensembles in his outdoor pieces, with their open-air settings and flexible personnel requirements. New York contemporary music group Alarm Will Sound has mounted several performances of Ten Thousand Birds in New York this summer, including one in the wildlife-filled Crellin Park in the Hudson Valley and another at Artpark, an outdoor venue near Niagara Falls. 

While musicians give new life to his past pieces, Adams is deep into his next project. He is finishing a choral and orchestral work called Vespers of the Anthropocene, begun pre-pandemic, which he judges will be his last for symphony orchestra. In its major movement, entitled “Litanies of the Sixth Extinction,” the singers’ Latin text consists entirely of the names of 192 critically endangered and extinct species—culminating with Homo sapiens. “It is the most grief-filled music I have ever written,” he says.

At a time when hope is a slippery concept and images of a brighter future are hard to conjure, Adams holds on to the possibility that this new work might lead listeners to take note of the natural world and take action to protect it. “I’m 67 now. With whatever time I’ve got left, what’s the best that I can give to the generations that I believe are going to—must—repair the damage that my generation has done to the world?” he says. “I want to leave something that’s going to be useful in some way to them. It’s a lot to hang on music, but it’s all I’ve got.”