By the Way • October 6, 2014

Sounding the Sea

Composers of classical music often put performance directions or notes throughout their scores. John Luther Adams, a composer known for expansive, landscape-themed music, includes only one word on the score of Become Ocean, a 42-minute ...

Composers of classical music often put performance directions or notes throughout their scores. John Luther Adams, a composer known for expansive, landscape-themed music, includes only one word on the score of Become Ocean, a 42-minute piece for symphony orchestra and the largest orchestral work Adams has written yet: “Inexorable.”

“That’s what I hope,” Adams explains over a cell phone from his apartment in New York City. “That this music has the feeling of an inexorable force — of these currents and tides rising and falling with this inevitable gravity and power.”

Listening to Become Ocean, it’s easy to imagine dark, swelling tides and open seas, and it’s easy to feel an urgency about it. The recording was released last week on CD via Cantaloupe Records, just days after 300,000-plus people marched in Manhattan to rally against global warming.

“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 CD liner notes warn.

But on the phone, Adams downplays the politics of Become Ocean, which had its debut in June under the commission of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and its music director, Ludovic Morlot, and won the Pulitzer Prize for music this year. “Too often political art fails as both art and politics,” he says. Adams goes on:

Art needs no justification other than itself. Yet, I also believe that music can serve as a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and human culture and that it can invite us to listen more deeply to expand our awareness of this miraculous world that we live in.

So like everybody these days I think a lot, I think all the time, about climate change, and as I composed Become Ocean I had very much in my mind images of the melting of the polar ice and the rising of the seas. But I hope it transcends any metaphors, transcends its title, to become a purely musical world of its own.

The immense musical world of Become Ocean borrows its title from a tiny mesostic poem John Cage wrote in honor of his friend and fellow composer, Lou Harrison. “It’s a beautiful little poem in which Cage likens Lou’s music to a river in delta. And I just loved that image of listening, of music, as a stream that leads us toward oceanic consciousness,” Adams says.

The Cage connection goes beyond the name. Musically, Adams draws most directly from the post-war American avant-garde, including Cage and Morton Feldman. Like these artists, Adams is fascinated with fluidity: how sound and the environment blend.

“I’ve been obsessed, well, all my creative life with place as music but also music as place,” Adams says.

Water and landscape have long been themes of the John Cage school of minimalist music, and of Adams’ own career; Become Ocean follows Adams’ Dark Waves, a slow, slate-blue-colored piece for orchestra and electronics, from 2007.

And like a true minimalist, Adams structures his work around a sort of basic repetitive process:

Adams splits the orchestra into three sections spread wide apart in the concert hall: the brass, woodwinds, and strings. These sections move and climax at different rates — the brass section moves glacially, peaking three times; the woodwinds peak five times; the strings peak seven times. Other instruments — pianos, harps, celestas, bells, and xylophones — cut in and out like foam over a brooding mass. At three moments, evenly spaced over the course of the work, the three major sections overlap and crescendo in full, creating awesome crests of sound.

“This piece, like many of my pieces, is among other things a kind of musical geography but also a musical geometry,” Adams says. And the coolest geometric feat is that the whole work is exactly symmetrical. Halfway through, time reverses; the second half of Become Ocean is essentially a mirror image of the first.

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During those brassy, furious crescendoes, however, the whole minimalist thing about Become Ocean starts to make less sense. The musical landscape here is huge, torrential, Wagner-scale. Lose yourself, it demands.

And what Adams is doing — linking Wagner and Cage, in a way — is really important. Somehow, Adams’ work moves with a tremendous force without ever developing or resolving. It paints a vivid, dramatic seascape, but it’s open and totally abstract. And the lush, seemingly boundless sound is governed by a strict mathematical process.

“I’m a latecomer to Wagner,” Adams tells me, when I ask about the Wagner influence in his work. He adds:

For years I couldn’t get past the idea of Wagner, of Wagner as a historical figure, Wagner as a deeply flawed person. With all the extramusical associations and historical baggage associated with Wagner, I’ve always been more of a Debussy guy. But it turns out that Wagner and Debussy were pretty much about the same thing in musical terms — and really maybe Cage, and in my own way I, are not that far removed from — which is: the power of sound. To elevate, and overwhelm, and transport, and transform human consciousness.

And later: “You know it’s that razored edge in art in the 19th century they called the sublime: that razored edge between beauty and terror.”

The recording of Become Ocean is precisely balanced and highly detailed. But something of the Wagner piece was lost, however, when I listened to the CD on headphones. I think this piece needs to be played out loud, with other people, for maximum effect.

I can say that the shared experience at Carnegie Hall, where Become Ocean had its New York premiere, was nearly religious. Whether Become Ocean will lead people to “oceanic consciousness” is uncertain, but seeing nearly 3,000 people overcome — bodies hunched, eyes often closed, hands often clasped on laps while the sound filled the hall — the whole Wagner/sublime thing seemed exactly true.

Adams has spent most of his life in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he was a full-time environmental activist in his 20’s and 30’s, and he believes music can be as essential as politics. ” With Become Ocean, at least, I’d like to believe him; I hear a musical space that invites you in and, with inexorable energy, awakens you to your surroundings.

Text by Conor Gillies. This article was originally published on Medium.

Further reading:

Alex Ross, “Ocean Music,” July 8, 2013.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, “First Listen: John Luther Adams’ ‘Become Ocean’,” September 21, 2014.

Radiolab, “John Luther Adams” (from Q2 music’s Meet the Composer), October 3, 2014.

Podcast • June 27, 2008

Tony Schwartz — for the Next Generation

Tony Schwartz made his famous TV and radio commercials (like the “Daisy spot” for Lyndon Johnson, and Coca Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing” campaign) in what felt like a chapel in his apartment in the ...

tony schwartzTony Schwartz made his famous TV and radio commercials (like the “Daisy spot” for Lyndon Johnson, and Coca Cola’s “It’s the Real Thing” campaign) in what felt like a chapel in his apartment in the old “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood of West Side Manhattan. Hunched over his turntables, wrapped in earphones and cables in a room lined on every wall with Tony’s 40 years of sound recordings, he’d remind you of the Wizard of Oz with his bumbling air of magic, but also of Orson Welles with his grasp of theatrical effects, and also his friend Marshall McLuhan with his flair for multi-media theory and his experience with how message systems really work, in and out of your body. I’d first entered this little high church of sound covering George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972.


I went back in 1974 to write this Times piece, Packaging Voters for Candidates, TV-Style on Tony, the “best in the business” of media consulting. And I went back and back for ever after to absorb Tony’s coaching. He was gently instructive when I took him my first television stand-ups after leaving the Times. “You’re trying to do what Times training impels you to do — push ‘facts’ through the camera lens at the viewer. But listen to me, Chris: television is not a medium of information; it’s a medium of effects…” I learned on my own, when I came back from vacation to the TV desk with a mustache, that television viewers are looking mainly at their presenters’ hair, and not hearing much of what they say. Tony observed that television is mainly an auditory medium, and would be more effective if your picture tube was out of commission. He beleived that for many evolutionary and anatomical reasons — not least because “people are born without ear-lids” — the ear and audio deliver more of the signals that form our thinking than the eye does. And many of the trademark Tony Schwartz spots on television were commercials that deliberately slowed down the eye input with still photos, for example, or neutralized the eye with a shot of just an office clock and a second hand, while an actor’s plummy voice was asking: “Would you give me sixty seconds to tell you why Bob Abrams should be Attorney General of New York?”

tony and mike

Tony adored the babble of babies and the outdoor sounds of his block of New York. Above all he loved what Studs Terkel calls “that fabulous instrument, vox humana.” The blossoming of Tony’s reputation in the Seventies and the soundness of his books — The Responsive Chord and Media: the Second God — ran nicely parallel with the rebirth of radio at NPR. I was late taking the cue to radio myself, but I knew from Tony that radio was God’s own medium, and by the time I got there I knew from Tony why it felt like home. It is wonderful to realize, in the responses on Tony’s death two weeks ago, that the pied pipers of the rising radio generation — people like Jay Allison and Ira Glass— are devoted practitioners of Tony Schwartz’s ideas.

So maybe the next question is how many more of the podcasters and other newbies enabled by the inexpensive tools of Internet radio will get the blessing of Tony’s techniques and wise encouragement. I engage the brilliant and prolific TV documentarian David Hoffman — of “Sputnik Mania” in theaters this summer and the comprehensive film Guerrilla Media about Tony — in the conversation here not only to remember the master of sound and his signature pieces, but to introduce the wisdom of Tony Schwartz to the podcast generation. With your help, it might be just the start of our appreciation of Tony.