When news recently broke that pop star Taylor Swift had donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony, eyebrows were understandably raised. They surely shot higher with the revelation that Swift had been inspired by the recording of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a contemporary orchestral piece of over 40 minutes length.
Even before Swift’s commendation emerged, the Seattle Symphony’s recording had sold extraordinarily well – at least by classical music standards – no doubt helped by Become Ocean winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. It seems that Adams has become that rare thing: a living classical composer who has struck a chord with a wide audience.
John Luther Adams – not to be confused with the other American composer John Adams – was born in Mississippi in 1953. After visiting Alaska through his work in environmental protection, he settled there in 1978 – with ‘high ideals and big dreams’, as he explained in a recent essay for the New Yorker. ‘Up here, unfettered by competitive careerism, I felt free to follow the music wherever it might lead me’.
Adams and his wife Cindy lived in Alaska for over 30 years, but now divide their time between New York and the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. It was in the latter location, near the Pacific coast, that Adams began composing Become Ocean in 2012. These stories of working in remote places inevitably add a certain romance to his image – as if he were a hermit forsaking our noisy world in order to gain a higher perspective on existence. It is the kind of escape that many of us might dream about, but few have the resolve to carry through.
Escape, perhaps, is a key word. It seems to be the primary route by which contemporary composers can achieve popularity, whether through the spirituality of John Tavener, the soothing arpeggios of Ludovico Einaudi, or the timeless melancholy of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, whose 1992 release is still the best-selling contemporary classical record to date. Being a quiet sanctuary is a positive role that classical music can play in modern life, though it is just one of many.
But if Become Ocean is a kind of escape, it is also nuanced and complex. Its interplay of rapid movements and glacial shifts creates a mesmerising experience. It murmurs, groans, fizzes, glitters. And it simply is there – in the words of Gramophone Magazine’s Pwyll ap Siôn, it is like ‘an immense sonic object, slowly floating across a vast area’. At the same time, in an astonishing feat of construction noted by Alex Ross, it is composed as a colossal palindrome: at the half-way point the tide turns, and the music starts running backwards.
Perhaps one reason why the recording has sold so well is that it rewards close listening, but does not demand it. A good deal of contemporary classical music takes for granted the listener’s familiarity with modernism, while assuming their undivided attention. Become Ocean, on the other hand, can work both as an immersive experience and as a strangely beautiful soundtrack to writing emails – music that swells to huge climaxes without ever assaulting the ears. In our multimedia age, such versatility is surely a strength.
In a note to the score, Adams warns us that ‘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’. That might sound crass, but at the opposite extreme of the USA from Alaska, Miami is already dealing with this reality.
It is those same warm Gulf of Mexico seas which, via Atlantic currents, give Britain its relatively mild winters. But even by our standards this December has been extraordinary, the countryside panicking into a hasty spring – catkins on the hedgerows, gorse in flower, daffodils emerging. A snow-laden Christmas is always more of a hope than an expectation in these parts. This year the idea seemed like a bitter joke.
Adams must know this sense of disquiet as well as anyone. Alaska is warming two to three times as fast as the mainland USA, and in his last decade there he witnessed profound change taking shape: ‘a summer of vast wildfires would be followed by a summer of seemingly incessant rain […] our sub-Arctic winters lost the pristine cold and deep stillness they once had’.
The natural world has always been a web of highly complex and dynamic relationships – it is a human fallacy to see it as balanced or ordered. But it is also a human failing to overlook our deep and numerous disturbances of those relationships. In an interview with The Guardian, Adams described a sense of ‘embeddedness in this staggeringly beautiful and complex experience of being in the world’. The composer added:
If we lived in a society where we felt empowered by that idea, and felt a responsibility to the world at that level, problems like climate change would be dealt with instantly, because they would just have to be.
Embeddedness, then, is another key word. It is surely something that music, like all art, can aspire to reveal. And yet, warnings of environmental catastrophe can actually carry their own dangers. Psychology research suggests that a sense of threat often results in people suppressing concern for others, or ‘retreating into materialistic comforts’, at precisely the time when clear-sighted collective action is needed.
It seems that paradoxes abound. In his summing up of new classical music in 2015, Ross discerned a conflicted zeitgeist, a mixture of ‘an ominous stasis, an unstable stillness’, with ‘rapid-shifting textures, spasms of nervous energy. Together, all this music suggests a world at once hurtling forward and spinning in place – very much the state in which we live’.
‘An ominous stasis, an unstable stillness’ could well apply to parts of Become Ocean too. The dark, implacable presence that looms at the beginning and end of the work might be a reflection of our current condition, with its challenges that often seem intractable and overwhelming. If there is a chilling undercurrent to this ocean of sound, it surely springs from the monolithic direction that heads the score: ‘Inexorable’.
In November 2014, shortly after the Become Ocean recording was released, I took a road trip down California’s spectacular coastal highway, Route 1. It was my first encounter with the Pacific, a westward expanse of over five thousand miles. I felt perched on the edge of the world. It seemed – though it was surely a trick of the mind – that it looked vaster than any ocean I had seen before.
It is easy to feel romantic or spiritual in a location like Big Sur. But as the waves lap ever higher, the question at the heart of Adams’ titanic work calls us with a simple urgency: what next? The truth we cannot turn away from is that we have already become ocean. It is now a beast of our own creation, its depths only as mysterious as ourselves. If only we could reach the mid-point in the palindrome, and let it all run in reverse.
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Simon Brackenborough is the founder and editor of Corymbus. He is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London, and tweets at @sbrackenborough.
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