Album du jour: John Luther Adams, “Become Ocean”


In Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” we meet a gent named Slartibartfast, a Magrathean planetary designer with a specialty in coastlines.  When “Slarty” hears of the destruction of Earth, he laments in particular the loss of the fjord-etched coastline of Norway:

“Pity,” said Slartibartfast, “that was one of mine. Won an award you know. Lovely crinkly edges. I was most upset to hear about its destruction.”

Our friend Slartibartfast has a kindred artistic spirit in composer John Luther Adams.  A 61-year old long-time resident of Alaska (speaking of gorgeous coastlines), Adams works in sound the way Slarty worked in earth and water:  molding, shaping, layering, juxtaposing.  The normal primacy of the most human elements of music, melody and rhythm, is turned upside-down in Adams’s sound world, or as he puts it, his “sonic geography,” one in which timbre (tone-color) and texture predominate.

You can see by scanning the titles in his work list that Adams receives much of his inspiration from the natural environment.  His aim, however, is not to describe the environment for us.  It is to capture it for us in sound,  to make permanent something that may eventually be lost to us.  In this way, while he may also be thought of as classical music’s nearest equivalent to such masters of ambient music as Brian Eno and Aphex Twin,  John Luther Adams continues the line of impressionist composers that started with Claude Debussy, whose symphonic triptych “La Mer” (“The Sea”) inevitably comes to mind when listening to Adams’s latest orchestral masterwork, “Become Ocean.” Won an award you know: The 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Here’s John Luther Adams’s introductory note in the CD booklet:

Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.

That’s it.  No analysis, no road map, nothing.  Not that there couldn’t be, for as detailed by critic Alex Ross, complete with a fancy diagram, “Become Ocean” is a piece with a plan.  But as always — and especially in this case — your first hearing should take place before you have been told what you are supposed to hear.  In other words, listen first, read second, then listen again.  Not to give the game away, I’ll just say that “Become Ocean,” stunningly played by the Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot conductor, is as haunting and thrilling a new piece of music, regardless of genre, as I have heard in some time.  And I very much want you to hear it too.

Here’s where you can purchase and download it (FLAC 16-bit or better, please).  You can preview it below on Spotify.  Enjoy!


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