John Luther Adams' follow-up to his Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning — and Taylor Swift-gift-spurring — “Become Ocean" melds music and environmental awareness; it debuts at the end of this month.
“Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light,” exhorts Octavio Paz in “Piedra Nativa” (“Native Stone”).
The Mexican poet might almost be offering instructions on how to approach composer John Luther Adams’ latest work, the highly anticipated “Become Desert,” which the Seattle Symphony will present as a world premiere on March 29 and 31.
Adams, a composer whose environmental awareness has long been deeply interwoven with his music, felt a shock of recognition when he read Paz’s 13-line poem and inscribed it as an epigraph to his score. The reverence for the natural world that permeates the new piece isn’t merely about observing a landscape and somehow rendering in sound whatever impressions it arouses.
Rather — and this is true of his music in general — Adams strives to convey an inner experience of the outer world that encourages mindfulness on the part of the listener. “In the desert, we don’t simply look at the light. We swim in the light,” Adams observed in a recent essay for Slate about his new work.
The anticipation about “Become Desert” has been building for several years.
The piece represents the next major chapter in a relationship between the composer, the Seattle Symphony and its music director, Ludovic Morlot, that began with the symphony’s commissioning of “Become Ocean,” a massive orchestral soundscape that envelops listeners. The piece premiered at Benaroya Hall in 2013 and subsequently nabbed a Pulitzer and a Grammy — and spurred a gift from pop star Taylor Swift.
This newest piece “completes a trilogy that I never set out to write in the first place,” Adams said in a recent interview, speaking by phone while visiting the Atacama Desert in South America.
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Soon after embarking on “Become Ocean,” he was asked by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to write a shorter piece for chamber orchestra, which he titled “Become River.” Adams’ sequel commission for the Seattle Symphony then took shape as “Become Desert,” in part because “it occurred to me that there had to be a terrestrial piece. I worked my way upstream, as it were.”
Adams’ passion for both music and the environment stretches back decades. After studying composition at California Institute of the Arts, he became an environmental activist in the 1970s and found his way to Alaska, where he made his home for close to four decades.
The sense of connection to the natural world, and inspiration from other local writers, that he experienced during his first years in Alaska inspired Adams to rededicate his life to music. “When I did so, it was with the belief that music and art could matter every bit as much as politics,” he said. “I’ve been trying to make good on that leap of faith ever since.”
“Become Ocean” a game-changer
Now 65 and living in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, Adams has for decades commanded a strong following in the world of contemporary classical music while remaining relatively unknown to wider audiences. “Become Ocean” proved to be a game-changer.
Winning Adams the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014 and the Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition the following year, it not only boosted Adams’ profile in the classical sphere but attracted unexpected attention well beyond it. Another Grammy winner, pop singer Swift, was moved to make an impromptu donation of $50,000 to Seattle Symphony after listening to the orchestra’s recording. The film “The Revenant,” which nabbed an Oscar for Leonardo DiCaprio, incorporated music from “Become Ocean” into its soundtrack.
“That really is a fantastic part of the story,” Morlot said. “A lot of the people who embraced ‘Become Ocean’ were a new audience for us.”
Instead of being intimidated by a long-form symphonic work, they became wrapped up in the music as “a meditative experience, something in which they could completely abandon themselves,” Morlot said.
That should emphatically not be taken to suggest that what Adams writes is easy-listening, musical comfort food.
Last month, the New York Philharmonic prefaced a concert performance of the first act of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” with an earlier Adams score, “Dark Waves,” which led to this scene: “An elderly gent boos John Luther Adams, nearly comes to blows with a supporter,” tweeted Michael Cooper of The New York Times.
At a Lincoln Center concert last November, Adams’ piece “there is no one, not even the wind …” — a kind of chamber-size study for “Become Desert” — prompted a twenty-something-looking patron to complain bitterly and leave the concert, as The New Criterion described it.
Such reactions may have to do with expectations being thwarted. Adams has a reputation as a composer uniquely responsive to the natural environment, and the evocative titles of his works — “In a Treeless Place, Only Snow,” “The Light That Fills the World,” “Sila: The Breath of the World” — point to the special role landscape plays in his musical imagination.
But his compositions are not Ansel Adams set to sound (no family relation either, incidentally). John Luther Adams has no interest in trying to “translate” the natural beauty he knows so intimately into tones and timbres.
“My music is not about drama or narrative,” he said. “It’s about presence and awareness. I think what touches a nerve for some people — perhaps this is what upset the young listener at Lincoln Center — is that in this society we are not accustomed to paying deep attention. We want to be entertained, told a story, or given a display of technical proficiency.”
Jennifer Godfrey, a Seattle Symphony bass player, says playing Adams’ music allows her to feel the contrast between “our regimented, finite lives” and “that peaceful and buoyant suspension of time, gravity, and movement in the seemingly boundless infinity” that can only be found in the vast expanses of nature.
The vastness of “Become Desert”
At about 40 minutes, “Become Desert” parallels “Become Ocean” in the vastness of scale it conveys. But the differences are striking. Adams says that in these recent works, he has become increasingly focused on space “not in a poetic or metaphorical sense but as physical space. ‘Become Desert’ occupies an even larger space than ‘Become Ocean.’”
The score for the new work bears this out. It became so unwieldy — Adams says the full score could cover a queen-size bed — that he had to prepare a condensed version for practical use.
In contrast to the three spatially separated ensembles (strings, brass and winds) he used for ‘Become Ocean,’ he divides the musicians into five groups for ‘Become Desert,’ including a group that consists of a chorus. The orchestra and voices are dispersed around Benaroya Hall, whose physical resonance Adams says he had in mind while composing the piece.
Morlot agrees that the sound worlds of “Become Desert” and “Become Ocean” are very different. “The new piece has a distinctive sound of bells that I identify with stone in the Octavio Paz poem,” he said. “Much of it is more about texture and timbre than precision or attack.”
The sound — the overall musicality — of “Become Desert” is of paramount importance to Adams. But an environmental message is ultimately inseparable from the music, since, as he says, “Music is how I understand the world.”
That’s not to say that Adams regards his work as political music. Political art as such, Adams thinks, is more or less doomed to fail as both politics and art. “If my music doesn’t succeed as music and touch you in some purely musical way, then it becomes meaningless,” he says.
At the same time, he affirms the legitimacy of a relationship between his music and an external message.
An especially compelling example of this unfolded in January when the San Diego Symphony — co-commissioners, along with the Seattle Symphony, New York Philharmonic and Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, of “Become Desert” — presented “Inuksuit,” another Adams epic, in a performance at the U.S.-Mexico border, symbolically defying this artificial separation of the natural world and of fellow humans.
“Given the state of the world today, I’ve come to believe that art is actually more important than ever,” Adams said. “Ideas never come from politics; they originate in culture. Like so many of us these days, I am trying to imagine a new way of being in this world.”
John Luther Adams’ “Become Desert.” Performed by Seattle Symphony and Seattle Symphony Chorale, on a program with Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto featuring pianist Jeremy Denk; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 29 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 31; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $35-$122, 206-215-4747, seattlesymphony.org