Tuning the World (and Ourselves)
How medieval music theory can help us fight climate change.
Step into a small, odd-shaped room at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska, and you can hear the music of the spheres. In The Place Where You Go to Listen, a permanent installation by American composer John Luther Adams, computer algorithms convert meteorological and seismic data into patterns of sound and light. The music changes with the time of day, the season of the year, the phase of the moon, and even the current temperament of Alaska’s tectonic plates.
On the summer solstice, for example, the wall of vibrant, shimmering sound recalls noontime sun and makes you want to squint. Sixth months later, the music is lower pitched and shines like crystalline ice. During an aurora, high-pitched bells sparkle above the rest of the soundscape. And when the earth below Fairbanks shakes, an erratic drumming alerts listeners to even the gentlest of tremors.
The Place isn’t Adams’s only experimental work. The cyclical movements of his later composition Become Ocean evoke the patterns of the tides; other works, such as the participatory Inuksuit or the meandering Lines Made by Walking, follow the contours of the land. His compositions mimic the rhythms and relationships of the natural world and invite us to consider it closely. This kind of music—dependent on the non-human world rather than conventional musical forms—has little precedent in the Western classical tradition. Adams’s interest in making music out of cosmic cycles, however, does have a historical counterpart in something much older: medieval music theory.
Hearing the Cosmic Music
In the Middle Ages, liberal arts education was divided into the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music). As the other subjects of the quadrivium suggest, musical study wasn’t aimed at singing or playing an instrument well. Instead, learning music was about mastering the mathematical relationships that govern time, space, and sound.
For centuries, the standard music-theory textbook was a treatise by the sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius. According to Boethius, there are three kinds of music: cosmic, human, and instrumental. Cosmic music (also called the “music of the spheres”) refers to the perfect ratios and patterns built into the universe by God: the orbits of heavenly bodies, the rhythms of the seasons, and the proportions of the four elements.
Human music is the analogous balance between different parts of the human soul. When our souls are in tune, we act virtuously—in harmony with the rest of the universe. Harmonizing our souls with the cosmos is a major theme of Boethius’s most famous book, The Consolation of Philosophy, in which the narrator learns to take comfort in the divine order of the universe.
Instrumental (or “audible”) music is what we simply call “music” today: patterned sound built from the ratios between different frequencies. According to legend, Pythagoras discovered these musical relationships as he watched blacksmiths bang on differently sized anvils and compared the sounds they made. But the idea is easier to grasp using strings: Cut the length of a string in half, and the pitch it makes when plucked goes up an octave. Cut it into thirds instead, and it goes up another fifth. Because audible music is composed of these orderly ratios, Boethius writes, it can both teach us about the musical structure of the universe and affect the musical balance of our souls.
This power over our souls makes music potentially dangerous. Unless its use is governed by reason, music’s beauty can beguile listeners’ senses and tempt them away from philosophical contemplation. But students who master the mathematics of sound, soul, and sky can avoid this hazard, pointing themselves and others toward the perfect music of the heavenly spheres. For Boethius, audible music is both literally and figuratively “instrumental,” a sonic signpost on the way to the heavens.
The Place Where You Go to Listen is full of mathematical intricacies reminiscent of Boethius. For example, each of the piece’s musical components is tuned from a fundamental frequency of 22.47 Hz. This pitch, slightly below the lowest note on a piano, is the frequency of the earth’s rotation transposed up twenty-one octaves. By transforming an astronomically slow rhythm into perceivable pitch, Adams creates what he calls “a virtual world that resonates sympathetically with the real world”—or, in medieval terms, an audible echo of the music of the spheres. Like Boethius, he treats musical sound and heavenly motion as two versions of the same phenomenon.
This doesn’t mean Adams would make a good medieval music-theory teacher. A true Boethian devotee would want their audience to emerge with a deep intellectual understanding of the mathematics of day and night, solstice and equinox, aurora and earthquake. Adams, however, keeps all these details backstage. The point of The Place, he writes, is not to “convey information” but to “provoke experience”—to reveal the hidden workings of the world to his listeners through their senses. In a reversal of Boethian priorities, Adams thinks our senses are more capable of connecting us with the non-human world than our intellects are, because “reality is always larger, richer, and more complex than our ideas about it.”
But Adams shares Boethius’s optimism about music’s power to turn ignorance into virtue. Adams, aware of the ways humans have harmed our planet, thinks we need to develop “a clear-eyed, open-eared attention to reality” if we are going to have any hope of reversing course. And he believes that The Place can help foster this curiosity and care for our planetary home, this habit of listening to the world. These are different virtues from the classical ones Boethius aims for, but both are grounded in harmony between humans and their cosmic home.
While his confidence in music’s ethical influence can come across as naïve and idealist, Adams is no stranger to political reality. He spent much of his early adulthood as an environmental activist in Alaska, fighting for the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which Jimmy Carter signed in 1980. But he turned away from direct political action soon after, choosing full-time composition instead. “Someone else could take my place in politics,” he reasoned. “No one else could make the music I imagined but me.”
While he never abandoned his political convictions, Adams has, for the most part, purposefully avoided creating explicitly political art. Instead, his music often evokes the beauty of nature. But Adams knows this isn’t always enough. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud,” he writes, “as though my life doesn’t live up to the aspirations of my work.” What good are a few pieces of music against the constellation of forces currently threatening the world? And yet, he insists that “the object of art and life is not success. It seems to me that the best any of us can do is try to conduct our lives so that, on balance, we give more than we take—from the earth, and from our fellow human beings.” The Place, then, is a gift: to visitors, the gift of listening; to the earth, the gift of being heard.
An Aquatic Apocalypse
The tension between Adams’s artistic idealism and ecological concern broke in 2013, when Adams premiered his most political work so far: the forty-two-minute orchestral piece Become Ocean. Its cresting brass waves and bubbling harp currents don’t just pay tribute to the beauty of the seas; they warn of a coming oceanic crisis. Adams notes in the score, “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”
The piece captivated audiences and critics alike. Alex Ross of the New Yorker called it “the loveliest apocalypse in music history.” Its “haunting” evocation of a “relentless tidal surge” earned Adams the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. And Taylor Swift was so moved by the Seattle Symphony’s debut recording that she donated $50,000 to the orchestra.
Become Ocean is part of a long tradition of ocean-themed classical music, from Claude Debussy’s La Mer to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony. But unlike many of its predecessors, Become Ocean doesn’t imitate the swashbuckling sounds of storms or ships. Instead, it evokes the ocean’s rhythms: the regular tides and currents that sweep around the planet.
The orchestra is divided into three groups—winds, brass, and strings—each of which cycle between soft and loud at a different rate. According to Ross’s analysis, the winds repeat their pattern every forty-two measures, the brass every ninety, and the strings every thirty. These patterns line up to create climactic fortes and hushed pianos every seven minutes. And once the central climax arrives at the twenty-one-minute mark, everything begins to play backward, revealing the piece to be a palindrome. Like the coming and going of the tides, these patterns are almost imperceptive from moment to moment, and yet they add up to powerful movement over time.
The piece, like the ocean itself, is both beautiful and terrifying. This combination, often called “the sublime,” was first examined by first-century Greek writer Longinus (who compared artful writing to the power of a thunderbolt). Irish philosopher Edmund Burke revived the idea in the eighteenth century, and it was popularized by Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the nineteenth. For Adams, the sublime is one way of expressing the “inextricable wholeness [in] our experience of the world.” In the face of the vast cosmos, you can’t separate awe from fear, joy from sorrow, hope from despair. This is doubly true in the age of climate change, Become Ocean suggests, when the ocean’s beauty is under siege and its wrath may soon turn against us.
In the face of the vast cosmos, you can’t separate awe from fear, joy from sorrow, hope from despair. This is doubly true in the age of climate change.
Become Ocean’s overt political message ends there. But there’s something else going on in the piece’s depths, something that Adams’s Boethian tendencies can help us parse. Despite the piece’s cataclysmic theme, the music itself evokes a world even more harmonious and Boethian than that of The Place Where You Go to Listen. The Place’s music, generated from the actual conditions of a specific place, is full of irregularities and blips. Because the real world is a physically chaotic place, the exact same sounds will never reappear in the exact same order.
But Boethius, like others in the Platonic tradition, sees the true cosmic reality as perfect. The motion of the heavens (and therefore the seasons and tides they cause on earth) follow patterns as exact as the musical ratios discovered by Pythagoras, even if that perfection is sometimes obscured or overlooked.
Become Ocean belongs to this perfect Boethian cosmos. It ebbs and flows with more rhythmic precision than a real tide or current ever could. The ocean’s more erratic behaviours, from storms to tsunamis, are absent entirely. And, most importantly, the ocean is depicted as resonating sympathetically with itself, with the human musicians on the concert stage, and with the sound waves they send across the hall.
There’s an uncomfortable tension between this formal structure and the piece’s apocalyptic title and marketing. While no one today holds fully to Boethian cosmology, those who are skeptical about the reality or severity of climate change seem to trust that the universe’s patterns are impervious to any kind of human disruption. If the world is perfectly harmonious, there is nothing to worry about. But by choosing this beautifully ordered structure to depict a threatened and threatening ocean, Adams subtly contradicts this argument. Become Ocean is about a potential future in which the ocean’s cycles are happening where they shouldn’t, thrown from their usual course by human action. Adams doesn’t deny that the ocean is beautiful, harmonious, balanced, or even divinely ordered. He simply denies that any of those things protect it from us, or us from it.
A Duet with the World
In both The Place Where You Go to Listen and Become Ocean, the non-human world is separate from human listeners. It is to be admired and feared. This echoes Boethius’s view, in which humans can study and even imitate the cosmic music but cannot join in. But in several of Adams’s other works, he portrays humans as not just listening to but also participating in the music of the natural world.
In a 2009 piece called Inuksuit, for example, Adams scatters dozens of percussionists across an outdoor performance area. (Previous venues have included the forests of Vermont and the mountains of Banff, Alberta.) The audience mingles freely among the musicians, shaping their own experience of the piece by deciding where to walk. The musicians, meanwhile, choose from a variety of rhythmic patterns provided by Adams. These patterns are derived from the shapes of stone figures—the inuksuit of the piece’s title—built by Inuit peoples on the Arctic tundra. As the audience listens, Adams writes, “it’s sometimes difficult to say exactly where the music ends and the world takes over.”
On the one hand, Inuksuit displays Adam’s Boethian impulse to turn the world into music. But on the other, it allows human participants—both musicians and listeners—to determine the shape of that music. Adams hopes that by blurring this boundary he can make his audience “feel more deeply engaged with the world, and more empowered to help change it.”
This is Adams’s most fundamental difference from Boethius. The point of Boethian music is to change ourselves to fit a fixed universe, like tuning an instrument to match a tuning fork. But Adams’s cosmos is a true duet partner, reacting in real time to our every note. Just as music can change us, so we can shape the world.
And if we listen closely, Adams shows us how. His 2019 string quartet Lines Made by Walking is an ode to hiking in the wilderness, inspired by Adams’s treks through the mountains and canyons of Mexico, Montana, and Chile. Earlier in his career, Adams wrote austere, ethereal string quartets in which the players’ fingers barely touch the strings. The open strings and natural harmonics emphasized the pitch ratios that Pythagoras discovered. But Lines Made by Walking has the warmth and intimacy of a traditional string quartet: its human players are fully present, fingers firmly planted on fingerboards.
Systemic solutions to climate change may be far off, but intimacy with the world around us is well within reach. And that intimacy is the only thing that will motivate us to act for the world’s well-being.
Human presence is, in fact, a dominant theme of the piece. The titles of its three movements—“Up the Mountain,” “Along the Ridges,” and “Down the Mountain”—chart a hiker’s paths along a rugged landscape. And the melodies themselves trace those same paths: upward steps and leaps in the first movement, unhurried meandering in the second, a steady descent in the third.
Lines is not without Adams’s usual number games. All three movements use a technique called a tempo canon, in which each instrument plays the same melody at different speeds. But unlike in Become Ocean, Adams varies the patterns as they progress so that they move in and out of phase unpredictably. Several times in the first movement, for example, all four instruments stop playing briefly and then start again with a loud, rising two-note figure, before going their own ways again. The pitches themselves, meanwhile, remain constant: the same opening melody is stretched and transposed but never left behind. The result is music that breathes and meanders like an exuberant hiker but also stretches for miles like the land beneath the hiker’s feat. The piece simultaneously describes the texture of the land and the paths of an explorer, which the landscape shapes but cannot dictate.
If Inuksuit is about the large-scale connections between humans and the rest of creation, Lines Made by Walking evokes the smaller, more familiar intimacy between a solitary human and a single landscape. Its mountains and canyons don’t appear as the terrifying sublime but as partners in the joy of exploration.
To me, this small familiarity is hopeful. The Place, Become Ocean, and Inuksuit are all massive, intimidating works that require the resources of a museum, a top-tier orchestra, or a record label to perform. Their subject matter is likewise gigantic: the atmospheric conditions in Alaska, the movement of the world’s oceans, stone signposts built over hundreds of years and thousands of square miles.
But Lines Made by Walking can be played by four friends in a living room, just as it only takes the curiosity and determination of a single hiker to get to know a ridge or a valley. Systemic solutions to climate change may be far off, but intimacy with the world around us is well within reach. And that intimacy, Adams believes, is the only thing that will motivate us to act for the world’s well-being.
This is a far cry from Boethius, who thinks music should ultimately point us away from the physical world and toward the heavens. Adams’s music awakens us to both our dependence on and power over the non-human world. And yet Adams’s most daring belief is one he shares wholeheartedly with his medieval predecessor: We’re badly out of tune with the world, and music just might be the best remedy.