John Luther Adams, Become Ocean

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 09.30.14 in Reviews

Become Ocean is both profound and easy to grasp. Composer John Luther Adams sets the premise: “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.”

Both profound and easy to grasp

For decades Adams, a staunch environmentalist, has resided in Alaska, a front-row seat for “facing the prospect.” That daily visceral experience influenced his writing so strongly that Become Ocean overwhelms climate-change politics in tactile immersion. Adams divides the Seattle Symphony (which commissioned the work) into three mini-orchestras to better convey the slosh and undulation within the enormous, swelling whole of the music, which crests at three well-spaced occasions when the ebb-and-flow sections come together.

The structure of Become Ocean furthers the notion that Adams aims to emphasize immutable science over political debate. The most astounding of its many marvels is that the entire 42-minute work is a palindrome, with the musical score reversed at the midpoint. Especially beguiling, the recession doesn’t sound like the mirror image of the ascension; there is a newfound grace and beauty imbued in the pattern reversal along with the fresh context of what has come before.

The epic scale and interior movements within the implacable thrust of the piece has provoked comparison to Debussy’s La Mer and the opening of Wagner’s The Ring. But Become Ocean has an audacity that stands on its own — its 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music feels like justice. A hat tip goes to Seattle Symphony conductor Ludovic Morlot for so ably regulating the dicey dynamics involved with directing three segmented mini-orchestras. And for Adams, one on the house of whatever he’s drinking.