by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 8, 2013
The hundredth anniversary of Stravinsky’s formerly scandalous Rite of Spring, on May 29th, raised the question of whether a twenty-first-century composer can produce a comparable shock. Perhaps not: the twentieth century elicited such a numbing array of shocks, both in art and in reality, that the game of “Astonish me”—Diaghilev’s famous command to Cocteau—may be temporarily played out. Still, astonishment comes in many forms. There are shocks of beauty, shocks of feeling, shocks of insight. Such were the virtues of John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, a forty-two-minute piece for large orchestra, which had its première at the Seattle Symphony on June 20th. Like the sea at dawn, it presents a gorgeous surface, yet its heaving motion conveys overwhelming force. Whether orchestras will be playing it a century hence is impossible to say, but I went away reeling.
The title comes from lines that John Cage wrote in tribute to the music of his colleague Lou Harrison: “Listening to it we become ocean.” There are also environmental implications, as Adams indicates in a brief, bleak note in the score: “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.” A onetime conservation activist who moved to Alaska in the nineteen-seventies, Adams has witnessed the effects of climate change at close range, and his music often reflects what he has seen. The 2007 orchestral work Dark Waves, among others, evokes mighty, natural processes through the accumulation of gradually shifting patterns. Become Ocean is his most ambitious effort in this vein: its three huge crescendos, evenly spaced over the three-quarter-hour span, suggest a tidal surge washing over all barriers.
It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history. Whereas Dark Waves builds towering dissonances from simple intervals of the perfect fifth, Become Ocean is more tonally centered, almost to the point of lushness. Near the start, the winds present plaintive chords of B minor, while the brass luxuriate in soft D major. A broad spectrum of triadic harmonies unfolds, many of them enriched by neighboring tones, stirring associations with late-Romantic and early-modern repertory. When the harps play glittering arpeggios above the mass, you think of Debussy’s La Mer. An aching suspension of D-sharp against an E-major triad recalls the final measures of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. And the low, dark choirs of brass conjure Wagner. Anyone who has secretly wished, during the swirling stasis that opens the Ring, that the music would go on like that forever will find much to love in Become Ocean.
At the same time, it is a disorienting, unsettling creation. The majestic sonorities emerge from a musical machine, an inexorable process. (“Inexorable” is, in fact, the indication at the head of the score.) There are six hundred and thirty bars of music, plus a bar of silence. The three main sections of the orchestra play sequences of varying lengths, each of which swells to a climax and then fades, and each of which reverses course at its midpoint, in the manner of a palindrome. The winds have fifteen units of forty-two bars (including rests); the brass nine units of seventy bars; the strings twenty-one units of thirty bars. At three points, the crescendos of the various groups coincide, resulting in those Debussy-like climaxes. The really confounding thing is that at Bar 316 the music begins running in reverse. The work is a gigantic palindrome, ending where it began.
Anyone who has gone down a stretch of road and then reversed course knows that a landscape does not look the same when viewed from opposite directions. One mystery of Become Ocean is how different the material often sounds during the second half of the palindrome. The section after the first climax is thick with minor chords, particularly in the brass. Somehow, as these chords loom again during the buildup to the final climax, they take on a heavier, more sorrowful air. There is a sense of unwinding, of subsiding, of dissolution. I thought of Matthew Arnold’s “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” and also of the line that the earth goddess Erda utters in the Ring: “Everything that is, ends.” That a piece constructed with such fanatical rigor can convey such potent emotion is the greatest mystery of all.
The Seattle Symphony, under the leadership of Ludovic Morlot, is a revitalized orchestra, avid for new music and offbeat programming. On the first half of the June 20th program, a smoldering account of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with the young Armenian virtuoso Sergey Khachatryan, showed the ensemble playing at a high and intense level. Become Ocean was the main event, though, and hundreds of younger listeners materialized among the older subscribers. The score requires considerable feats of stamina from the musicians: one percussionist rolls, without pause, on an array of bass drums, timpani, cymbals, and tam-tam, and the pianist is given a continuously pulsing seven-note pattern. (Ron Johnson and Kimberly Russ were the marathoners at the première.) Morlot had little to do during the performance except to keep the beat, but in rehearsal he had fine-tuned the balances so that the sound was full and rich but never excessively loud. The orchestra will perform Become Ocean again next May, during the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall, on a program that also includes La Mer and Varèse’s Déserts. Here is an orchestra that has earned its marketing slogan: “Listen boldly.”
Addendum: My 2008 profile of Adams appears in Listen to This. When I was trying to decipher the structure of Become Ocean, I made a rough chart of its overlapping crescendos and decrescendos. The three climaxes of the work happen when the crescendos of the wind, brass, and string groups coincide, in the passages leading up to Bars 106, 316, and 526. There are corresponding triple-p moments of repose, at Bars 211 and 421. The chart shows only the first half of the piece; because the entire score is a palindrome, the second half follows the same structure in reverse. There is much more to be said about the intricate construction and numerological obsessions of Become Ocean. Almost every feature of it seems to have something to do with the number seven and its multiples: it doesn't seem a coincidence that the piano sets the music in motion with a rapid-moving seven-note figure, that the work lasts forty-two minutes, and even that there are forty-two staves in the score. All that said, the piece in no way sounds complexly structured. Its atmosphere is contemplative, meditative. Nothing quite like it has ever been done, and that is why I chose to begin my review with a comparison to The Rite of Spring.