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)
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)
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)
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.