John Luther Adams: The Become Trilogy (CD and book review)

Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony. Cantaloupe CA21161 (3-disc set).
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

Just to be perfectly clear, the composer of the Become Trilogy is the American composer John Luther Adams (b. 1953), who is not the same person as the American composer John Adams (b. 1947), who is famous for compositions such as his opera Nixon in China and his orchestral showpiece Short Ride in a Fast Machine. John Adams is based in California, while John Luther Adams was long based in Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014. He now resides in the American Southwest.

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
    we becOme

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.

In his memoir Silences So Deep, Adams writes that “Music is my way of understanding the world, of knowing where I am and how I fit in. An unsettled childhood left me with a gnawing, inarticulate hunger to find my real home and family—the place to which I would truly belong, and the people with whom I would share ties deeper than blood. In Alaska—where I lived for four decades—I found both.” We learn how he came to find friendship, a cabin in the wilderness with no running water, a role as a timpanist in the Fairbanks Symphony, and a gig as a music director and program host for a local NPR radio station. We read about how inspiration came to him for some of his early musical compositions, and how he grew in his conception of music and composition. He writes of friendships and how they influenced him, of how observing skilled craftsmen such as masons and carpenters influenced his approach to composing music.

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.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa