October 22, 2014
John Luther Adams: Become Ocean
Seattle Symphony/Ludovic Morlot
Cantaloupe CA 21101
Total Time: 42:15
Under new music director Ludovic Morlot, the Seattle Symphony has been pulled into the 21st Century with a wonderful series of recordings that explore contemporary composers like Dutilleux and this new work by John Luther Adams, Becoming Ocean which received the Pulitzer Prize for Music (2014). Not to be confused with the post-minimalist composer, John Adams, John Luther Adams’ musical aesthetic is rooted in the natural world along the lines of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer but with a sound that has roots a bit in Philip Glass. J.L. Adams’ work often extends between physical/natural worlds and those of traditional orchestral music. This new orchestral work is derived from an earlier piece, Dark Waves—originally blending electronic and orchestral music. Becoming Ocean was specifically commissioned by Morlot for the Seattle Orchestra.
The work divides the orchestra itself into three interlocking groups and consists of one long continuous unfolding. Dark colors and dense harmonies open the work with arpeggios in harp and piano adding slight glimpses of light. A series of slow crescendo and decrescendos create an additional sense of wavy motion. In some respects, the piece recalls Resphigi’s tone poems but more in keeping with the aspect of Debussy and French Impressionism with more subtle shifts in color, though in a musical language that focuses much more on small motivic ideas that float to the surface rather than any given theme, thus taking a small page from minimalist aesthetics as well. This grows into a massive mass of sound about 7 minutes into the work and a bigger emotional surge half way, and again closer to the end. When things get suddenly quite the listener almost shifts in to see what might be happening, a very nice dramatic touch. This is especially true when brass enter often signaling a new shift which as we turn the corner into the final quarter of the piece is often one of majesty and gorgeous musical painting. The music does draw you in as its soundscapes shimmer and shift across the span of time of the work. And it moves quietly back to nothingness. That Adams sustains these large rises and ebbs is quite fascinating to hear and further draws one into the music along with the subtle more romantic harmonies that rise out of the depths. One cannot help but be a bit overcome by the work’s massive scale.
Unfortunately, Cantaloupe does not service this release well. Fortunately, NPR interviewed Adams in September (2014) where one can gleam a bit more about this work’s connections to rising waters and a sort of read-into apocalyptic message about melting ice caps. The “awesomeness” of this “reality” is what somewhat informs the piece overall. It is this sort of description that thus creates the timely space for Becoming Ocean. The packaging is in a folded cardboard sleeve set with the CD in the middle which will lead to scratching over time. The accompanying booklet says nothing of the composer or the work which is terribly disappointing as well. The release includes a DVD of the performance as well. This may not offset the short playing time of the CD and missed opportunity to include another piece of the composer’s as well. It does take a lot for a modern composer to create a work of this magnitude in a period of shorter commissions and we can be thankful that the Seattle Symphony was able to provide support for this work. That their conductor also has demonstrated the perfect connections to the musical approaches here certainly help make the piece come alive in this superb recording. One hopes this can lead to more of J.L. Adams’ music appearing on disc.
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