An Orchestra Piece Pulled From The Ocean
The composer John Luther Adams calls himself "deeply, deeply Alaskan." That's where the 62-year-old lived almost his entire adult life, and he still has his cabin in the woods where he's written so much of his music. But now he and his wife split their time between an apartment in New York City and a house in Mexico right next to the Pacific Ocean.
Mexico is where he wrote "Become Ocean," which won the Pulitzer Prize last year and a Grammy Award this year. It's the centerpiece of a program of contemporary music being performed by New World Symphony Saturday night, Dec. 5, as Miami is steeped in contemporary art for Art Basel at the convention center across the street, and all the other fairs and events of Art Miami Week.
John Luther Adams spoke with me earlier this week. You can listen here or read below, where you can also listen to the whole orchestral piece.
AZ: There's a note in the score for this piece about what I think it's about, what you mean it to convey ...
JLA: You're going to make this into a climate change piece, and then we're going to have to argue about it.
AZ: (chuckles) Well if it's not, I definitely want to talk about that.
JLA: Well it is and it isn't, so yeah, I'll talk out of both sides my mouth.
"I'm very suspicious of political art. I don't want everyone sitting in the theater just thinking about melting glaciers and rising sea level." - John Luther Adams
(Reading an excerpt of notes from the music score): Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. And as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans may find ourselves facing the prospect of that once again, we may quite literally become ocean.
I'm thinking about climate change and other looming threats. Terrorism, economic inequality, environmental injustice. And yet -- I'm very suspicious of political art. I don't want everyone sitting in the theater just thinking about melting glaciers and rising sea level. What I want for each listener is that they're in some way moved. So it's not a call to action; it's a call to attention.
AZ: You’ve talked about how place influences the music you’ve written.
JLA: Profoundly. Yes. 'Become Ocean' was composed entirely in Mexico, and my joke is that we just slept with the windows open. Our house down there is right on the beach, and if you have a good arm you can stand on our deck and throw a baseball into the water. So we sleep with the windows open every night, and my joke is I get up every morning and write it down. … You know living by the sea. Listening to it day after day, now year after year, especially at night, especially in sleep, there are these moments where it sounds as though the waves are going to come crashing in the window and carry us away, bed and all, out into the Pacific. And those moments are so profoundly comforting. And then there are other moments when it falls suddenly quiet, and I'm startled awake.
You can listen to the piece, performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, here: