John Luther Adams: Composers to Know

I figured I would start a series on important living composers that most people are probably unaware of. I think a lot of symphony orchestras do a disservice by sticking to the classics.

Composers to Know

Even people that regularly attend orchestra performances have a hard time naming more than a handful of living composers outside of those that have made a bit of fame through movie scores (John Corigliano or Philip Glass come to mind).

It is a strange state of affairs if you consider any other artistic medium.

An art connoisseur would have no problem listing living artists ad nauseum or an avid reader would have no problem listing living authors (and not just popular bestsellers).

The blame can be spread over many sources, but it doesn’t help that the major orchestras shy away from new music. Public education doesn’t include it, either.

The person I’ve picked for today has been in the news a lot recently. Can you guess from that alone? John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for music this year (did you know there was a Pulitzer for music?) for his work Become Ocean.

As such, a lot of people have written about it, but I’ll give my own take in a bit. You may be thinking, “Ah, but I have heard of this person!” Make sure you are not confusing John Luther Adams with the minimalist composer John Adams (also recently in the news for his controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer).

John Luther Adams

john luther adams

John Luther Adams lives in Alaska, and this has been a major influence on his music. His pieces are often about some aspect of nature.

Become Ocean fits into a larger program of the composer to create pieces about all the elements. This one is about water, but he has an earlier piece, Inuksuit, based on earth and one that has come out since then, Sila: The Breath of the World about air.

I expect to see a piece about fire in the near future.

I have avoided reading much about Become Ocean so I could write this without being influenced by other people’s reviews and interpretations.

The Seattle Symphony commissioned the piece and premiered it in June of last year. Of course, when thinking about what an orchestral representation of the ocean would sound like, it is hard not to think of Debussy’s attempt with La Mer.

You should get that out of your head because this work is very different.

Despite how much I love La Mer, I have to admit that Adams’ representation is brilliant.

Become Ocean

Most of the work is quiet and almost zen-like.

You can hear the gentle waves with short, scalar and arpeggio patterns up and down, up and down. It is hard to know for certain without a score, but it sounds like a piano keeps this ostinato going for the entire piece.

On top of these waves are long, held notes tying the whole thing together with a dark murkiness.

This is most of the piece, and it may sound boring to you, but consider the following. The sun is setting, and you are sitting on the edge of a dock looking out over the ocean watching it.

The repetitive waves transfix you, and you lose 45 minutes out there. It is beautiful and wonderful, not boring. That is this piece.

The piece, as a whole, continually shifts and moves. It has long, slow builds to magnificent climaxes. These moments are chilling in strength and power, just as the ocean has the power to be a destructive force.

It is amazing that the piece can seem so static, yet have so much underlying motion in the same way that changing your attention on the ocean can make it seem static or turbulent.

If you don’t listen to much modern music, then this would be a good place to start. The piece does not have a large barrier to entry like a serialist composition or quarter-tone piece or something with lots of references.

Anyone can sit down and instantly be captured by the beauty. It will take a good deal of patience, though. There’s no melody or anything to command your attention.

Like all great art, it requires some effort on the listener’s part. But that effort is well worth it.

If you liked this article, you might like my other ones on composers: