By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Pulitzer Prizes are no guarantee of quality or the lasting value of a piece of music, as we have so often seen. Nor does the award often recognize the best work of the honored composer. Yet in the case of John Luther Adams’s aquatic soundscape Become Ocean – as recorded by the commissioning orchestra, the Seattle Symphony under its music director Ludovic Morlot (Cantaloupe Music) – the Pulitzer board made a good call this year.
Become Ocean is not so much a piece of music as it is a sonic installation. Nothing develops, nothing goes from point A to point B. It’s just a fresco of complex, dense, vaguely tonal orchestral layers slowly riding the crests of volume and subsiding just about as slowly for 42 minutes.
Adams tried something similar in a piece called For Lou Harrison as heard at the 2013 Ojai Festival, but that was an intolerably turgid bore, the only piece I ever saw at Ojai that incited boos. Become Ocean is much better, much more alluring, much more absorbing because its ideas, colors and textures are strong enough to withstand repetition.
Become Ocean comes in CD and DVD versions; the latter plays the music against a handful of repeating oceanic still photos, with blue as the dominant color. In the briefest of program notes, Adams writes that due to the melting of the polar regions and subsequent eventual rise in sea levels, we may well be literally becoming part of the ocean – which is of some help to get you in the mood, but not absolutely crucial.
If you have the setup, check out the DVD in surround sound; the Seattle Symphony just sweeps all around your listening room as it arises from the depths. That’s the best way to become totally immersed in this hypnotic soundscape from the “other” John Adams.