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Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Adams began playing music as a teenager as a drummer in rock bands. He attended the California Institute of the Arts as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, studying with James Tenney and Leonard Stein, and graduated in 1973 (Kosman 2001). After graduating, 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 splits his time between New York and the Sonoran desert in Mexico (Service 2015), though his time in Alaska 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).
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).
On February 8, 2015, Adams was awarded a GRAMMY in the category Best Contemporary Classical Composition for his Become Ocean
Adams was the recipient of the 2010 Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. He was cited by the selection committee for melding the physical and musical worlds into a unique artistic vision that transcends stylistic boundaries (Moore 2010)
In 2006, Adams was named one of the first United States Artists Fellows. He has received awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation, and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Garland 2007).
Morris, Mitchell. 1999. "Ecotopian Sounds, or, The Music of Luther Adams and Strong Environmentalism". In Crosscurrents and Counterpoints: Offerings in Honor of Bengt Hambræus at 70, edited by Per F. Broman [sv], Nora A. Engebretsen, and Bo Alphonce. 129-41. Skrifter från Musikvetenskapliga Avdelningen 51. Göteborg: Göteborgs Universitet. ISBN91-85974-45-5.
NewMusicBox Staff. 2014. "John Luther Adams Named Musical America's 201 Composer of the Year". NewMusicBox (November 5, accessed November 15, 2014).