Seattle Symphony Spotlight: John Luther Adams on “Become Desert”

by Dave Beck

Composer John Luther Adams describes his work with Seattle Symphony Music Director Ludovic Morlot and the SSO musicians as “one of the happiest musical relationships of my life.” It’s a collaboration that has resulted in a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award for 2013’s Become Ocean.

Five years later, that collaboration continues with the world premiere this week of Adams’ Become Desert. It takes place Thursday night, March 29, and Saturday night, March 31 in Benaroya Hall—with Ludovic Morlot conducting the Seattle Symphony and members of the Symphony Chorale.

John Luther Adams speaks with Classical KING FM’s Dave Beck in our studios about moving from tundra to desert, his fascination with immense spaces, and the importance of using the right tools—in his case, the best number 2 pencil that can be found.

Listen to the full interview below.


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

The Essential John Luther Adams

by Michael Schell

Did you miss Second Inversion’s John Luther Adams Marathon on March 28? Are you interested in exploring the music of America’s most famous ecologist-composer by sampling a few key pieces? If so, check out this selection of JLA’s most indispensable albums to date.

Earth and the Great Weather

If you’re ever remanded to a desert island where you can take along a single John Luther Adams album, this is the one to pick. Subtitled A Sonic Geography of the Arctic, this ten-movement composition from 1993 was Adams’ breakout piece. It’s both an ecological oratorio of the far North and a compendium of the techniques that Adams would hone over the next 25 years: haunting drones and trills, ritualistic taiko-like drumming, and overtone-based textures inspired by his teacher James Tenney (compare the latter’s Shimmer to this album’s track Pointed Mountains Scattered All Around). It even has some things you don’t find in other Adams pieces, such as Alaska nature recordings and texts from Native Alaskan languages


The Far Country

This is another fine sampler album from 1993 that features three medium-length pieces for large ensemble. Dream in White on White is a plaintive work for strings and harp reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Orpheus. The early choral composition Night Peace openly displays its debt to Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. The Far Country of Sleep begins with a solo trumpet motif that’s almost identical to Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but as this orchestral piece progresses, it makes clear that its philosophical affinity is with Rachel Carson rather than Nietzsche.


Inuksuit

This outdoor piece for multiple percussionists has been performed all over North America (including here in Seattle in 2015). Adams considers this recording, three years in the making and captured on location in rural Vermont, to be a definitive representation.


Become Ocean

And here it is: Seattle Symphony’s Grammy Award-winning recording of Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning piece. Released in 2014, it’s the first recording of Adams’ music by a major orchestra. Although the sound world of Become Ocean isn’t all that far from Ravel’s daybreak scene in Daphnis et Chloé, Adams’ instinct as an ecologist is to let his textural soundscape unfold on its own terms and at its own pace, with a minimum of intervention. Indeed, this work is so well proportioned that it seems much shorter than its 42-minute duration. Become Ocean is both a fulfillment of the trajectory of Adams’ work since Earth and the Great Weather and a searchlight illuminating the wonders yet to come from this imaginative composer.


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

A Spotify version of our Essential JLA playlist is available below:

John Luther Adams Marathon: Streaming Worldwide!

Photo by Pete Woodhead.

by Maggie Molloy

Lose yourself in immersive sonic landscapes of John Luther Adams this Wednesday during our eight-hour marathon of his music on Second Inversion! Tune in on Wednesday, March 28 from 9am-5pm PST for a full eight hours of music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose newest orchestral work, Become Desert, receives its world premiere this week at the Seattle Symphony.

Become Desert is the highly-anticipated sequel to Adams’ orchestral masterwork Become Ocean, which was commissioned and recorded by the Seattle Symphony in 2013. Become Ocean is a 45-minute orchestral approximation of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and it flowed right to the top of classical music charts. The piece went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.

Living in Alaska for most of his career, Adams’ music has always been inspired by landscapes, ecology, environmentalism, and the natural world—and though he now splits his time between New York and the Mexican desert, his music is still profoundly immersed in the spirit of nature. While Become Ocean submerges the audience in broad waves of sound and shimmering detail, Become Desert takes its inspiration from stillness, space, and light of the desert. At their core, both pieces reflect on two contrasting manifestations of global warming: sea level rise and desertification. 

Adams’ work also holds a very special place in Seattle. In addition to the world premiere of Become Ocean, the Seattle Symphony has performed a number of Adams’ pieces during their Tuning Up! Festival and their [Untitled] series. Last year Emerald City Music also premiered one of Adams’ chamber pieces inspired by the sounds of the Sonoran Desert, titled “there is no one, not even the wind…”

Our marathon this Wednesday features music from throughout Adams’ career, ranging from studies on Georgia birdsongs to field recordings and Alaska Native poetry, metaphysical drum meditations, and expansive sonic geographies—all culminating in the Seattle Symphony’s surround-sound recording of Become Ocean.

Click here to tune in, and read below to learn a bit about our hosts’ favorite musical selections from our John Luther Adams marathon.

John Luther Adams: Become Ocean (Cantaloupe Music)
Seattle Symphony
Ludovic Morlot, conductor

Global devastation never sounded prettier than in John Luther Adams’ apocalyptic musical palindrome Become Ocean. Inspired by the oceans near his former home in Alaska, Adams composed this piece commissioned by Seattle Symphony as a response to what he noticed in the world around him: ice caps melting, sea levels rising, and humanity neglecting to address the changes that impact our future. The fact that human life emerged from the ocean and may soon be destined/forced/doomed to return to the expanse of water is reflected in the palindromic structure of the piece itself; from the second climax indicating a tidal surge the music is played in reverse. Despite the subject matter, Become Ocean feels less like flailing and choking in the ocean’s turbulence and more like floating peacefully on its calm surface. – Rachele Hales


John Luther Adams: The Light that Fills the World (Cold Blue Music)
Unnamed ensemble

From a distance, the Arctic tundra looks like a vast white canvas—up close, it shimmers with infinite color and detail. John Luther Adams spent much of his life exploring the intricacies of that limitless canvas, composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods. He composed The Light That Fills the World during the early dawn of spring one year when, following the long darkness of winter, the landscape was still white with snow and filled with brilliant new light.

Scored for a mixed chamber ensemble of winds, strings, and percussion, the piece captures the slow and sacred rising of the sun across that vast blanket of snow: the way the surface of the earth shifts with that cosmic change of color, the way the broad, seemingly static fields of sound sparkle with enigmatic detail—and the way the listener floats, suspended in that bright and all-consuming light. – Maggie Molloy


John Luther Adams: The Wind in High Places (Cold Blue Music)
JACK Quartet

In the JLA catalog, this piece is a favorite of mine for two reasons. As someone who appreciates places with a significant altitude component (a hiker), I connect deeply with what I perceive as this piece’s portrayal of the unsentimentality of high places. Such places, like all of nature, have no stake in your personal successes or failures, but they are often strikingly beautiful, and made more so by their neutrality.

I also love this piece for its skillful construction and bold technical limitations. The idea of a string quartet entirely made of natural harmonics (where the players do not use the left hand fingers at all) seems outlandish and silly on the surface. But, in this piece, it works. Credit for success in any decent recording of this piece certainly belongs in large part to the performers, but this unusual element also signals the composer’s skill, especially in the face of self-imposed rules. – Seth Tompkins


John Luther Adams: Tukiliit (Cantaloupe Music)
Lisa Moore, piano

John Luther Adams’ large ensemble works each feel like something that has no real beginning or end; something that has existed for eternity, like a place in nature waiting to be discovered. His solo piano work Tukiliit is different. This piece seems to have a clear trajectory, if not a beginning, middle, and end. In a Pictures at an Exhibition-like way, it seems to portray the grandeur of some timeless outdoor fixture with big, towering chords.

The subtitle, “The Stone People Who Live in the Wind,” is an attempt at a literal translation of the main title Tukiliit, which also serves as the Inuktitut word for any stone object with special meaning. The music seems to meander from stone statue to statue, taking in their cold beauty and exploring the majesty of their surroundings. – Geoffrey Larson


John Luther Adams: Strange Birds Passing (Mode Records)
New England Conservatory Contemporary Music Ensemble
John Heiss, conductor

I love learning about the creative processes of artists and how their work develops over time. There’s something totally fascinating about a human being who’s unleashed creatively, and about how artists dive into the brain’s idea factory, venture out into the world, and look into the self, seeking this nebulous carrot on a stick, i.e., finding a way to really, finally, wholly say what they mean to say about what needs to be said.   

Recently, I had the pleasure of learning about John Luther Adams’ creative process. It turns out that over time, he came up with this idea called “sonic geography” which he has said is about the “imaginary territory somewhere between human imagination and the world around us.” Which is very different from his approach on his first album, songbirdsongs. At that point in time, JLA was into direct translations of the natural world into music. He studied bird song in particular regions—each movement of the album representing a different one—and scored the bird song into…people song. The orchestration is complex and innovative, but the idea at its core is pretty simple. In Strange Birds Passing, it’s almost as if you’re hearing Adams’ first inkling of how to say what needed to be said, nearly free of his later abstraction. Both are totally compelling. But this little window into the beginning of his process is super cool. – Dacia Clay


The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert on Thursday, March 29 and Saturday, March 31. For tickets and additional information, please click here.

Music of Mother Nature: 5 Works Inspired by the Great Outdoors

Photo by Erin Anderson.

by Maggie Molloy

The Emerald City is famously green—and not just in terms of plant life. Last year Seattle was rated among the top 15 most environmentally sustainable cities in the U.S., and by 2050 we aim to be completely carbon neutral.

This Sunday is Earth Day: a worldwide event dedicated to education and awareness around issues of environmental protection and sustainability. But here in Seattle, every day is Earth Day; every day, we strive to take care of our planet and work toward a sustainable future.

Photo by Erin Anderson.

So in celebration of our beautiful planet—both last weekend and every day—we’re sharing some of our favorite pieces inspired by plants, animals, and the overwhelming magnificence of Mother Nature:

Mamoru Fujieda: Patterns of Plants

We experience plant life through a variety of senses: sight, taste, touch, smell. But have you ever wondered what plants sound like? Japanese post-minimalist composer Mamoru Fujieda decided to find out.

He spent 15 years of his career creating music based on the electrical activity in living plants. Using a device called a “Plantron,” he measured electrical fluctuations on the surface of plant leaves and converted that data into sound. Fujieda then foraged through the resulting sonic forest for pleasing musical patterns, which he used as the basis for his magnum opus: a bouquet of piano miniatures blooming with ornamented melodies and delicate details.


Meredith Monk: On Behalf of Nature

Meredith Monk likes to think outside the box—the voice box, that is. Famous for her groundbreaking exploration of the voice as an instrument and a language in and of itself, her music speaks volumes without ever using words.

Monk’s multidisciplinary performance piece On Behalf of Nature is a wordless poetic meditation on the environment; an exploration of the delicate space where humans coexist with the natural and spiritual world. The result is an almost ritualistic soundscape of extended vocal techniques dancing above a hypnotic and at times eerie instrumental accompaniment.


John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

Just about everything in John Luther Adams’ musical oeuvre qualifies as organic Earth Day ear candy, but we Seattleites are partial to his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Become Ocean, commissioned and premiered by our own Seattle Symphony in 2013.

Inspired by the spectacular waters of the Pacific Northwest and composed in reaction to the imminent threats of global warming, Become Ocean is a literal ocean of sound—a sparkling seascape that immerses the listener in beautiful washes of color. Harmonies ebb and flow with the fluidity of the tide, cresting into bold, climactic waves amid misty and melodic winds.

“As a composer, it’s my belief that music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding,” Adams said. “By deepening our awareness of our connections to the earth, music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture.”


Nat Evans: Coyoteways

Seattle composer Nat Evans spent many a night listening to the lonely howl of the coyote as he hiked the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail. So many, in fact, that the animal became the inspiration (along with the writings of Beat poet Gary Snyder) for an album that explores the mythological role of the coyote as a cunning trickster and schemer.

Coyoteways evokes the vast and expansive landscapes of the American West by layering field recordings from Evans’ travels brushed with long, sweeping guitar lines and occasional whispers of saxophone and percussion. The result is an ambient soundscape that echoes with the simple splendor of the great outdoors and the stealthy gaze of the coyotes that watch over it.


Whitney George: Extinction Series

Our planet is currently in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals—the worst wave of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs over 65 million years ago. Composer Whitney George is fighting to change those numbers.

George’s Extinction Series is an ongoing collection of somber and introspective miniatures for various solo instruments, each one composed as a musical obituary to an extinct animal on the rapidly-growing list. The sheer volume of this indeterminate series serves as commentary on mankind’s careless destruction of our planet—and it also poses a direct challenge to Earth’s inhabitants: in order for the series to ever be completed, we must first fundamentally change how we interact with our environment.

Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival

by Maggie Molloy

The Fourth of July is almost upon us, and you know what that means: parades, picnics, and barbeques abound! And while hot dogs, fireworks, and flag-covered clothing are a (somewhat) relevant expression of American independence, our county has a whole lot more than just cured meats and corny t-shirts to be proud of.

Tuning Up!Which is why this summer, the Seattle Symphony is turning off the barbeque and turning up the music with Tuning Up!: a two-week festival celebrating American musical creativity in the 20th and 21st century. This star-spangled celebration features nine concerts which traverse America’s vast musical landscape, from jazz to Broadway, avant-garde to minimalism, classics to Hollywood, and much more.

So whether you crave the jazzy grooves of George Gershwin or the swinging blues of Duke Ellington, you can hear it all during the Tuning Up! Festival. Maybe you prefer the massive soundscapes of John Luther Adams, the hypnotic minimalism of Philip Glass, or the movie magic of John Williams—the festival has all that too!

Suffice it to say, Second Inversion is all over this festival. Come visit us at the KING FM table in the lobby at the following events for music, magnets, and other free swag!


Stage & Screen: From Appalachian Spring to the Red Violin
Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m.

From stage to screen to concert hall, these giants of American music transcended borders and paved the way for generations to come. Among them is Florence Beatrice Price: the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. The Seattle Symphony pays tribute with a rousing orchestral rendition of her ragtime classic, Dances in the Canebrakes. Plus, dancers take to the stage alongside the Symphony for a performance of Aaron Copland’s famous folk-inspired and Pulitzer Prize-winning Appalachian Spring.

The program also features Leonard Bernstein’s elegant Divertimento for Orchestra, poignant movie music from Schindler’s List and The Red Violin, and a heartwarming tribute to the late Marvin Hamlisch who, among his many accomplishments in music, served as the Principal Pops Conductor at the Seattle Symphony from 2008 until his death in 2012.


The Light that Fills the World: A Meditation in Sound & Light
Thursday, June 30 at 7:30 p.m.

In the face of trauma and political turmoil around the world, Seattle Symphony offers an intimate meditation in sound and silence, light and dark. Julia Wolfe’s My Beautiful Scream, written after the events of 9/11, opens the program with a slow-building and softly illuminating agony. What follows is utter silence: John Cage’s famous 4’33”.

The program also features Pulitzer Prize-winner John Luther Adams’ immersive, Arctic-inspired soundscape The Light That Fills the World, the delicate breath of Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, and Philip Glass’ scientific salute, The Light.

Plus, the Symphony invites you to submit your own Glass-inspired photographs to be featured during the performance. Deadline for submissions is this Friday, June 24.


In the White Silence: John Luther Adams’ Alaskan Landscapes
Friday, July 1 at 10 p.m.

To say that composer and environmentalist John Luther Adams is inspired by nature would be a bit of an understatement. He spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods, creating large-scale soundscapes which blur the line between nature and man-made instruments.

In 2013, the Seattle Symphony commissioned and premiered John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, a 42-minute meditation for large orchestra which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.John Luther Adams

And now, during this special late-night concert, the Symphony revisits one of Adams’ earlier explorations into sonic geography: the 75-minute soundscape In the White Silence. The piece unfolds slowly and patiently, translating the vast horizons of the frozen far north into a musical landscape of clean, radiant harmony and subtle transformation.


Looking for more in American music? Check out the Seattle Symphony’s Tuning Up! Festival Map below:

Tuning Up! Visual Guide

Gratitude

by Joshua Roman

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I write this as I sit in a very comfortable business/first seat on a flight from Asia back home to New York City, reflecting on my visit to Seoul. One of my close friends had his wedding there, and I was fortunate enough to be free and able to be with him and his new wife for this important occasion. We spent some amazing time together in the city, and I got to play at his wedding, on a cello made by his father. The flight upgrade is happily a result of my frequent flier status, which makes a big difference on such trips.
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Music has a powerful effect in the world. It’s all around us every day, whether we choose it or not. We use music during gatherings of all kinds to create a unified spirit or deepen bonds, music pervades the other forms of entertainment to enhance desired emotional effects, and we have special occasions (concerts) where music is the centerpiece. Music is not only about community, these days most people have their own  collection of music that they can tap into depending on their mood or activity. You can take this even further through music therapy, and other forms of healing both mental and emotional. It’s also used to influence us to purchase certain products, to attract us to a location or entice us to stay longer – even sometimes to drive us away.

I listen to a lot of music. Often, I listen in a kind of work capacity – finding new artists and composers, researching styles and genres, programming concerts, checking out recommendations, etc. Of course, it doesn’t usually feel like work, I love listening to music. I also use music as a way to relax, focus, become energized, and have a kind of spiritual experience. There have been occasions when the power of music has transcended anything I could have said or done, often when I’m listening, and sometimes as a performer as well. I get to work through thoughts and feelings in a way that feels even more direct than words. Most recently I was able to do this on a large scale through the writing of my cello concerto. In the past there have been instances where I’ve turned to music when alone to help me face dark thoughts, and find a safe release valve.

How does this relate to gratitude? The role of music in our lives is undeniably present, and can manifest in any number of ways. I’m so incredibly grateful that my life is very connected to music every day. There are so many wonderful people in my life who I know through music making. Obviously this includes my musician friends, but it goes far beyond that – people who support what we do, audience members who have become close friends, and connections through communities like TED that have come about because of the cello. The breadth of connections in my life that stem from music is overwhelming, and in some instances I believe the depth goes beyond what is possible without this abstract yet binding force. Because I make my living through music, I’m also grateful for being able to eat (that’s a big one), to live in New York, and to travel throughout the world (I’ve played on six continents so far).

The list of reasons to be grateful for music in my life could go on and on, and very quickly I begin to feel responsibility to give back. Strictly artistically speaking, I take this very seriously. It’s one of the reasons I’ve become so passionate about new music, and dedicated to encouraging unique musical voices. Music can be so powerful, so relevant, so meaningful, but I don’t think it is ever more so than when a musician is able to reach deep within and bring something personal to the table. Hopefully I can share this passion through the quality of my performances, the content of my programming, the musicians and other artists with whom I share the stage, the music that I write, and other platforms including this blog. I can also strive to give back on a personal level to those around me, and use the resources that have come my way through music to do things like fly to Korea to be there for my friend on his wedding day.

It’s been a big few years, I’ve added a lot of artistic endeavors to my plate. At times it’s been confusing, but I’m beginning to gain clarity and focus. Now is the time for me to show my gratitude by honing in on the path in front of me and committing to developing a kind of rhythm and consistency with the projects I take on.

How are you grateful for music in your life? How are you inspired to give back? Please share your stories in the comment section below, whether they’re specific moments or general practices.

Currently listening to…
Seattle Symphony: Become Ocean
Ayub Ogada: En Mana Kuoyo
Cleveland Orchestra/Boulez: Rite of Spring

ALBUM REVIEW: Ilimaq by John Luther Adams ft. Glenn Kotche

by Maggie Molloy

What do you get when you cross a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and environmentalist with one of the 40 greatest rock drummers of all time? A 50-minute electroacoustic Inuit-inspired meditation on spirituality and sound, as it turns out.

jla_glenn_kotche

John Luther Adams and Glenn Kotche, courtesy Cantaloupe Music

John Luther Adams first rose to contemporary classical fame with his 2013 orchestral composition Become Ocean, commissioned and recorded by our very own Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The composition is a 45-minute orchestral approximation of the ocean’s ebb and flow—and it flowed right to the top of classical music charts.

The surround-sound recording of Become Ocean debuted at number one on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, stayed there for two straight weeks, and went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Not bad for a little-known recluse who spent much of his life composing from a 16×20 ft. one-room cabin in the Alaskan woods.

Throughout his career, Adams’ music has been inspired by Alaskan landscapes, ecology, environmentalism, and the natural world—and though he recently left Alaska to move to New York, his music is still profoundly immersed in the spirit of nature.

His latest recording, titled Ilimaq, takes its title from the Inuit word for “spiritual journey”—and the composition is nothing short of one. It is a 50-minute metaphysical meditation on the power of nature, and it’s led by the most primordial of all instruments: drums.

“In Inuit tradition the shaman rides the sound of the drum to and from the spirit world.” Adams writes. “In ‘Ilimaq’ the drummer leads us on a journey through soundscapes drawn from the natural world and from the inner resonances of the instruments themselves.”

Scored for solo drum kit and electronic accompaniment, Ilimaq features the passion and precision of one of the most skillful drummers of all time: Glenn Kotche (you may recognize him as the drummer from the twangy alt-rock band Wilco). Back in 2008, Kotche personally contacted Adams, as he had been a fan of his music for years and was interested in collaborating.

“My own musical journey began with rock drumming,” Adams said of his decision to work with Kotche. “And all these years later, in Glenn Kotche, I’ve found the drummer I always imagined I could be.”

The five-part piece features three different “stations” of percussion instruments (all played by Kotche), the drama of which are heightened by ambient electroacoustic accompaniment, field recordings of nature, and live-electronic processing of Kotche’s playing. And while each of the five parts certainly have their own distinct character and timbral palette, each flows seamlessly into the next to create a cohesive narrative—a spiritual journey.

It all begins with a “Descent” into a mesmerizing trance. The 16-minute introduction envelops the listener in an entire earthquake of sound—organic and intimate, yet massive in scope. The rolling bass drum hurls forward and backward restlessly as ambient electronics ebb and flow in response to its rippling sound waves.

And as the introduction comes to a close, the sounds of trickling water float straight into part two of the composition: “Under the Ice.” The heavy drumming dissolves into a meditative blend of field recordings, electronics, and delicate cymbal work, and Kotche begins exploring the beauty and breadth of textures in the Inuit-inspired Arctic soundscape. Circling sound waves and hypnotic echoes softly color the scene, and gentle whistles punctuate an otherwise smooth and liquid soundscape.

Once the listener is completely submerged, part three begins: “The Sunken Gamelan.” As if in a dream, harmonic colors blend together and apart in a wash of sound, creating a gorgeous percussion orchestra ringing out underwater.

It’s the calm before the storm that is part four: “Untune the Sky.” Kotche’s expanded drum set becomes the rain, the wind, the waves, and the stormy clouds all at once in this visceral climax. The scene is dramatic and dissonant, spiritual and sacred—ritualistic even. Steadily building in passion and ferocity, Kotche’s virtuosic playing reaches a violent peak before quieting down into the end of Ilimaq.

The thrashing subsides and in the final “Ascension,” ethereal high-pitched drones glide back and forth like spirits whispering to one another across the shimmering starlight. And as the spiritual journey comes to a close, the music evaporates into the sky above until all we have left is a beautiful and transformative silence.