LiStening to it
This is how John Cage described the music of Lou Harrison, whose breadth and diversity he thought mirrored “a river in delta.” Years later, another composer named John found this text. On Tuesday, I saw the Seattle Symphony give the NY premiere of John Luther Adams’ sublime Pulitzer-winning work Become Ocean. So, for forty-two minutes, I complied and sunk into my plush chair.
Adams’ music, which I’ve written about before, eschews the billowing nautical depictions of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides or Debussy’s La mer (which finished the program) and instead deals in texture and mood. I know of no other composer who can better conjure a synchronous feeling of stasis and motion. The only just analogy may be listening to the polyrhythmic rustles of nature itself which clearly excite Adams more than any compositional school.
From the opening antediluvian piano rumble, to the immense climaxes organically spaced apart, Seattle played with subtlety, producing exquisite squalls of sound. Each part was distinct yet inseparable from the grain of the piece; conventional harmony, melody, and rhythm retreated into the primordial soup.
The form of Become Ocean is a perfect palindrome and the orchestra is split into three sections each with discrete metering and tempo. The work was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and premiered there last June but Adams’ couldn’t attend for health reasons. That this was his first time hearing it live, and, even more exciting, his first time in the main hall of Carnegie after a whirlwind year of prizes and commissions, made this the hottest ticket in town. “I’ve been working for over 40 years now,” he told WQXR. “Most of those 40 years I’ve been working in my cabin studio in Alaska, far removed from all this hubbub. It’s nice as I get into my 60s now to get a little love.” Interestingly, this piece was written at his home near the ocean in Mexico and not Alaska, where much of the music he’s know by was composed.
Midpoint of Become Ocean via Alex Ross
Last April, I traveled to the University of Richmond to see Inuksuit, Adams’ beautifully chaotic, outdoor percussion piece (I’ll try to post a video of the performance soon). On that gorgeous spring day, I spotted him meandering about and we talked for a few minutes. In addition to being one of most humble people I’ve met, he speaks with incredible intensity. He truly listens. I’d expect no less.
His artistic credo is one to remember:
I still don’t know what I’m doing. And when I find that I know what I’m doing, I’ll know I’m doing the wrong thing. For me, it’s this continuing process of following the curiosity, the fascination, and occasionally the wonder of creative work…. I can’t separate my music from my life. Music is not what I do, music is how I understand the world.
There is plenty upcoming from Adams who is now a part-time resident of New York. In addition to Become River, which the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra premiered last month, he envisions a Become Desert according to the Times. Then there is Sila: The Breath of the World which will premiere this July during the Mostly Mozart festival.
Like the great artist that he is, Adams reminds us where we’re from while writing the music of the future. “I like to be on that razor’s edge between beauty and terror,” he says. “What in the 19th century they called the sublime. That element of fear just makes it more beautiful.”