JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: Music is not what I do, it’s how I understand the world. For me, it all begins with listening. I relish sound, I relish noise, but I’ve discovered over the years that to listen deeply, I need stillness, I need quiet, I need solitude. What can I say, I’m an Alaskan and I lived alone in a cabin in the woods for a decade, and lived in Alaska for most of my life. I became accustomed to stillness and solitude. Since leaving Alaska, I’ve been searching all over the Americas for a quiet place. I’m here to tell you it’s not easy to find. Stillness and solitude are rare and precious commodities in this world. I’m thrilled that I have found it here in my new home and I’ve certainly found it at Tippet Rise.
John Luther Adams Four Thousand Holes performed by Vicky Chow and Doug Perkins
1:12 ZACHARY PATTEN: It’s been a year unlike any other in recent memory. Our interactions have been mostly rerouted through technology and our shared experiences, like the shared experience of music have been taken away. The Olivier Music Barn is typically dark during some of the winter months, but, unfortunately it’s been dark since last winter.
1:34 One of the last times we were able to make music in the barn was a recording session of music composed by John Luther Adams, performed by the JACK Quartet. The session included the Tippet Rise commission Lines Made by Walking, which the composer wrote over many months of traversing the rolling grasslands of Tippet Rise, at the edge of the Beartooth Mountains. At the time, no one knew the session might be the last for the foreseeable future.
2:04 But, after eight months and under very different circumstances, the recording has been released, and the Montana winter approaches. Both bring a special kind of stillness and solitude. This winter, these precious commodities are perhaps more important than ever. If we choose to embrace them, they can offer a space for contemplation, for looking inward, a chance to think about our lives, our values, and how they fit into our time.
2:37 Music can be an expression not only of the time in which we live, but how we might live better in that time. It can be a medium for reflection, a model of what we value, and an inspiration to imagine a thoughtful and intentional way forward. The musicians who dedicate their lives to giving us this gift of music embody qualities that can inform us, that can show us what a more aware and empathetic society might look like. The traits required to make music and art may just be the same traits that help us renew our culture.
3:18 There is music that runs at a cross-current to the trends of the time; that asks us to truly listen, to invest our attention, our time, and our focus. What can music like this offer us, and through it, what can we learn about ourselves, and the world? Composer John Luther Adams and the JACK String Quartet share their thoughts and hopes for music of our time in this episode of the Tippet Rise podcast.
3:53 JLA: Like it or not, I think a lot of us are experiencing, confronting solitude in a way that maybe we haven’t before, and I’m hoping that’s an opportunity for us individually and collectively; to listen more deeply, to feel more fully our own place in the world, wherever that may be, and to take a greater sense of responsibility in who we are, where we are, and how we live in the world.
4:27 JOHN PICKFORD RICHARDS: In isolation, or in lockdown I should say, given the opportunity to slow down with my normal schedule of traveling and being “productive” as much as I can be, my name is John Pickford Richards and I play the viola in the JACK Quartet, I was sort of forced to reckon with what my natural needs are. I’m learning that I actually do need a lot of space and time to really learn a piece of music, or to really comprehend something that I’m reading. To live up to what I know is my desired investment in a thing takes a lot of time. For the first time in a long time, we have that, we’re forced to have that time.
5:14 AUSTIN WULLIMAN: It’s a really hard time in the world to feel like your time isn’t being pulled in a lot of directions. I’m Austin Wulliman and I’m a violinist in the JACK Quartet. But, because of the economy of our time, because of the economy of our attention, that we are the product for social media. Our attention is desired and needed. This music runs at a cross-current to that and it has a lot more to do with the deeper, more resonant, inner workings of the self and the mind, and not the noisy cultural currents of the time. The kind of twenty-seconds at most attention span things that are created so often.
5:57 JAY CAMPBELL: It’s very hard to get any solitude now. My name is Jay Campbell, I play cello in the JACK Quartet. There’s so much vying for your attention all the time, and the attention-economy thing is so real. Just the kind of the way it pervades your home life and your private life, it’s hard to get away from that stuff.
6:16 CHRISTOPHER OTTO: I think the solitude is figuring out who you really are, what is your identity, and how does that relate to the world around you or your perception. Or, is the world really just part of you? Hi, I’m Chris Otto and I play violin in the JACK Quartet. That’s one of the things I’m continually exploring just by sitting in silence and watching the mind. The stillness is important in order to be able to see clearly the sort of reflections that represent our consciousness - the kind of nameless essence of being. And for me, I think that’s really important for art, generally. It’s another way, other than meditation or other spiritual practices, music and art are other ways to tap into that baseline fundamental sense of raw, pure being. And I think that stillness and solitude are exactly a path to that.
Solitude is figuring out who you really are, what your identity is, and how it relates to the world around you. Or, is the world really just part of you?
Photo by Erik Petersen.
7:11 JLA: I believe deeply and passionately in the power and the importance of having these reservoirs of stillness, of silence, of solitude in the world, even if we rarely visit them. I’m a composer because I believe that music has a unique power to touch those places in the human heart and soul.
7:36 AW: It’s a really timely art and it’s really meaningful art. As you go deeper into this music and learn what it’s talking about with solitude and with attention to this space where you can find self in stillness, I think it is really profound.
7:53 ZP: Our lives are pulled in many directions at once. To take the time to experience stillness or to listen to music that advocates an inward state of mind might just be adding one more thing to the schedule. For some, the virtues of stillness and solitude may be unknown and experiencing them could be completely foreign.
8:12 JLA: I hope that the music somehow conveys to someone who may not even be asking the question. A state of mind, that they may not experience in their day to day lives. They may not even realize that they’re lacking until they feel it.
8:32 JC: That kind of music, if you’re really there for it, and you can really put your mind in that place, it feels like you’re taking this journey, and it just takes time to discover that space as you’re listening to it. And for me, that is a very solitary journey and it’s a long walk, through your own mind. I’m not even thinking about anything but just being in that space of very inward and solitary. But, this music is making that happen to me.
9:03 ZP: What we desire or expect from music varies greatly from person to person. Taking that solitary journey through a piece of music may not be may not be attractive for some. And the search for self within stillness could just be a path less traveled.
9:19 AW: When you’re thinking about the individual experience, that solitude and reflectiveness, is that you don’t have to be into any given piece or style at any given time. It’s not a shortcoming to not like something or not hear what’s good about something the first time. In fact, I think sometimes I’m listening my most honestly when I sometimes dislike something, and then come back to it later and like it. You’re just in different places at different times in your life.
9:47 ZP: Although our place may be different, what is similar is that people experience music mostly through recordings. And even though the models for music distribution are evolving, making a high quality recording is still very much a part of musical sharing.
10:02 JLA: I have dedicated all my life to making recordings. I am also more dedicated than ever to live performance, to the experience of music in real places. But, the way that most of us experience music now is through recordings. It’s how most people will experience my work. I approach recordings as an experience in and of themselves. A recording is not a simple record of a live performance, it is a different medium. I love the medium. I love the whole creative process of working with engineers and the performing musicians, producers, designers, and I love making recordings!
10:48 ZP: Located inside the Olivier Music Barn is a state of the art recording studio, and artists are invited to spend time creating recordings, at their leisure, within the stillness, solitude, and natural pace of the surrounding landscape.
11:02 JPR: Occasionally, we find ourselves in a situation like we did at Tippet Rise where there is this unusually amazing acoustic combined with the space and time outside of the recording studio to maintain our focus in a relaxed environment. At Tippet Rise we would record, then we would have lunch, we would record then have dinner. We would sit around and talk, we would get a good night’s rest. We would wake up, maybe exercise or walk in the snow, and then record. But geez, being in Montana in the vastness of it was really altering for us.
11:36 JLA: I have made many recordings in many locations, but my favorite place to make a recording is Tippet Rise. It’s such a dream situation where you can make recordings with time and with the musical resources and the technical resources that are needed to make something that is much more than just a document of a piece of music; something that is, in some ways, a work of art in and of itself.
12:03 ZP: Although the quality differs, there’s an overwhelming quantity of music released in today’s music economy. Once a recording is produced, there are many avenues by which we can access the listening experience, and sometimes in addition to discovering an artist you also discover a community.
12:21 AW: You know, we have a new music economy that produces many pieces of which any given listener, even the most voracious listener could only listen to a vanishingly small percentage of what’s produced. For my money, I’m glad, culturally, that there’s a little bit more fragmentation - that there’s not some clear person telling us, “This is the important contemporary music to listen to.” People have a lot more healthy sense of skepticism about those cultural gatekeepers that have been telling us that - that continue to tell us that. And I hope it continues to fragment and that there’s a chance for people to just listen more freely. There’s so much being created, I don’t trust anyone to tell me what to listen to, necessarily. No one knows half of it. You have to just kind of like build relationships and communities of listeners that want to talk about and have relationships with certain music, I guess.
13:15 ZP: Sometimes the way communities and composers talk about music can provide an open doorway for the listener to enter.
13:22 JLA: I do take my titles and my program notes and the words that I speak about the music seriously. But, I’m trying to leave them as open, as spacious as empty as I can, so that my language is a gentle invitation to someone to enter into the work.
I leave my titles and program notes spacious so that my language is a gentle invitation to enter into the work.
Photo by Erik Petersen.
13:41 CO: It’s an open-ended invitation in a way that it’s kind of an invitation to participate in this exploration of Lines Made by Walking, specifically, makes me think of that as if you’re inviting people on this journey with you, and you’re taking them along. But, it’s also an invitation to create whatever you want to inside that piece with your own perceptions. In other words, you can decide if you want to focus on this line or focus on this line, or the focus on the combination of all the lines made together or take a wide panoramic perspective on it. It’s an invitation to do any of those things and make your own path inside this network of lines. So, your actual consciousness and the way you listen is actually carving its own path into this space.
14:25 JLA: I’m obsessed with multiple streams of musical time flowing simultaneously. It turns out that four is sort of critical mass for that in my musical world. The quartet has those four dimensions. I guess what we’re really talking about here is polyphony.
14:43 AW: The pieces themselves lend towards a listening experience that’s individuated that has a lot to do with every personal reaction to it. But, the music is being created by this web of interactions between the four of us, and draws on that kind of complex relationship that we have with each other.
15:00 ZP: Not only are there complex musical relationships with four streams of musical time and four voices, but the critical mass of four musicians also creates a special dynamic for collaboration.
15:14 JC: I really value playing in a small group because it’s something you can tap into that is very hard in real life, in the chaos of real life. For me, that dynamic is a very special one, and I think it’s really emblematic of the kind of good things that we could be capable of in terms of social dynamics, and working together towards a singular goal.
15:38 ZP: One of the most exciting dynamics in music making is the collaborative process of creation. And here, this beautiful process grows from the fertile origins of solitude.
15:49 JLA: My work as a composer begins in solitude and much of my primary work, as I think of it, is solitary. It’s me in my studio day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, doing the work. But, of course, when a score leaves my studio, the work is nowhere near finished, it’s just beginning. The music is not complete until someone, really many people, take the music and make it their own. Ultimately, the work is completed in the ears, the mind, and the heart of the open-eared, open-minded, open-hearted listener. It’s the listener who ultimately completes the music.
16:34 AW: The way our field tends to work is starting with this one person, moving to the ensemble - in our case just four people, then expanding out to a team who is trying to bring this work into the field, then to trying to get some reception from people listening. I like that as a growing organism, a growing community around the piece, even.
16:54 JPR: My real interest in music making is in the community aspect of it, and the sharing and the various forms of intimacy that happen. Maybe a better word for it is vulnerability. When a performer works with a composer, the composer makes themselves vulnerable to the performer, and the performer makes themselves vulnerable back to the composer. In the case of a string quartet, though, the four of us make ourselves really vulnerable, and then of course walking out on stage and doing this incredibly intimate thing in front of an audience. And then, if you put on top of that the real delicacy and subtlety of John’s music, specifically, it magnifies all of those things.
17:38 JLA: In much of my work, I want to be overwhelmed by the sound. I want that for myself and I want that for you as a listener. But, in the quartets to be sure there’s a lot of sound for only four players, with only four musicians. We can still saturate the musical space in a certain way, but it’s a gentler invitation, or it’s a different relationship between the listener and the music. It is, perhaps, more intimate and more personal even though it is still assiduously not about my own self-expression.
18:19 John Luther Adams Lines Made by Walking I. Up the Mountain performed by the JACK Quartet
19:04 AW: What I love about that moment of creation in this music is that it actually offers a challenge through simplicity. It’s very meditative as a performer to have to settle into playing what can be very exposed, fragile textures for a long period of time. The gestures are changing in relation to each other but are often similar, not exactly the same gestures and motions, so that you have your own statement to make in some sort of harmonious, but not always obvious, relationship. I think that lends itself to a kind of intimacy of simplicity, just that kind of simple space of mediation and perception.
What I love about that moment of creation is that it offers a challenge through simplicity.
Photo by Erik Petersen.
19:45 CO: For me, it’s about expanding our minds and expanding our conscious perceptions, and tapping into something very fundamental to our nature as humans.
19:55 ZP: The word space is used in a couple of different ways here. There’s the acoustic space of the Olivier Music Barn and the sound is saturating that sonic environment. But within the music, as Austin mentioned the, “challenge through simplicity,” there’s room for the listener to focus on single lines, pairings, or all four voices. In other words, where you place your focus becomes your path. And for this music, the more attention you invest, the more you’ll gain.
20:24 JLA: And, it requires more work on the part of a listener. Lines Made by Walking requires a little more suspension of disbelief, a little more active letting go on the part of the listener.
20:40 JPR: I relate exactly to what John is saying and how I respond to his music. It takes a lot of time to listen to a piece of his music. And, I think to listen to a piece of his music requires real attention, or you don’t really tap into the space and the solitude that the music inhabits.
21:00 JC: Now, I think a lot of music is relegated to background or as something to drown out the rest of the world, rather than something to actually go into and actively be a part of as a listener. So really the type of active listening is such a different part of the brain. It takes energy and it takes focus. Even the scope of it and the length of it is really challenging, and the repetitiousness of it is challenging. I think as a listener if you can rise to that occasion, really doing it can be so rewarding.
21:31 AW: I think it’s also just a question of how much you’re willing to just slow down and truly hear something.
21:37 JPR: I would say though that I don’t think we need to be under quarantine and isolated to appreciate his music. I think that the busy person, the really active personality gains a lot from listening to John’s music in any way, whether it’s superficially or focused.
21:57 JC: I find it very rare to hear people talk about the kind of active quality that it takes from an audience member to really have a rich experience with any art, but maybe music is especially relevant. I think that listening is not so much an issue of understanding or knowing what the piece is about, but really an active interpretation that’s happening in real time. Just as much as the performers do in real time. And I think when a listener is really that deep into it, they’re just as much a part of the performance and a part of the music as the performers are I think.
22:35 ZP: This idea of investment can really be applied to anything in life, but how we decide the things to invest ourselves in, is really the crux of it. We mentioned that our attention is sought after and pulled in so many directions, and often our natural instinct is to focus on the things we’re most familiar with. But what would it be like to fully invest your attention in the things that are unfamiliar to you?
23:00 AW: I think that’s what’s interesting especially about music that you’re not familiar with, stylistically too. It’s learning to come to a piece on it’s own terms, learning to experience a piece on a different timescale maybe than what you’re comfortable with or learning to experience a timbre that you weren’t accustomed to hearing musically before, and feeling how that can shift your relationship with the given moment. Kind of after the fact, because you need just sort of experience it because until you’ve experienced it, how could you know what to think about it? It’s the biggest mistake that I make all the time, listening, is thinking I know it all.
23:37 ZP: If you do listen deeply and become, as Jay said, “a part of the performance and music,” it can still be an outwardly subtle experience, especially with music that evokes stillness and solitude. But there’s an inward depth, here, that simply takes time to achieve.
23:52 JPR: I think it’s a lot easier to know when people are involved, whether it’s the audience, composer, or performer with high-energy music, or music that allows for laughter or verbal participation. Like if someone goes, “Mm”, you know, or actually laughs, or if there’s a desire to clap while the performance is happening - you know like that kind of participation is very clear. Where it becomes harder to read is this music that comes from a place of solitude, because nobody wants to interrupt that placid veneer.
24:29 JLA: I think what I want for a listener is exactly what I want for myself, that is to be in touch with something bigger, deeper, and more mysterious than I can fathom, something beyond my own feelings, and perhaps beyond my own understanding. Once they enter the music, then hopefully they’ll discover something else that I didn’t know was there.
24:52 JC: Every piece should be a constant sense of discovery. I think something that is beautiful about whether you’re playing Beethoven or JLA is that if you’re actively listening, if you’re an active participant in the music making that’s happening in front of you, there is room for surprises in every single measure, even if you know the piece. In fact, sometimes even more so if you know the piece. That’s what I like to suggest to people, just to really have that type of active listening that you are creating this journey. All we’re doing is just making “wiggly air,” all the music is actually happening in your brain. On the other hand, if you’re not actively listening, almost anything can be made to feel like it’s meaningless. And, I think especially when we get into a lot of the music that we play, and kind of more abstract, you have to be really active, otherwise it all can seem meaningless.
Every piece should be a constant sense of discovery.
Photo by Erik Petersen.
25:44 ZP: This is such an important point not just for music, but for most things we experience. Where we get into trouble is when we begin to segregate, to group, label and form expectations. But the essence of musical discovery is to hear the individual voices on their own terms. This is a practice that music offers us, but can easily be applied to our culture.
26:05 AW: It’s really easy to lose that sense of listening for either a kind of cultural comparison, trying to have some way to contextualize it, or be able to say something smart afterwards, or a point of critique if you’ve been taught music in a certain way. I feel like I was taught to listen “Critically,” , that was with air quotes, “critically,” which could be helpful for improving your performance level, but it can also be really detrimental for being able to find the deeper logic of any given new piece, especially truly creative new styles which is what I think we’re hoping for? I think we’re hoping for people to have truly individual voices, and that’s hard to notice if you’re too busy comparing.
26:51 JLA: To tie it to culture is really my work. All my life I’ve lived on the margins of our culture, and I’ve done so with the belief that the edges, the margins are where the most exciting things happen. Where change happens, where one thing becomes another and if you look at ecosystems, it’s the intertidal zone where there’s this huge profusion of life. It’s always the edges of ecosystems where things are really happening.
27:28 JC: For me, I think the fringe is super interesting and I think that’s why I was attracted to newer art in the first place, is that I don’t necessarily want to experience the same things over and over again. I don’t think that hearing multiple listens of a Beethoven quartet means that you’re hearing the same piece. The richness of that music is that you can experience it in so many different ways over and over again.
27:50 ZP: Over time, thoughts and ideas can collect a kind of historical baggage. The standard form of the string quartet is two hundred seventy years old. But music transcends and evolves to not only embrace its current time, but perhaps inspire a way forward.
28:06 CO: The string quartet format has so many associations and so much history. Part of it is about bringing new life into that - it’s always evolving. And, if it tries to stay the same, you treat the string quartet as like a static object, it doesn’t go anywhere and it doesn’t engage with our current lives. It’s all a memory, it’s all a nostalgia. I think it’s very important to inject this kind of dynamism into people’s perception of not just the string quartet, but also music, generally. I hope that we can bring our music to more people than just those that are already following classical music already.
28:43 JPR: Thinking about an example of nature, whether it’s a wide open field or majestic mountain, and then comparing that to a piece of expansive music, for instance, makes a lot of sense. We see the relationship between the two feelings or awarenesses of each of those things and how they relate. The music might not be about a mountain or a field or an expanse, and the mountain certainly isn’t about anything, it just is. I think that drawing on those relationships, those similarities, is what’s powerful about both things, and our understanding of - not the meaning of music, but the impact of it.
29:30 ZP: The power of music can be seen not only in its ability to inspire a culture, but also its impact on the individual.
29:38 JC: For me the moments that were flashes of light in my memory where things that helped me just discover the corners of my brain that I didn’t even know were there - associations with music that I never thought I could pair. Personally speaking, when I was twenty two, I wasn’t really interested in really long, transportive music like JLA. That was something that happened after doing it and doing it many times. And seeing what the experience could give me and where that would take my brain, and kind of bring me into this place that’s almost like transcending time. That took many, many experiences of playing those pieces that treat time really differently, to actually be able to think about time in a larger sense, myself. Those experiences separated by time create this higher, longer level of time that I feel like I could chart out my experience of becoming more patient with music that demands that kind of patience.
30:42 AW: For me as a younger person, especially, I was part of the A.D.D. generation. I was very much scattered, on Ritalin as a kid, trying to find focus and find a place for my attention to go, and all the energy I had which was really bountiful - tons of energy, but a lack of focus for it. When I started going deep into music in highschool and really listening to music, and by dent of that going deeper and deeper into playing music, finding that focus was really life changing for me, and changed my path completely.
31:23 John Luther Adams Lines Made by Walking II. Along the Ridges performed by the JACK Quartet
31:54 JLA: I’ve spent my whole life working at the margins of culture with the belief, the hope, the faith that I might be able to discover something useful or rediscover something that maybe we’ve forgotten and give voice to it through music. I, as an artist, want to help imagine a new culture and do whatever I can to leave something that maybe a clue, maybe an inspiration, maybe of use to the next generations who will bring that culture into being.
32:29 ZP: One of our greatest challenges is being so immersed in a way of life that we aren’t able to see outside of it and the expansion of our language and our worldviews is critical for cultural renewal.
32:42 CO: A lot of times a lot of us really put ourselves in boxes and we have our certain blinders on and certain filters on the way we perceive the world, and our worldview can get rigid. I think one of the functions of art and just what our creative practice in the JACK Quartet has always been to look at those boundaries, first of all, and sort of play with them, push them. It’s not about going off into outer space and being completely disconnected from everyone else’s reality or world view, but its about playing with the boundaries and edging them in different directions, and bringing them back. My hope is that when you listen to music that does this, it can help you question everything if you can cultivate that kind of open mindedness and curiosity, and interest - just paying attention or the qualities of paying attention itself will play out across everyone’s lives, and I think will hopefully make positive changes.
33:33 AW: What does it mean to be a person who isn’t just trying to speak the language that the culture already understands, but rather expand the lexicon or push a sense of thinking outside of what’s acceptable. To me, that’s what music has always offered me is that space to expand my ways of thinking and to be receptive to bigger ideas than what I was before, hopefully.
What does it mean to be a person who isn’t just trying to speak the language, but rather expand the lexicon?
Photo by Erik Petersen.
34:02 ZP: This is where the collaborative creative process really shines. In the simple act of making music so much is happening to develop traits and core principles of a beautiful culture, like really listening to one another, patience, deferring roles of leadership, learning to accompany in a harmonious way, and exchanging ideas and new ways of thinking.
34:24 JC: I’ve learned the most from composers who were writing music for me or were working on their music with me. And something that I’m constantly fighting myself, because I can be a pretty impatient person sometimes, what I’m constantly fighting is the urge to get a composer to do something in a certain way that I know has worked before. To use like, “Oh, no this is the technique that you want. This is the way that you want to notate it. This is what you’re going after.” I think trying to avoid that can be frustrating because it requires either re-learning to read notation or reconceptualize how you approach your instrument. But, for me, those experiences began in frustration and ended with a deeper understanding of my instrument and of my playing, and on some level of myself with what frustrates me and what is really rewarding.
35:15 AW: Just noting the way it feels in the body I think is a cool place for me to start in what a piece means because I get to have that kind of relationship with it. The first thing I notice is how different my body feels as a musician with all the different styles and music that we’re asked to play. Every piece feels different in the body, and that exploration on a physical human level is fascinating.
35:41 JC: Trying to approach each composer and their music as a fresh slate and to not compare it so much to everyone else. That’s difficult but I hope, ultimately, rewarding. My role in that collaboration I don’t want to be something that normalizes the kind of art that they’re making. I don’t want to be the medium through which it becomes more like other people’s music.
36:04 ZP: It might even take some sort of personal statement, like Jay’s commitment against normalizing the music, to remind us to not let the gravity of familiarity chart our course for us. It’s very much a practice to keep moving towards the unknown. But, if this becomes a part of who we are, we’re guaranteed to grow and learn.
36:25 AW: It’s fascinating for me to think about pieces that I reacted to early on in my life of getting interested in this “music on the edges” that at the time I had no frame of reference for understanding or getting. But, because somebody told me it was okay to like it, I kind of got curious and kept looking. I think because of that, my “from small town Indiana” brain changed a lot over time, in terms of what ideas I was receptive to, what kind of perspectives I thought were interesting, and I think eventually to a place of a lot more openness of being incorrect or not knowing. Not needing to be the expert, but rather, be the person who is constantly learning from what someone else is bringing, whether that’s musically or in terms of their thought.
37:14 JC: I find myself having this problem as I get older. When I do something new I need to learn the ins and outs of why and how and what, rather than when you’re a kid you just do it, you fail at it, you do it again and just throw yourself into it. When I experience a new piece of music I like to just have it completely wash over me. I reserve all of my judgements of aesthetic performance or anything, and I just try to go along for the ride. Understanding something is completely unrelated to the enjoyment of something. I actually think it’s a huge thing in new music that some of the stuff that scares people away isn’t so much the music that’s being played because, right now, we’re in a renaissance of people writing gorgeous, beautiful music! I think a lot of it is an issue of people feeling like they don’t understand something and they’re scared of it because they don’t understand something. And understanding something I don’t think is important.
38:11 ZP: This is an organic way to experience new ideas and expand your awareness, but don’t confuse it with a lack of intention. It’s not about equalizing all ideas, but rather moving forward with a much more informed experience and appreciation.
38:29 AW: It’s interesting to find this safe space to think but then, I also really do have some strong beliefs and I want music to be challenging and push people in a certain direction. With John Luther Adams’ music, it’s like the music provides you space to think and interact with nature, but also now think about nature! Let’s do something about saving our planet, you know, like let’s do it! Not just like, okay that was pretty, you know? What level of functionality does music need beyond that listening space and for people to feel like their artist work or lifetime is being recognized - that their thought is being perceived through their music and not just heard as a pretty noise.
39:13 JLA: Years ago, the Canadian composer, Murray Schafer wrote a beautiful essay, which he produced as a radio piece for the CBC, called “Music in the Cold.” I practically memorized Schafer’s words. The conclusion of that piece he says, “I will build a culture fresh as a young animal. It will take time. It will take time. There will be time.” I’ve dedicated my whole life to that slow process of trying to imagine and do whatever I can to help bring about a new culture.
39:55 ZP: There’s a recurring theme of perspective change in order to truly understand your place. Sometimes it’s not about what surrounds you, but what does not surround you. And this is where landscape and geographic location can offer insights, where those rare reservoirs of stillness and solitude can become a kind of teacher.
40:15 JLA: Out of the way places, places of singular beauty and power, have this special role to play in the renewal of art and culture, and that takes time. It has to be sustained over years. I see places like this as outposts of this culture that doesn’t yet exist - outposts of renewal for the human spirit and for human culture.
Out of the way places, places of singular beauty and power, have a special role to play in the renewal of art and culture.
Photo by Erik Petersen.
40:42 ZP: Perspective change also happens when we actively seek those things which we don’t know.
40:47 JPR: We do work hard to steer our quartet in various directions and to bring in perspectives that we don’t have already, or that we don’t feel familiar with. So in that sense, we’re conscious about pursuing various trails. I know what it feels like to kind of let things happen. I mean there’s something really valuable in that, it’s very natural and easy, but it can lead to a lack of intention.
41:13 ZP: Even though we still have the recordings to listen to, at a time when our shared experience of music is taken away, it’s important to think not only about the enjoyable concerts we’ve missed or the excitement of hearing a favorite piece again, but all the other ways that music adds unique value to our lives and to our culture. As the stillness and solitude of winter approach, it’s a chance to imagine what a future looks like if we decide to intentionally focus on music, to invest in things with significant depth, and to think about what music means to you.
41:50 JC: What I like about being in a quartet, when it really is at its best, and I think this is true of all chamber music when it’s at its best, but you have a glimpse into what a more empathetic, fairer society might look like. Everyone being equally important, equally deferential, and the idea of leadership is very fluid and changing constantly with different insights happening in real time, and looking for deeper resonances with other people through a deeper listening and empathetic listening. And it’s in this shared communal space of respect and trust.
42:29 CO: You know, on a practical level when I play violin, within the quartet for example, I’m actually thinking about is the relation of the tone I’m producing to the other tones happening. What kind of relation is that? Is it an equality, is it a conversation? When people are talking and having a conversation it’s a little bit different, obviously, in that we’re not talking simultaneously, generally, but we’re spreading it out over time. It’s not necessarily just the conversation itself, but if you imagine a conversation between two people as a counterpoint, where it’s not just one happening then the other, but both are actually engaged at the same time. Then, it’s actually a more fluid relationship. There’s definitely a relation there between the power-relations of society and between notes. And I think there’s a powerful model for us to explore, in music, how society can be structured.
43:22 AW: So that’s what I hope we’re doing with our work. By trying to work with lots of artists with interesting, thoughtful, world views who are creating music from a place of a really beautiful, humanistic expression - whatever that is. That can mean a lot of very, very different things to different people coming from different backgrounds, different places, different musical trainings - all of that and trying to give that a voice that people can at least start to hear.
43:52 JC: Really trying to embrace that and bring out the differences of each composer of each piece. Because I think that’s where the beauty of that is, and a collaborative experience like that is really about the people that you’re collaborating with.
The beauty of a collaborative experience is really about the people that you’re collaborating with.
Photo by Erik Petersen.
44:10 AW: So, what I think is so powerful John’s presence as a living composer is the way that his artistic project opens up a space being created right here and now that we can start to pull apart and find our time in.
John Luther Adams Lines Made By Walking III. Down the Mountain performed by the JACK Quartet
44:56 JLA: I can just follow the music and do my best to be true to what I think the music wants of me, and then give it to the JACK in the confidence that they will know what to do. They will know how to finish it - each of the four members of the quartet on their own, and then this synergy, this wonderful collective mind that emerges from the ensemble, too. I am blessed to be part of a family of musicians, my closest musical friends and confidants, and collaborators. And, among those people are the JACK Quartet.
45:36 CO: I think we’re just one node in a chain of creative influence. We’re part of this web of creative practice, and trying to strengthen those connections as much as possible in every direction, and also widen our nets in terms of who we work with. That’s one of those things that feeds us as a group is those collaborations.
45:57 JC: On some level I like to think of the four of us and the composers that we work with, and the artists that we work with, on some level I like to think of ourselves as researchers in some way. We’re going through a lot of stuff, seeing what works, seeing what kind of doesn’t work. You know, we’re bouncing things off of a lot of different people and we’re trying a lot of things out. You know, we’re researching things that I hope can enrich people’s lives and their interior lives and their souls. Art, for me, makes the experience of being alive worth it. And those things are important and I wish that everyone saw the value of that and it was easier to get it.
46:35 AW: It’s been a growing experience for me over my life to figure out how to be the best version of myself in a chamber music ensemble. You pick up something from someone else every time you’re playing, if you’re listening. Every time you pick up your instrument and are really listening to what’s going on around you, you learn something about music and if you really have a deep relationship with music, then I think you learn something about other people and the world, and how to practice some form of more conscious listening. Because I think sometimes we don’t even know what to listen for, and I think that the openness of music can give us a space to provide more room for our minds to find ways to listen better and figure out what we should actually be listening to or listening for.
47:26 ZP: If we can really listen, the artists and musicians who seek the knowledge of the cultural margins, the fringe areas of the unknown, have much to teach. The research and work they commit themselves to is essential for the renewal of culture. But as Murray Shafer said, “It will take time, it will take time, there will be time.”
47:47 CO: Looking back at all the music that we’ve done over the last fifteen years, it’s pretty overwhelming to think about all that at once. The only way we can get through it is in each moment and each day by day and engaging. I’m not necessarily even thinking about where is music heading or where did it come from, it’s a very present-focused practice, although we are playing music from eight hundred years ago as well as things being written now, and thinking a lot about music we want to happen in the future. I try not to get too wrapped up in thinking about the future and the past as different things. The most real thing is always the present.
48:25 JC: When you’re expanding out into the fringe, there’s no other option but to develop yourself, you grow. You find new things that were in you that you didn’t know were there, and I think that honestly is why I keep playing new music for those moments. It feels like I’m chasing those moments where it’s just like I didn’t even know X, Y, or Z, and this piece showed me that.
John Luther Adams Four Thousand Holes performed by: Vicky Chow and Doug Perkins
48:51 JPR: I feel really grateful. Grateful that I have the opportunity. Grateful that I even know the rest of the quartet members and am able to play with them. We bring our different experiences together to make all of this possible in a way that’s fun and meaningful. It’s a hard world and we have to work hard to get by. I feel grateful for opportunities to experience art. I think that opportunities to make art in this day and age are a gift.
49:23 ZP: Music, like the stillness and solitude of a Montana winter, is a special kind of gift. It opens the doors of empathy and equality, and allows us to find the deeper resonances within ourselves and each other. Even though many face challenging circumstances, we hope that the gift of music can be unifying and reassuring to you and your family over this holiday season.
49:50 CO: I always have to keep that in mind even though sometimes things are difficult and the life of the musicians is seemingly less predictable or routine, or stable - or at least the types of musicians we are, but it’s definitely worth it because the opportunity to actually engage with music every single day and share it with people is truly amazing. I’m reminded of that constantly. There’s a spirit of gratitude that I always try to bring to this practice because to be so lucky to be in the position we are in and to be able to hear music, and create music and share it with people is a real gift and it’s certainly not to be taken for granted. And, I think it’s the ultimate gift in that it’s sort of revealing in what we had all along - revealing ourselves. Listening to music can cause these feelings that we didn’t even know we had to sort of well up and overpower us in amazing ways. So, I think there’s no doubt that music is a gift to ourselves.
50:52 AW: It’s a cool way to talk about music is as a gift, and so much of what that means to me is a lot of what I picked up over decades and decades of musical education. The greatest thing that people who have a deep relationship can do is to help model being a musical learner to other people. I think it’s what the JACK Quartet tries to do. I think all four of us really believe in the idea of learning for life from people both younger and older than us, people from really different musical backgrounds, and to try to not erase the value of things that we cherish, but rather to increase the value of it by seeing the kind of gifts that every different person that we make music with or talk about music with has to offer. I think that gift can grow more and more valuable when we’re open to that gift not being a static object. Learning about what music is in depth is valuable from whatever angle you can.
51:55 JLA: Ultimately, art is not a career, art is a life, it is a devotion, it is a calling, and it is a gift. It is a gift to receive. In gift-giving cultures throughout the world, and throughout history, the reality is the gift must keep moving. The gift belongs to no one and to everyone. Whatever we have, whether we’re fortunate to have monetary resources, or physical resources, or talent resources, or whatever it is. Each of us have a certain kind of wealth, but we’re all in service to this gift of art and music.
Ultimately, art is not a career, art is a life. It is a devotion, it is a calling, and it is a gift.
Photo by Erik Petersen.