A Composer’s Prayers for the Earth, and Humanity, in the Age of Climate Change

John Luther Adams’ “Vespers of the Blessed Earth” is a musical expression of climate grief and the solace to be found in the “enduring beauty of the earth.”

A smoky sunset is seen over Lake Tahoe in this view from Lakeside Beach in South Lake Tahoe, California, on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2021. Credit: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images
A smoky sunset is seen over Lake Tahoe in this view from Lakeside Beach in South Lake Tahoe, California, on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2021. Credit: Jane Tyska/Digital First Media/East Bay Times via Getty Images

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In the summer of 2021, Americans across the country looked up and noticed strangely brilliant skies. From Colorado to Virginia, the sun glowed like a hot red disc, and social media feeds filled with photos of blazing orange sunsets. I took pictures of pink, hazy dusks in the Northeast, gawking at the spectacle of them. They seemed like a gift from the planet in a time of global tumult. It was only later, scrolling through headlines from the West coast, that I realized their startling colors were caused by smoke from the wildfires then burning in California and Oregon.

The third movement of the eco-composer John Luther Adams’ newest work, “Vespers of the Blessed Earth,” called “Night Shining Clouds,” references this paradox of natural beauty fueled by man-made disaster, a phenomenon for the age of climate change that probably deserves its own Latin name. “Sometimes on summer evenings, bright clouds appear on the northern horizon, pulsing with color as if illuminated from within,” Adams writes in the program for the work’s premiere in Philadelphia, where it was performed last week by the Philadelphia Orchestra and The Crossing, a chamber choir. “As we pollute the atmosphere more and more, these noctilucent clouds have become more widespread, as the earth just grows more beautiful.” 

Latin for “night shining,” noctilucent clouds have a dreamy, spectral appearance, floating high in the atmosphere like celestial gauze. Methane emissions make the clouds easier for us to see, and they have been deemed a “a long-term indicator of climate change.” The clouds themselves are a contradiction, full of light but only visible within certain bands of darkness. Adams’ composition for them sounds like entrance music for an avenging angel; the strings are ethereal and menacing at the same time.


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Much of “Vespers” is shot through with this twinned feeling of wonder and sorrow. Humming with the urgency and tragedy of climate change, “Vespers” looks toward the future and evokes the deep geologic past, celebrates nature’s diversity and laments its destruction. Adams, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014, composed “Vespers” in 2020 and 2021 in response to the wildfires, floods, storms, political turmoil and Covid-19 outbreaks of that period. 

After living for almost 40 years in Alaska, where he first worked as an environmental activist, Adams left in 2014, moving to New Mexico. Before leaving Alaska, he was witness to the dire consequences of climate change for the Alaskan wilderness, a landscape he loves. “I wanted to give full voice to the grief that so many of us feel today,” Adams writes, of his intentions for “Vespers.” He calls the work “the most personal music of my life.”

“Night Shining Clouds” is followed by “Litanies of the Sixth Extinction,” the work’s most overtly climate-focused section. “Litanies” is a requiem for disappearing wildlife. As the choir sings the names of threatened and endangered plants and animals, each species’ Latin name fades in and out on a screen suspended from the concert hall’s ceiling, moving from insects to birds to mammals, and finally, simply, to “Human,” which lingers on alone. 

Despite the overwhelming, tolling sounds of “Litanies of the Sixth Extinction,” it’s the last movement, “Aria of the Ghost Bird,” that comes closest to fulfilling Adams’ goal of “giving full voice” to the climate grief of the present. Solo vocalist Meigui Zhang’s haunting melodies echo back from the left side of the hall, where the brasses and woodwinds are seated in the balcony. They play a mournful, wrenching song that seems to come from another world. In a way, it does, because the voice of the “Ghost Bird” is based on a 1987 recording of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, a native Hawaiian species that is now extinct. The halting softness of the notes makes you lean in closer, straining to hear the lonely song of a bird that no longer exists.

Vespers are evening prayers said in Roman Catholic and other Christian churches, in a tradition that dates back centuries. They are prayers of “praise and thanksgiving.” Though Adams has said he does not follow “any particular religion,” he writes that he views music, and the “spiritual discipline” it requires, as a “form of prayer,” which allows him to be “in touch with mysteries far vaster and deeper than I can fathom.” One typical prayer for vespers involves asking God for assistance, for divine “intercession for the needs of the world.”

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What are prayers for, in a burning world? Prayers can express reverence and gratitude; they can sustain attention and calm in times of distress, a steadying antidote for helplessness in the face of insurmountable odds. They can be an act of desperation, a last-ditch plea for deliverance from the nonbeliever who finds himself in peril. But prayers can also signify hope. Hopeless people do not pray at all. Listening to the profound sadness of “Vespers,” I wondered what Adams hopes for.

He writes that he wants “Vespers” to provide “a measure of consolation and solace” and “some hope of renewal in the enduring beauty of the earth.” For Adams, that solace and renewal may be found in what he calls “atonement, or at-one-ment,” a “retaking” of “our rightful place within the larger community of life on earth.” I think this is why “Aria of the Ghost Bird” is so powerful; it seems not to set humans apart from nature but to place us within it, as one part of the interconnected, if fraying, whole. 

“Vespers” are “prayers for the earth itself,” the program says, a statement that might seem at odds with Adams’ contention that “the earth will endure” whether human beings continue to inhabit it or not. (Why pray for what will survive anyway?) It makes more sense if you imagine “Vespers” as not only a prayer for the Earth, but as a prayer for us, too.
One of the earliest names for vespers is “lucernarium,” which means “lamp-lighting time” in Latin, the hour at the end of the day when night falls and the candles are lit. Darkness descends—just as the music descends in “Vespers”—but there is still light that endures, kept burning until morning, when the sun will rise again.