FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- Having once lived in Fairbanks, my appreciation for Alaska's second-largest city is grounded in details many visitors never experience: vibrant potluck dinners in wood-heated cabins, the colossal vegetables produced during the short but light-filled growing season, and the dazzling displays of the aurora borealis on cold, dark nights.
Most tourists come here in summer. And while you cannot fully know Fairbanks until you have experienced ice-encrusted eyelashes, it is now possible to get a greater sense of place through a new sound and light installation at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. ''The Place Where You Go to Listen" channels the environment -- including the green streaks of the northern lights in the sky and the tiny, almost daily, earthquakes that rumble through the ground -- and offers it up in musical and visual interpretations.
Aldona Jonaitis, director of the museum, commissioned John Luther Adams, the avant garde composer and a Fairbanks resident, to create the installation for the striking and newly renovated facility, which has doubled in size thanks to a $42 million capital campaign. ''I said it would be wonderful if we could have something communicate the sense of place of Alaska through sound," Jonaitis said.
As you enter the relatively small, irregular space that houses ''The Place Where You Go to Listen," sound embraces you the way warm air wraps around chilly limbs as you step inside from the cold. Initially, you hear one steady sound that's pleasing without being terribly engaging. As you acclimate, you notice two bars of light on one wall that gradually change color. Then the sound captures and holds your attention. It is diverse, constantly changing, and utterly unpredictable.
Adams, 53, is a committed environmentalist whose compositions for orchestras, solo percussionists, and other groups reflect the influence of American minimalist composers Morton Feldman and John Cage. After growing up on the East Coast, Adams has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years and his affinity for the Alaska Native population has prompted him to include their language and songs in his work. ''The Place Where You Go to Listen" is the literal translation of the Inupiaq place name Naalagiagvik, which refers to a sacred location on Alaska's Arctic coast.
This is Adams's first museum installation. ''This is a whole new medium for me. And it requires a whole new way of working," he said.
Drawing on years of interviews with scientists in various fields, Adams selected five natural events to audibly illustrate: earthquakes, the aurora borealis, the positions of the sun and the moon, and sky conditions.
His collaborators include geologists and physicists who constantly monitor earthquakes and gather data on changes to the earth's magnetic field associated with aurora activity. They share that data, sending it to a computer inside the installation. That computer also runs a program that continuously calculates the positions of the sun and the moon relative to the exhibit's spot on the earth. The weather information also arrives in real time.
The data streams through musical filters Adams designed for each natural phenomenon. He describes the undertaking as mapping a sonic landscape. During daylight, visitors hear what Adams calls the day choir. As the moon rises, it contributes what he thinks of as a solo voice. Instruments at five seismic stations send in data and whenever one measures a tremor, visitors inside the exhibit hear the intensity and duration of the quake as very low-frequency drum sounds. Aurora borealis activity sends a layer of bell-like tones floating through the air.
Fourteen speakers and a vast range of frequencies provide a rich audio experience for anyone who enters the room. It won't reproduce over the radio or Internet, so you've got to be there to hear it. Return a half hour after your first visit, and the sounds will have changed -- only slightly if the natural world hasn't changed much, quite dramatically if in your absence the sun has set or the aurora has become active. The lighting takes on blue and violet tones at night, in contrast with daytime's red and orange.
Some early visitors -- ''The Place Where You Go to Listen" opened March 21, the spring equinox -- described the music as ''meditative."
Kyle Gann, former Village Voice music critic, has long followed Adams's work and traveled to Alaska for the opening. He says the installation is different from others he has experienced because it's constantly changing and even the composer never knows exactly what it will sound like.
''It's really kind of a metaphor," Gann said. ''There's the sensuous side -- anyone can just walk in and enjoy it without knowing what they're hearing. But the other is the cognitive side of it -- which is knowing what is causing all the sounds -- and there's something poetic about that."
Some visitors have said the composer's note mounted on the wall of the installation doesn't sufficiently explain the scientific data behind the music. But Adams says he has heard from people who say they don't want more information because the experience of being surrounded by the sounds is complete on its own. He insists that what he has created is art, not a science project.
''In 'The Place Where You Go to Listen,' what I aspired to was a kind of musical ecosystem," Adams said. ''A work of art, an imaginary world, if you will, that is directly connected to the real world in which we live and resonates sympathetically with that world and with the forces of nature."
Jonaitis says ''The Place Where You Go to Listen" contributes to the sense of place she's trying to evoke from the moment visitors first see the museum.
''The outside of the building is inspired by ice," she said. ''But people see plate tectonics and glaciers and diving wells, they see a lot of things in the outside of the building." (''Igloo" might also leap to mind from the white blocks of the construction.) Inside, Jonaitis says the layout of the new Rose Berry Alaska Art Gallery is also designed to foster that sense of place. Its main doors are adjacent to the listening exhibit. Jonaitis says the large gallery, which is scheduled to open May 1, will show Alaska Native art alongside landscape paintings by other artists. Jewelry and quilts will be on display, too. She says she doesn't want ''native art" or ''crafts" to be segregated the way they are in some museums.
Another installation commissioned by the museum pokes fun at a common housing peculiarity in Fairbanks: Many of the 80,000 people in the metropolitan area live in cabins that do not have indoor plumbing. A designer outhouse pays them tribute.
''We really wanted to show people that outhouses are part of the sense of place," Jonaitis said. ''But also, it's a very funny piece, and we want people to go to a museum and be surprised and laugh because museums ought to be fun as well as serious."
Jonaitis says the University of Alaska Museum of the North welcomes 80 percent of its visitors during the summer and the vast majority of them are from out of state. Still, after living in Alaska for more than 10 years, Jonaitis knows a trek to the subarctic can be a tough sell.
''I'm from New York City and most people from my part of the world -- or just about any part of the United States and the world -- would think that there couldn't be very much 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle," she said. ''Fairbanks is really a major artistic center and there's really a lot of stuff going on here. There's a lot of creativity here."
And if you do want to see a gigantic cabbage or zucchini, be sure to schedule your visit to Fairbanks during the first weeks of August, when the growers of giant vegetables compete at the Tanana Valley State Fair.
Contact Amy Mayer, a freelance writer in Shutesbury, at email@example.com.