The Politics of Prayer: John Luther Adams and Art that Reimagines Climate Change

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At the end of March, the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered “Vespers of the Blessed Earth,” the most recent work of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams. Critics have described “Vespers” as a marked, climate change-inspired departure from Adams’ previous compositions — ”direct and message-driven”; a score that “mourns and damns, and declares where in the past Adams might have simply observed.” But Adams is surprised that reception to “Vespers” has invoked so much politics.

Before pivoting to a prolific performance and composition career in his mid-thirties, Adams was a full-time environmental activist who moved to Alaska to campaign for the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and serve as executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Prior to that, he had graduated first in his class with a degree in composition from the California Institute of the Arts. His decision to return to music after a decade in activism is perhaps a puzzling one — in light of environmental threats that have only grown more dire, would his concern for the Earth not be more useful in activism than concert halls? Yet, his music has always retained the strong influence of his love for nature: Many of his previous works, like Pulitzer prize-winning “Become Ocean,” are lush soundworlds more impressionistic and awe-inspired than condemnatory and wholly unlike the haunting “Vespers,” which are explicitly titled after a prayer service that coincides with nightfall. 

It makes sense, in some ways, for people to conceive of “Vespers” as an overtly political statement, especially given its venue. Classical music is not an industry known for its eager embrace of change, nor is its aging audience particularly concerned about the peril of the warming climate. Patrons of classical music follow similarly: One of the leading benefactors of the Philadelphia Orchestra, who commissioned and performed “Vespers,” is the Hess Foundation, of Leon Hess’ crude oil wealth. Adams’ composition explicitly names Homo sapiens in its sung list of 192 endangered species and prominently features the lonely call of the last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a bird native to Hawaii that went extinct in the 1980s. The work thus reads as rebellion in a space that has ventured only half-heartedly from its ivory tower.

Yet to Adams, this deviation from his apolitical style is completely personal — a characteristic that he previously sought to keep out of his compositions. Music, he writes in an essay shared with the HPR, “is a spiritual discipline, and the daily practice of my art is my form of prayer.” Like for many of us, though, the circumstances of 2020 and 2021 left an indelible mark on him, not just because of the pandemic and severe weather events, but because those events came closer to home. A massive forest fire ravaged the areas surrounding his house, and his best friend died a climate refugee. Adams bore this grief into his new composition, which he calls “perhaps the most unabashedly personal and expressive music I’ve ever composed.” With “Vespers,” he did not seek to sermonize but only to mourn — a friend, a home, a planet. 

“I can’t help but wonder,” Adams says in this same essay, “If I’d voiced my grief and offered my prayers in the language of Christianity or another established religious tradition, would ‘Vespers of the Blessed Earth’ be received very differently, as a sacred work? Perhaps because my faith has no name, because it’s grounded directly in the earth, Vespers seems to be heard as ‘political art.’” 

Adams seems to hit upon a particularity of the climate crisis — it has taken on such a stubbornly political character, but politics hardly encapsulates the whole of it. Admittedly, it is hard to think of an issue that fits neatly within any meaningful definition of “political,” but climate change is a uniquely universal plight. The wealthy can move inland to stave off the threat of coastal flooding and buy new homes after a wildfire, but outrunning the problem will not be feasible for even the very richest in a few decades. The impacts of climate change do not discriminate between believers and non-believers, as can be seen by the smog from Nova Scotia’s climate change-induced wildfires that blanketed much of the East Coast in early June. 

However, just 54% of American adults — a scant majority — view climate change as a major threat, and that proportion has been trending downward since 2019 across party lines. We seem to be fatigued by accelerating natural disasters and expert-generated figures foretelling our demise; we have grown so used to the alarms that we have learned to speak over them. What, then, can climate art do where decades of political activism have failed?

To borrow a metaphor from chemistry, there is an activation energy of collective will that we have not yet achieved to disrupt the equilibrium of climate apathy. More exigent than any predicted disaster, especially to electorally beholden politicians, are the threats to the millions of jobs in fossil fuel industries and the prospect of slowed short-term economic growth. It is too easy for us to ignore the existential question of climate change in favor of the ones that we know how to understand, and our transactional relationship with the environment only exacerbates it. In the current popular discourse around climate change, everything in nature is something to be captured or harnessed for every last bit of economic productivity, from the energy that powers our homes to the development of ecotourism destinations that threaten those same ecosystems. As long as this is true, we will always be able to justify our myopia.

Here I see a challenge that artists are uniquely poised to address: to help us zoom out of our man-made political quandary and establish a relationship with nature that treats its preservation as an end rather than a means to a profitable one. We can take our cues from Adams, who describes using his compositions to “transcend myself, to be in touch with mysteries larger, older, and deeper than I can fathom.” There is a whole host of practical considerations that we must address — how we will make equitable energy transitions and how we will triage biodiverse ecosystems — but perhaps some answers are scattered somewhere along the path to a more reverent relationship with the planet that gives us life and, lest we forget, can take it away.

The rhetoric of survival that every humanitarian and governmental agency has employed is saturated to the point of inefficacy. In its stead, it is worth imagining a role for climate art that escapes the confines of politics and leans into an essential function of good art: reminding us of our humanity and the value of the world beyond our constructed one.

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