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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Listening to Alaska

Air Date: Week of

In an empty white room in a museum in Fairbanks, composer John Luther Adams has created a soundscape of geological and environmental scenes of Alaska. Amy Mayer reports.


CURWOOD: An exhibition that translates real-time data from Alaska’s changing natural environment into music recently opened at a museum in Fairbanks. It’s the product of an unusual collaboration between a composer and several scientists. Amy Mayer has the story.

[MUSIC: Earth and the Great Weather, “The Place Where You Go To Listen”]

MAYER: Composer John Luther Adams has long drawn inspiration from the people and land of the North, as in this track from his CD “Earth and the Great Weather.” But in his newest piece, Alaska literally makes the music.


MAYER: The Place Where You Go To Listen is a permanent installation at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks. The small, irregularly shaped white room is lit primarily by colored lights that change hue as the sun and moon rise and set. The sparse setting helps visitors focus on what they’re hearing. Adams says he used a familiar technique to create brand-new results.

ADAMS: Even though this is not a piece of music in the traditional sense with a beginning, middle and end – it’s not written for human performers playing acoustical instruments – creating it still involved the process of imaging sounds.

MAYER: Adams selected specific ranges of tone and frequency to represent different natural phenomena. The “voice” of the aurora borealis is bell-like. Seismic activity and the location of the sun and moon are also audibly illustrated. When you enter, the 14 speakers envelope you in sound. Curt Szuberla, a physicist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, is one of Adams’ collaborators. He describes The Place as a virtual electronic instrument made up of bells, drums and strings.

SZUBERLA: The strings and bells and drumheads are plucked, bashed and banged based on the geophysical data streams. And the geophysical data streams, whether they are calculated or actual, those are the fingers and mallets and bells that hit things and make things sound, and string plucks, that you hear inside The Place.

MAYER: Szuberla wrote a program that continuously calculates the positions of the sun and the moon. Here’s what Adams calls the day choir.


MAYER: And when the sun sets, which can be as early as 3 p.m. in the winter in Fairbanks, the sound changes.


MAYER: Alaska’s state seismologist, Roger Hansen, also collaborated with Adams. Real-time seismic data continuously flows in from five stations around Fairbanks. Hansen says geologists have for decades sped up sounds of tectonic movements so humans could hear them. The low-toned drum sounds Adams developed to represent earthquakes are more artistic, but you can only hear them if you visit The Place since the low frequencies won’t reproduce over the radio. Hansen says he enjoys the intersection of music and science.

HANSEN: We have the fidelity of seismic data. It comes with different frequencies and amplitudes and harmonics – and those are all the same physics issues that you have in music, you know, whether it’s piano strings or organ pipes.


MAYER: Those are the “bells” of the aurora borealis. Heard inside The Place Where You Go To Listen, they mix with the other sounds.


MAYER: Dirk Lummerzheim, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, researches the controversial question of whether the aurora has sound. He helped Adams find a flow of aurora information that’s available even when the sky is bright and the northern lights aren’t visible from earth.

LUMMERZHEIM: So we were looking for data that had nothing to do with the light that comes from aurora. We had to find other things that had to do with aurora, and the one we eventually settled on is the magnetic field of the Earth.


MAYER: Adams says his collaborators educated him about science and welcomed him into their areas of research, answering frequent questions and recalculating formulas for him as he strived to find the right sonic representations of their data.

ADAMS: At a certain level, it was like… they were the boys in the band, you know?


MAYER: And, Adams adds, their scientific minds – which proved far more creative than he expected – have changed the way he thinks about his own work. Years ago, when Adams first began exploring the creation of a musical landscape based on real scientific information, he contacted another physicist, John Olsen. Olsen’s work never became a part of the installation, but the relationship between composer and scientist grew alongside the project. John Luther Adams says a recent conversation they had ended in a surprising way.

ADAMS: He said, `Oh John, John, just one final thing.’ And he said, `I just wanted to tell you that working with you has fundamentally changed the way I understand my own data, my own work.’ And I was just floored. To me that was the ultimate compliment that an artist could receive from a scientist.

MAYER: It likely won’t be the last. Adams is already dreaming of another collaboration with scientists. This one would be based on weather and could be set up in various places around the globe.

[MUSIC: John Luther Adams “(unknown)” from ‘The Place Where You Go To Listen’ (2006)]

For Living on Earth, I’m Amy Mayer in Fairbanks, Alaska.



University of Alaska Museum of the North


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