Become Ocean by composer John Luther Adams, winner in the Best Contemporary Classical category at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards, is a highly acclaimed work from an artist who has long been inspired by the transcendence of nature, so evocatively realized in this soaring soundscape. It also won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music.
Commissioned and performed here by the Seattle Symphony, Become Ocean strikes a cautionary message via a stark and simple liner note from Adams, a longtime resident of Alaska who’s also an environmental advocate:
“Life on this earth first emerged from the sea.
Today, as the polar ice melts and the sea level rises,
we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.”
The thought is a preamble to a mystical and immersive journey that calls to mind Claude Debussy’s La Mer (“The Sea”), reset as a sort of tone poem for a new age. Adams expands on his exploration of “sonic geography”—“a region that lies somewhere between place and culture, between human imagination and the world around us,” in his words—by creating an enveloping and sonorous ambience that traverses both location and space.
The darker waves of this Ocean led critic Alex Ross of The New Yorker to write that “it may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.” And certainly, the crescendos elicited by the dynamic playing of the Seattle ensemble, under the direction of Ludovic Morlot, which peak dramatically at critical junctures in the 42-minute, single-movement work, are nothing less than overwhelming. But beyond the sturm und drang overtones, I somehow came away with a sense of calm following the storm, a feeling ultimately more hopeful than forbidding.
Adams (no connection to the other John Adams of classical-music fame) added to Become Ocean with Become River, which premiered last year. According to The New York Times, he envisions yet another sequel, Become Desert, which will take its inspiration from the natural wonders of the Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest.
In an essay that alludes to another of his pieces, Forest Without Leaves, Adams wrote that, “ I came to understand that in order to become more complete, my music must somehow encompass not only an idyllic vision of the natural world but the complexity and chaos of contemporary life as well.”
In the ebb and flows of the often tumultuous Become Ocean, that combination of the idyllic and chaotic could leave one somewhat unsettled. Yet, as underscored by the far-off and softly discordant sounds heard at its conclusion, it can also leave one strangely at peace.