Natural phenomena drives gallery

Composer gives sound to earthquakes, moon at Fairbanks museum

Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2006

FAIRBANKS - When the next big earthquake hits, John Luther Adams jokes, he'll be running into the University of Alaska Museum of the North while everyone else runs out.

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He won't be able to resist hearing music the quake generates in the provocative gallery he designed, The Place Where You Go to Listen.

What nature left quiet, Adams has assigned sound. The 53-year-old avant-garde composer gave digital notes to natural phenomena such as earthquakes, the aurora borealis and the moon, then let their movements dictate the composition in a never-ending chamber music performance. He calls it tuning the world.

"It's a self-contained world of sound and light that is directly connected to the real world," Adams says. "My job was to map that world, tune it, set it in motion and trust the forces of nature to provide the moment-to-moment music and atmosphere in the space."

The space is roughly 21-feet-by-9-feet. All is white, except for five coated glass panels measuring 10 feet high and 20 feet wide, lighted by colors that change with the position of the sun.

Data feeds from five seismic stations north and south of Fairbanks send readings of earthquake activity to a computer that translates them into sound. Likewise, magnetometers from Kaktovik on the Arctic coast to Gakona in the Alaska Range send in live readings of disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field, which on dark nights, are reflected as the aurora borealis.

Sky conditions and the position of the sun and moon add to the concert. Sound pours through 14 speakers in the walls and ceiling.

Under bright skies a few days after summer solstice, the glass panels glowed yellow across the top and a deep blue along the bottom. As might be expected with nearly 22 hours of daylight, the sun sound dominated, high and bright, like fairies gabbing. Rumbling below, tied to feeds from the seismic stations, were dark, foreboding rumblings of what Adams calls "earth drums."

The moon - a soloist in the composition - was just a sliver. Likewise, aurora activity was minimal, leaving those two voices out of the sound landscape except to the keenest ear.

The moon showed up a few days later, almost reedy, like a child blowing on an empty Coke bottle. It took the edge off the bright sun sound, like putting on a pair of sunglasses on a radiant day.

To the first-time visitor, it can be just so much noise. But people who linger may detect subtle changes, feeling the sounds pulsate, picking out voices in the choir.

The juxtaposition of sounds is a mix of audacious, unearthly tones that baffles anyone expecting a traditional melody.

Adams is used to causing such sensations. His compositions have been described as mesmerizing, abrasive or unsettling - and if nothing else, challenging. His album, "The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies," a 70-minute piece for a percussion soloist, includes eight minutes of crashing cymbals and an entire movement written for an air-raid siren.

As planning began for a $42 million museum expansion, Director Aldona Jonaitis wanted something that appealed to the ear. She credits Adams for the concept. Adams said it was her idea. "She asked me for a quiet, contemplative space within this busy, vibrant museum," he says.

"I thought this was a great opportunity to have a sound experience that communicated the sense of place in Alaska, which is what the whole museum is about," Jonaitis says.

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