Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. And as the polar ice melts and the sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that, once again, we may quite literally become ocean.The 2014 Pulitzer Prizes were awarded on April 14th, and John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his piece Become Ocean, a haunting post-minimalist evocation of the surging tide and the relentless threat of global warming-induced rising sea waters. The other John Adams – of Nixon in China fame – was nominated for his oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a depiction of the last period of Jesus’ life with intriguing orchestration carrying the impassioned music, “sometimes forceful, sometimes lyrical.” The final nominated piece was Invisible Cities by Christopher Cerrone, an opera based on Italo Calvino’s novelization of Marco Polo delighting Kublai Khan with stories of legendary cities.
– John Luther Adams
Become Ocean was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and premiered in 2013. It contains a largely diatonic harmonic framework with a constant, subtly driving rhythm. The piece peaks and ebbs like the endless ocean. The ensemble, broken into three small orchestras playing different music, coalesces at crucial moments for climactic effect. Ludovic Morlot, Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, notes that the beauty of Become Ocean comes not from demonstrating a complex form, but from creating a sonic landscape through which to wander. The listener becomes part of nature and disappears into the seascape created by the piece.
Adams states, “My hope is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming – sometimes even frightening – landscape, and invites you to get lost in it.” His music is largely inspired by the landscapes in Alaska, where he resides. At the premiere, audience members wrote notes to the composer such as “The brass led me through the ocean like a giant whale, lumbering and determined,” and “To be at a world premier is a ‘divine encounter.’” What little I could glean from the bits posted online confirms these observations. I am glad the prize selection committee chose a piece with a social message, though I hope it stands on its own just as a piece of music. The Seattle Symphony performs in Carnegie hall on May 6, and I plan to be in the audience to here the now Pulitzer-winning work.
NPR's Tom Huizenga interviews John Luther Adams
The Seattle Symphony explores Become Ocean (YouTube)