John Luther Adams’ Ode To Sundogs

January 25, 2015

The day composer John Luther Adams won the 2014 Pulitzer Prizefor his symphonic seascape Become Ocean, I tracked him down in Houghton, Mich., in the northernmost reaches of the Upper Peninsula. Over a crackly phone line, Adams — who turns 62 Friday — said he never thought much about a career with a capital C.

"It seems that every time I had the opportunity to make the right career choice, I made the wrong career choice, which in the long run turned out to be the right artistic choice," Adams said. He also wondered whether winning the Pulitzer meant there could be a larger audience for his work.

How things have changed.

A few weeks later, Become Ocean received a terrific Carnegie Hall performance. Last fall, an album containing the piece found its way to many best-of-the-year lists; it's since been nominated for a Grammy. And earlier this month, Columbia University announced Adams as the recipient of the $50,000 William Schuman Award, a kind of lifetime achievement award for American composers.

The John Luther Adams wave continues to roll with The Wind in High Places, a striking new album of austere landscapes and mysterious light.

A longtime resident of Alaska, Adams had his imagination triggered by ice crystals in the arctic air for "Sky with Four Suns." Light from a low-hanging sun can mingle with ice to create the illusion of multiple suns called parhelia or sundogs. Adams says the piece — the first of the four-paneled Canticles of the Sky — is a musical evocation of these magical apparitions from sunrise to sunset.

Beginning with a low hum, choirs of cellos — 45 cellists in the Northwestern University Cello Ensemble, directed by Hans Jørgen Jensen — gradually make their entrances, slowly blooming like a bright golden sun bursting over a mountain range. Shafts of light intersect in slow motion, winding down to a warm glow before finally dipping below the horizon.

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