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.