Melinda Bargreen | 9 JUL 2019
First there was Become River, a 16-minute John Luther Adams chamber work commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Then there was Become Ocean, Adams’ soundscape of swirling waves and surging seas, premiered by the Seattle Symphony and lauded with both a 2014 Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.
The third “Become” work, Adams’ new Become Desert, is both the opposite of Ocean and its fraternal twin. Like Ocean, Desert was premiered by the Seattle Symphony and its music director Ludovic Morlot, and composed with that orchestra’s acoustically lively Benaroya Hall in mind. They’re roughly equal in length (a little over 40 minutes) and they share an immersive musical aesthetic that can induce in the audience a trancelike state … or, in some listeners, the desire to drum one’s fingers and glance at one’s watch.
Unlike the earlier and relentlessly oscillating Become Ocean, though, Adams creates in Become Desert a subtler and shimmering vista that begins quietly, building gradually to a crescendo of immense proportions, and then receding again to a serene wisp of a finale as the music drifts slowly upward. In Benaroya Hall, the five groups into which the performing forces (the orchestra and 32 voices from the Seattle Symphony Chorale) are subdivided were placed in specific locations (including balconies) across the stage and around the audience, for a surround-sound effect. This effect is mimed in the recording (which includes 20 images of varying desert landscapes), though there really is no replicating the sonic nuances of live performance.
The opening of Become Desert, all shimmering strings and delicate bells, suggests a quiet awakening in a vast expanse. Gradually more instruments — percussion, brass, human voices (singing the word “luz,” Spanish for “light”) — join in, as the desert awakens and the music slowly pushes forward. It swells and recedes, sometimes in gentle dissonances but more generally consonant; the brass choirs and bass voices join rolling timpani, miming thunder, as the work reaches its apex about halfway through. (When the women’s voices enter, almost imperceptibly at first, the effect is similar to that of Holst’s finale to The Planets, “Neptune”; both works have many in the audience looking around in gradual realization that they’re hearing singers.)
The Desert music moves forward in what feels like a series of long pulses of crescendo/decrescendo, punctuated by gentle bells and gongs. Then gradually it rises, fading as the sound pulses grow quieter and the tonality is slowly dominated by the pitches of violin tuning (G,D,A,E) before the final stretches of high attenuated violins and bells. The 40-minute experience really feels like a day: the slow dawn, the inexorable crescendo to high noon, and the falling off of the light as the desert prepares for night.
Not everyone is a fan. Some of the Seattle musicians reported exhaustion from repetitive and extended notes. The Los Angeles Times called Desert “a study in stupefying stillness” in comparison with Ocean. For this listener, while I found aspects to admire in live performance, I found the recording not particularly revelatory — an exercise in diminishing returns. But there can be no doubt that Adams is engaging many listeners in a new and intriguing way, and for that he deserves his kudos.
Morlot, whose last concerts as Seattle Symphony music director concluded in June, will hand over the baton this fall to the Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, currently the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. Dausgaard, a hugely popular maestro, earlier drew enthusiastic standing ovations for a Seattle Symphony Sibelius cycle. Interesting times ahead for Seattle! ■
Watch the Seattle Symphony’s video, John Luther Adams: Composing Become Desert, on YouTube: