John Luther Adams' Become Ocean Makes Musical Tidal Waves

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Composer John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean has been nominated for three Grammys.

The other day, I finally got my copy of Become Ocean by composer John Luther Adams. I’d been trying to get it for weeks now, in fact, ever since I first heard it on the radio and it blew me away. The label, Cantaloupe Records, had had it out of stock for some time.

Composer John Luther Adams (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Now I know the work of John Adams pretty well but was previously unfamiliar with Alaskan composer, John Luther Adams, who was probably forced to use his middle name so as not to be confused with the former. Music critic Alex Ross praised Become Ocean in The New Yorker as possibly “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.” He’s right, and he’s not the only one who thinks so: Become Ocean was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished musical composition.

To further add to its accolades, Become Ocean has now been nominated for three Grammy Awards: Best Contemporary Classical Composition; Best Engineered Album, Classical; and Producer of the Year, Classical (for Seattle Symphony’s Director of Audio and Recording, Dmitriy Lipay). Given all of this, I’m amazed that Adams has managed to fly beneath my radar.

John Luther Adams has been living in Fairbanks since the late 1970s, when he first became enamored with the Alaskan wilderness. Originally from Meridian, Mississippi, and a graduate of CalArts, Adams decided to relocate to Fairbanks in 1978, following his involvement with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Much of Adams’s life and works are deeply rooted in and inspired by the expansive beauty of this ‘Last Frontier’ and the natural world as a whole.

“My hope is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming—sometimes even frightening—landscape [that] invites you to get lost in it.” —John Luther Adams

Become Ocean is a massive tidal wave of sound on the order of Terry Riley, Steve ReichBrian Eno, or an audio Mark Rothko, for that matter. It reminds me of the overture to Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold, except that its sonic layering is even more dramatic. Building and building…and building, it just keeps coming at you in waves. The sound is, at times, so immense and dramatic that it really is almost overwhelming to listen to.

Commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony under the capable baton of Music Director Ludovic Morlot, this 42-minute epic first premiered back in 2013. Part oceanic ode to the waters of the great Pacific Northwest, Become Ocean is also a cautionary tale about the effects of global warming.

Become Ocean reminds of my days back in the 1970s, when I would invite my lifeguard buddies to listen to Terry Riley’s minimalist A Rainbow in Curved Air. There was nothing quite like it at the time. Instead, I’ll now invite all of you to be swept away by the giant, awe-inspiring teahupo’o-like swells of John Luther Adams‘ Become Ocean.

My fingers are crossed that he gets the Grammy he certainly deserves.

Stream John Luther Adams’ sonic odyssey, Become Ocean, in full below.

A large wave Tahitian analogue of Become Ocean: This huge wave was first ridden by Laird Hamilton and featured in the film Riding Giants.

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