Become Ocean

In 2013, composer John Luther Adams premiered his contemporary orchestral work Become Ocean. The piece won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and a grammy in 2015 for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Become Ocean was inspired by the oceans in the Pacific Northwest (particulary that of Alaska, where Adams lived for much of his life). The name was inspired by a comment composer John Cage made regarding the music of fellow composer Lou Harrison: “Listening to [his music] we become ocean.”

Adams placed the following note in the score:

“Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.”

But don’t get too caught up with the environmental implications of the words. Let the music speak for itself.

Undoubtedly the layered rise and fall of sound portrays the mysteries of the ocean; the structure of the piece lends itself very well to the image of waves and expanse of the sea. The orchestra is split into three groups: strings, woodwinds, and brass. Each group plays sequences of slowly-moving sound (arpeggios and sustained notes), and the resulting effect is a three-way overlap with a constantly changing pattern. The music is not dissonant, however. The harmonies are beautiful and centered, yet the intense energy creates breath.The rippling effect created by arpeggios and moving lines in the piano, harp, and percussion is beautiful and kind of eerie, and these lines carry the piece forward.

There are three points in the piece where the groups all reach a climax together: one around 7 minutes, the second around 21 minutes, and the third around 35 minutes (each climax having been built up prior to these moments). The middle climax, halfway through the piece, is the greatest in volume and shape. And here’s the cool part: after the middle climax, the remainder of the piece is played in exact reverse of the first half. So the whole piece is a musical palindrome.

What was Adams’s intent for this piece? He did an interview with NPR in 2014 about Become Ocean and discussed how he was trying to create a sense of “endless space and suspended time.” Do you think he was successful? Click here to read the full interview. And for an interesting review of the first performance, read here.

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