John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (pt. 1)

Become Ocean

Dear Matt,

I’m still reeling from my unexpected reaction to the Offspring. I’m assigning you orchestral music to rebuild my sense of self.

In your response to my Brooklyn Rider assignment, you thanked me for starting you out with a quartet, since it lacks the flash of a soloist or the bombast of an orchestra. And, while I may chafe at those characterizations of venerable art music genres, you’re clearly right on both counts. I mean, the first ensembles that we could recognize as orchestras developed in the only place where they feasibly could have gathered the forces: 17th-century Central European royal courts. It doesn’t get more bombastic than that.

But at the same time, thank god that art is like that sometimes. Occasionally, when you put a creative genius at the helm of truly massive forces, great things happen. I don’t want to live in a world without Ben-Hur, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or BioShock Infinite or any of the other great decadent works that obviously had huge amounts of money poured into them. I think that the symphony orchestra is one of the best things that humans have ever invented. And, the fact that the logistics and finances of it dwarf those of a chamber group is part of the appeal.

To wit, here is the greatest contemporary argument for why orchestras are still a good idea: John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean.

Adams has been the composer of the moment since he won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean last year. He’s lived in interior Alaska since 1978, and all of his music is written as a response to that landscape. This is a guy who used real-time data taken from the position of the sun in the sky, the fullness of the moon, the presence of minor seismic events, and the strength of the Aurora Borealis to produce a computer-driven audio installation at the University of Alaska.

But, as conceptual as Adams’ music can get, it never veers into territory that makes it unappealing to listen to. It’s powerful, cerebral stuff — but never obscurantist. Adams cites some frightening figures as influences: the player piano innovator Conlon Nancarrow, stochastic musician Iannis Xenakis, and that arch-avantgardist John Cage.

But possibly his most important influence was Morton Feldman, who practiced a sort of alternative minimalism that focusses on creating spare, spacious music rather than the driving rhythms of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. For my money, his Rothko Chapel is one of the most gorgeous pieces of the 20th century. And Adams’ music sounds a lot more like Rothko Chapel than anything by Cage or Xenakis.

(Around this point, it’s traditional to explain that there are two well-known American post-minimalist composers named John Adams. John Luther Adams is not the guy who wrote the hit opera Nixon in China. That’s John Coolidge Adams. He got famous first, so he doesn’t need to use his middle name in his credits.)

Become Ocean is Adams’ reflection on the rising sea levels caused by climate change. As Adams put it himself, in one of the more succinct program notes you’re ever likely to read: ‘Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. 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.’

Clearly, instrumental music is a strange medium by which to approach such specific themes. But, Adams isn’t being didactic in this piece. He’s doing what modern composers do best: expressing vague notions, sensations and anxieties by way of sound.

The work is a single, 42-minute composition (I know, I know, I know) for large orchestra. It is purely textural music — I believe that when I first discussed this album with you, I described it as ‘drone music for full orchestra.’ I basically stand by that. But as with the inventor of drone music, Richard Wagner (not trolling, listen to this), Adams employs a wealth of textural effects that intermingle to bring the music to crashing peaks and tense troughs — brought to life beautifully in this premiere recording by the Seattle Symphony and their brilliant musical director Ludovic Morlot.

Certainly, Adams would never deign to incorporate anything so vulgar as a melody. But I think that the side of your taste persona that’s into droney electronic music (a taste attribute that we share) will also appreciate this different sort of droney music — a drone made more vibrant for being played on acoustic instruments and orchestrated by a master. Feel free to zone out during this music. It’s approachable on a number of different levels of attention.

One of these days, I’ll assign you some proper core orchestra rep. But as much as I love Beethoven, Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Brahms, they’re not coextensive with what is erroneously called ‘classical music.’ John Luther Adams is, to me, just as central to that tradition. I hope you enjoy this.

— Matthew

P.S. This New Yorker profile of Adams by Alex Ross is one of my favourite pieces of music journalism. Just, as an aside.

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