Alaska composer John Luther Adams — not to be confused with “Nixon in China” composer John Adams — has staged outdoor-percussion extravaganzas (“Inuksuit”), created sound-and-light installations triggered by atmospheric phenomena (“The Place Where You Go to Listen” at Fairbanks’ Museum of the North) and blended electronics with live instruments (“The Mathematics Of Resonant Bodies”).
But he doesn’t often get a chance to work with a full-scale orchestra. That’s why he is as thrilled about the Seattle Symphony’s world premiere of his new piece, “Become Ocean,” as his fans will be.
“I love the orchestra,” he explained in a recent email exchange from Mexico, where he’s working on a large-scale outdoor piece. “I’d probably compose for it all the time if I could. But orchestra commissions don’t come along every day … especially for a work of this scale! This is by far the most exciting orchestral opportunity I’ve ever received.”
The piece has a predecessor in “Dark Waves” (2007), a rumble-pulse of orchestral sound and electronics that gradually builds and then subsides over the course of 12 minutes. “Become Ocean,” at 45 minutes, will offer an even vaster soundscape.
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“From the beginning,” Adams says, “my friends at the symphony were asking for a large-scale work.”
While Adams admired the work of symphony music director Ludovic Morlot, he had never collaborated with him.
“When we sat down together for the first time,” Adams recalls, “I suggested two possibilities — a new indoor work modeled after ‘Inuksuit,’ or something that I described as ‘“Dark Waves” on steroids.’ Ludovic was intrigued by both options. To my surprise, he opted for the latter. This wasn’t the obvious choice. But I’m convinced it was the right one.”
Adams’ grounding as an orchestral composer comes from hands-on experience: for a decade, he was timpanist and principal percussionist for the Fairbanks Symphony and the Arctic Chamber Orchestra.
Symphony-goers had a taste of Adams’ sound world in April, when excerpts from “songbirdsongs,” an early work for piccolos and percussion, came at them from all directions in the Grand Lobby of Benaroya Hall. The performance served notice that Adams is an “environmental composer” in two different senses. He draws musical inspiration from the sounds in his environment. But he also creates surround-sound musical environments that envelop the listener.
“I’ve always craved space — in my life and in my music,” Adams says. “Over the years this has led me from painting musical landscapes to composing music that I hope creates its own inherently musical sense of space and place. My aspiration is to create strange, new and beautiful places in music and invite listeners to take their own journeys through those places.”
“Become Ocean,” performed on a concert-hall stage, won’t literally surround its audience. But it should still be “an immersive experience,” Adams says.
“I treat the orchestra as three separate ensembles, widely separated in space,” he explains. “We will extend the stage in Benaroya Hall to expand the physical space of the piece.”
The three sections of the orchestra will be lit in changing shades of different colors — the strings in blues, the woodwinds in reds, the brass in yellows. (“Along with space and place, I want my music to evoke light and color.”)
While “Dark Waves” took inspiration from “the cold, stormy waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea in mind,” “Become Ocean” is more “expansive” in its thought.
“Like many people these days, I’m deeply concerned about global climate change,” Adams says. “Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. And 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.”
What is it about Alaska that makes Adams the kind of composer he is?
“The stillness of the subarctic winter has permeated my musical imagination,” he says. “And then there’s the light … the sparkling darkness of winter nights, the endless light of summer, the saturated colors of low-angle sunlight … the spectral dance of the aurora borealis … And that sense of endless, unbroken space rolling on over the top of the world….”
Even by email, the note of rapture comes through loud and clear.
“I’ll stop now,” he quips. “But I could go on and on. I’ve already written two books about the influence of Alaska on my life and my music. And now I’m working on a third!”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com