Also, Silences So Deep: Music, Solitude, Alaska. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, 2020. 194 pp. ISBN: 978-0-374-26462-8.
By Karl W. Nehring
John Luther Adams received widespread attention for the first of the three compositions included in this three-CD boxed set, Become Ocean, which was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is a powerful piece, deep and brooding and churning, capturing the energy and mystery of the ocean depths. In his liner notes, Adams explains that, “Become Ocean is titled after a mesostic poem that John Cage wrote in honor of Lou Harrison. Likening Harrison’s music to a river in delta, Cage wrote:
LiStening to it
Adams goes on to explain that “in Become Ocean a full symphony orchestra is deployed in three different ensembles, separated as widely as possible. Each of these groups has its own distinctive instrumental and harmonic colorations, each moving in its own tempo.” Lest his talk of three ensembles playing in three tempos immediately scare you off, let me assure you that although Become Ocean has a dense, complex sound, it does not have a dissonant, chaotic, forbidding sound. Indeed, the piece has a majesty to it that can truly draw the listener in. It conveys a sense of elemental power that goes beyond waves on the surface to reveal the force of the mighty currents below and the astonishing force of the tides. Debussy’s La Mer gives us a vivid portrait of the ocean as seen from without; Adams has a different goal in mind. “I composed Become Ocean on the edge of the Pacific, in Mexico, where my wife and I lived for most of a decade. Yet from time to time when people ask me: ‘Which ocean is it?’ My answer is always the same: ‘Your ocean…’ Become Ocean is a meditation on the deep and mysterious tides of existence.” The piece was something of a sensation when it was originally released, perhaps not quite to the scale of Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (here) but still quite noteworthy for a classical music release.
The remaining two compositions in the trilogy Become River and Become Desert, were recorded in 2018. Reflecting on the kind of music he was trying to create in the works that make up this trilogy, Adams notes that “Stravinsky remarked that music is the sole domain in which we fully realize the present. Yet so much orchestral music is continually becoming—unfolding in narrative arcs, like novels or movies… The pieces of the Become trilogy are not symphonic studies about rivers, deserts, or the sea. This is music that aspires to the condition of place. The titles are not ‘Becoming…’. They’re ‘Become…’. The invitation is for you, the listener, to enter into the music, to lose yourself, and perhaps to discover oceans, deserts, and rivers of your own.”
Adams observes that he has known many rivers throughout his life, and that for a good part of his life he lived in the Tanana River basin in Alaska, of which he notes that “a musical evocation of the Tanana would have to be a long piece, for a large orchestra. Become River is shorter, and scored for a smaller orchestra—an orchestra turned upside down. Rather than their usual position near the edge of the stage, the violins are seated far upstage and elevated. The entire assembly is raked, from high to low sounds. Over the course of twenty minutes, the music flows downstream in three interlocking streams moving at different tempos, running to the sea.” Once again that description might make the music sound forbidding, or even unlistenable, but in truth, Become River is actually quite beguiling. The various elements of the sound -- tinkling percussion, swirling strings, shifting tones from the brass and woodwinds—all combine in the imagination to offer a striking impression of a river, and if you let yourself go as you listen, you truly can begin to feel in some sense becoming at least a wee bit riverish… Seriously, though, it is a remarkable composition, a 21st-century Die Moldau.
Adams notes of the final piece of the trilogy that “Become Desert completes this trilogy that I didn’t set out to write. In all three of these works, space is a fundamental compositional element. I’m not speaking only of poetic or metaphorical space, but also of the physical space of the musical ensemble, and the acoustical space in which the music is heard. At forty-two minutes, Become Desert is the same length as Become Ocean. But it encompasses an even larger musical space. Five different ensembles are stationed around the audience… In the desert, as Octavio Paz observes: ‘That which is not stone is light.’ Here, you can ‘close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light.’ This image led me to realize that Become Desert needed to include human voices. The chorus sings a single word, throughout: Luz (the Spanish word for ‘light’).” As you might expect, there is less sense of motion in this music, although there is still a great sense of energy. The subtle contribution of the voices produces a different texture to this music that further sets it apart from the two water-based members of the trilogy. Of the three compositions, I found it the hardest to get into at first, but upon repeated listening, I came to really appreciate it. As with the other two pieces, it rewards concentrated listening, but it can also be enjoyed by just closing your eyes and letting the sound take you away.
Speaking of sound, I of course listened in stereo, which is quite excellent, but there are also 5.1 surround and Dolby Atmos mixes of all three compositions available (in digital format only). That could be quite interesting, both sonically and psychologically. Unfortunately, without (a) wideband internet access (one of the few drawbacks of my rural lifestyle) or (b) a 5.1 or Dolby Atmos system, I am unable to report on what particular sonic and/or spiritual bliss that immersive listening experience might entail, alas.
Eventually, though, as he felt both the climate and his life inevitably changing, he chose to leave Alaska. He writes that “as Cindy and I got a little older and as the pristine ferocity of the cold began to diminish, the subarctic winter darkness became more challenging. We began spending more and more time in a house on the Pacific coast of Baja California… In that house, over the next decade or so, I would compose Canticles of the Holy Wind, Become River, Become Ocean, and Become Desert. In the Become trilogy, I sought to bring my ideal of an entire piece of music as a single, rich, complex sonority to its fullest realization.”
Silences So Deep is an enjoyable book that can stand on its own apart from Adams’s music. However, if you have enjoyed the music of John Luther Adams, whether from one or all of his Become trilogy compositions or some of his many other fine works, then this is a book that you will most likely truly enjoy.