Sunday, September 14, 2014

Immersed In Become Ocean

Helga Davis makes everyone feel at home.

When I walked into The Greene Space on Friday night for the John Luther Adams Become Ocean listening event hosted by Q2 Music, Helga Davis greeted me like an old friend. That's partly because we are, and partly because that's just who she is and The Greene Space is practically her second home. The seats for the sold out event were arranged in pods facing in every direction and the ones in the center of the room were already filled. "Sit anywhere," Helga told me conspiratorially, "just not in front of a speaker. Or in the center." The engineers at Greene had apparently spent hours tweaking the sound so that nearly every spot would have the full benefit of the surround sound. As I gazed around, marveling at the herd instinct and wondering where I should fit myself in, she invited me to sit next to her - decision made.

This would not be my first time hearing the monumental one-movement work. While I wasn't lucky enough to attend the New York premiere at Carnegie Hall last spring, I have been listening to the recording for the last few weeks and it has already become an integral part of my musical life. While it's not quite quiescent enough to be classified as ambient music, Become Ocean does have some of the qualities I associate with Brian Eno's genre landmarks like On Land, in that you can pay full attention to it or you can just sort of let it exist in the same space as you. Also like Eno's work, it has the ability to transform your environment, a sculpture in sound that rearranges the air around you.

While I would hate to assign any utility to this masterpiece, I can say that it's made my commute transpire in an almost otherworldly fashion. I glide through the streets, stairs, elevators, subways, as if at some distance, encapsulated in Adams's meticulous construction.

Despite being scored for a large orchestra that's been divided into three semi-autonomous groups, Become Ocean is a remarkably unified piece. While I can pick out different instruments it's almost as if most of the time the orchestra is the instrument. The music seems to arise from nowhere at first, a resonance with a colorful pattern at its core. It crests and subsides, not quite reaching full volume until seven minutes in, a moment of masterful control on the part of both Adams and the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot's direction.

Nearing the 10 minute mark, that inner pattern becomes more prominent, an endless arpeggio that moves from instrument to instrument, as the volume gradually drops to near silence at 14:05. Rising up again, ever so slowly, the music seems to pick up more motive force, ascending and falling in a rhythm of slow breaths, harps and horns interacting beautifully, until there is an almost frightening surge of sound near the halfway point of our journey. Quiescence returns, but with a slight edge - even at its softest Become Ocean always moves with purpose.

There is another period of near silence at 28:00 when the process of surging and ebbing begins again, but always feeling organic, not formulaic. There's a double climax at around 35:00, loud, but not overwhelming enough to push you out of the music. The final seven minutes move you toward the end of the work with calm assurance. When it does end, you'll wish it hadn't and you'll wonder where 42 minutes went.

Become Ocean is essentially what used to be called a tone poem: a work of a certain length, often with a programmatic aspect, that does not follow symphonic form. While some may associate it with minimalism - or even romanticism, with its focus on the sublime - I get no sense of musical ideology while listening. The music is just is there, perfect, discrete and inevitable. There is, however, an ideology of a different sort behind the composer's intent. The quote from Adams at the top of the press release states: "Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. 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."

As you can imagine from that statement, and the conceptual and compositional rigor of Become Ocean, John Luther Adams is a serious man. He even looks serious, lean and ascetic, with close-cropped hair. Fortunately, during two short interviews with Helga Davis before and after listening to Become Ocean, he also proved to have an easy laugh and a twinkle in his eye. "It's a global warming piece," he stated firmly before going on to say that he wanted it both ways, hoping that someone with absolutely no idea of his intent would find their way into the music and get something out of it. Quite remarkably, he also told us that "not a note changed" between the world premiere in Seattle, the Carnegie concert, and the studio. Overall, the process of writing Become Ocean had less revision than any of his other works, which seems to fit with the way I experienced it.

He also described his deep commitment to recordings, indicating that since you can't sit in the middle of the orchestra at Carnegie Hall, hearing the recording in surround sound, as we were about to do, was the ideal way to listen. It was certainly a remarkable and immersive experience, with all the work of the WNYC engineers paying off. While many people closed their eyes for periods during the playback (including Adams himself, sitting amongst us), only one or two people seemed to actually fall asleep. Those qualities of forward motion and almost narrative movement make Become Ocean anything but soporific - it's actually rather thrilling.

When it was over, Helga asked members of the audience for one word to describe the music. We heard "Monumental!" "Surrender," "Waves," "Leviathan," and a few more before she posed the same question to Adams. "Inexorable," was his answer, and he was exactly right. With that response, and based on my observation of Adams during the listening session, I almost get a sense of Become Ocean existing somewhat apart from him, as if he wasn't quite sure where it came from. During the interview beforehand, Helga mentioned that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Become Ocean. "The piece won the prize," he interjected, somewhat pointedly. Just so - and it takes its place as one of the finest and most accessible works to receive that accolade. Cantaloupe Music will release the specially priced CD/DVD package on September 30th. You really should hear it.


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