John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams Imagines the Rising-Sea-Level Apocalypse

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 10.28.14 in Features

Composer John Luther Adams has long been known for his immersive, environment-specific compositions. Before 2014, perhaps his best known piece was Inuksuit — a work for 99 percussionists who take positions around and in-between audience members. (It has been played both in cavernous indoor spaces, as well as in outdoor settings.) Earlier this year, though, Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean, a 45-minute orchestral imagining of a rising-sea-level apocalypse — written for a symphony that stays up-on-stage, right in front of an audience. (Though Adams does separate his orchestra is into three orchestral “choirs.”)

Now that Become Ocean has received an excellent premiere recording — by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which originally commissioned it — Adams spoke with Wondering Sound’s Seth Colter Walls about the work’s unusual genesis, and how he has gradually invented an approach to the orchestra.

Symphonic music was not the first thing people thought about, in terms of John Luther Adams, before you won the Pulitzer for Become Ocean. So how did the commission come about?

When Ludovic Morlot came in as the new music director for the Seattle Symphony, one of the first things they did was to think about commissioning new works — and I think I was one of the first composers they spoke with. I think their very first commission was one of Elliott Carter’s last pieces. And then the first big commission was Become Ocean.

‘I think the music always knows more than I do. So I’m just doing my best to keep asking the questions.’

I knew of Ludo, but I hadn’t worked with him before. I’m not sure he even knew of me; he might have heard my name. But as I understand it, he was not familiar with my work — and had never done anything quite like it. He’s a new-music guy, but I think it’s fair to say that before Become Ocean, it had been a different kind of new music. But he really got it.

Which was a good thing, because, as it turns out, I never had a rehearsal with the orchestra. I had a series of emergencies with my eyes. And when they premiered Become Ocean in Seattle, I was on an operating table here in New York.

Oh, dear! I presume things are better on that score, now?

It’s kind of a continuing struggle, but my vision is functional. Last year, I had not one but two retinal detachments in the same eye. It’s been a struggle for a few years. We were home in Alaska, and I woke up one morning — just a few days before we were supposed to go to Seattle for rehearsal. And I said to my wife, “you know, something is really wrong.” So we passed through Seattle and kept going to New York, and had the surgery here. It turns out it was completely unnecessary!

Except for writing the piece, of course. You’d also written another sort of water-metaphor orchestra piece before this one, Dark Waves. Did that turn out to be a sketch for Become Ocean?

Yeah, that’s exactly right, and I didn’t know it at the time. I thought it was the best orchestral piece I’d ever written; I worked on that 12-minute piece for a year. And I worked on Become Ocean for four months.

Dark Waves was commissioned by the Anchorage Symphony. And after that first performance — and after subsequent performances in Amsterdam and Chicago — I had several people saying: “Boy, really enjoyed the piece. But it’s way too short. I was just getting into it, and then it was over.” And you know: never encourage a composer! [Laughs]

But people did, and I had already been thinking that anyway. When I got the inquiry from Seattle, we discussed two possibilities. I kind of gave them Column A and Column B. Column A was: “we could do something like Inuksuit.” And Column B was “Dark Waves on steroids.” And to my surprise, they opted for the latter. They took the road less traveled. And I told them exactly what I had in mind: that it would be one big ocean of sounds. And they said, “Okay, let’s go!”

And yet, for all the sketch-work that Dark Waves represented, to you — Become Ocean is really quite different.

The unifying idea is obviously that of waves and oceanic sound. But Dark Waves has a safety net: it has the electronic aura, which kind of darkens and deepens and thickens the musical water. And I determined that with Become Ocean, I wanted to fly without that safety net. I wanted to do it all with orchestration, with just the orchestra. I also wanted the harmonies and the orchestration to be brighter and more transparent; it’s more Debussy than Wagner.

Both pieces are also structured as palindromes, which mimics the motion of the water. Dark Waves was inspired by the crest of a wave, and then its receding away, but you decided to go with three different tsunamis, this time, right?

Well, it almost has to be a palindrome, doesn’t it? Waves kind of are palindromes. They rise, and they fall, right? So the whole form of the piece — as with many of my pieces — is a fractal form. The micro-topology resembles the macro-topology.

‘With Become Ocean, I’ve found an orchestra that feels like it’s mine.’

And then there was the question of, well, okay, how many tsunamis would there be? In a 12-minute piece there’s only one moment where all the harmonic layers coincide. And for the longest while I wondered if I could do that, if I could have just one big crescendo in a 45 minute piece. And eventually I decided — not for dramatic or even formal reasons, but more for I guess reasons of color, for wanting to traverse more harmonic territory — I decided to make it a series of three big waves, panels. It’s a kind of triptych, I guess. The first and the last panels inhabit the same harmonic territory, the same tessitura. And the second panel goes higher, gets brighter.

The very beginning and the very end — where one panel of the mural is dying away and we move to the next — those are the moments where it gets down to just a whisper. And the modulations are very, very subtle. I love those moments. I love riding the waves, too; I love the frothy stuff, but a lot of my favorite moments in the piece are quiet moments, where the instrumental and harmonic colors are mixing in an ambiguous way.

I’ve heard you talk before about how your process of writing for orchestra involved progressively removing elements, to sort of get things down to this one-long-breath style of writing. Now that you’re here — feeling in some ways like you’ve perhaps perfected an approach that you’d only previously sketched out — where do you go? Can you keep writing pieces in this vein?

That’s a great question. And…let me get back to you on that in a few years! [Laughs] I think the music always knows more than I do. So I’m just doing my best to keep asking the questions. And the answers — with any luck — take care of themselves. I love the orchestral medium. I’ve got reservations and, ah, a critique of the symphony orchestra as an institution, as an organism, in a socio-historical-economic sense. But just as a sonic medium, I am in love with it. And I feel as though…with Become Ocean, I’ve found an orchestra that feels like it’s mine.