John Luther Adams on the process of writing Become Ocean, his Pulitzer Prize-winning climate change masterpiece
An interview with the American composer on environmental activism and the role it plays in his orchestral music
American composer John Luther Adams won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Music with his orchestral piece Become Ocean. The first recording has just been released by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ludovic Morlot on Cantaloupe Music. Adams lives in Alaska and much of his music is inspired by the natural world.
How would you describe your piece Become Ocean?
It's my largest work to date, in terms of length, orchestral size and, I guess you could say, concept. It's a 42-minute piece for a large symphony orchestra that's deployed as three separate ensembles. It creates, as the title suggests, a kind of oceanic sound. Ideally the listener would be in the middle of the three orchestras, and in a way that makes a recording more ideal than a live performance because we can create that experience. Each of the orchestras occupies its own physical space, its own harmonic space and has its own instrumental colour. The piece is a bit like three different periods of waves or tides, rising and falling, ebbing and flowing, each in its own time. From time to time two of the orchestras crest or rise together. At three moments, all three of the orchestras crest at the same time, creating three tsunamis of orchestral sound.
It sounds like you did a lot of planning in advance of the actual writing?
I have always believed I can have it all: that music can be rigorously formal and perfectly constructed at the same time as being sensuous and visceral. I'm an unapologetic sensualist and a formalist. Here I hope the music is lavish with a touch of foreboding. There's a lot of planning, a lot of geometry and mathematics, or sculpting that goes into a piece like this. Before I even write a note, I often have in mind a certain sound, colour, shape or atmosphere – something big, all encompassing and immersive that I can't quite hear. The process of composing is the process of trying to hear it.
Did the title come before or after the music?
In this case the title came early on. In 2007 I wrote Dark Waves, a 12-minute piece for orchestra. I love it and was really pleased with it but several listeners told me they thought it was too short. But I knew that I had stumbled on something that needed exploring on a larger scale. A year or two later Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony asked for a piece and we settled on an idea that I described as 'Dark Waves on steroids'. To my surprise and delight they went for it. I must have remembered that little poem by John Cage, a major influence on my work, written for Lou Harrison, who was a friend and mentor to me. Cage wrote a poem about the incredible depth, breadth and width of Harrison's music. He ends by comparing his music to a river delta and how, when listening to it, we become ocean. I've always thought it was such a beautiful description. So I decided to steal the title.
So there's this powerful underlying idea that somehow the listeners are going to become ocean themselves?
Absolutely. It suggests a kind of immersion. It wasn't long before it occured to me that the title was like a metaphor for human history and the situation we find ourselves in now. Life emerged from the ocean and right now we are facing an unprecedented and likely self-created threat: we are melting the polar ice caps and the seas are rising. If things don't change we may find ourselves quite literally becoming ocean again.
Become Ocean has been described as the 'ultimate environmental piece'. Was that what you were aiming for and is it a description you recognise?
Yes and no. I like to think we can have it both ways. Music can address who we are and the world in which we live. Ultimately everything we do, are, think, imagine and create comes from this incredibly complex, mysterious, miraculous world we inhabit. Yet I also believe in that old-fashioned notion of 'art for art's sake'. I aspire to make musical worlds that are self-contained.
Do you feel that music can – or should – be used to highlight environmental issues or to make political points?
I am highly scepctical of political art. Too often it fails as both art and politics. If I want to make a political statement, I'll make a political statement. It's not my job to do so as a composer. Having said that, it used to be my job. When I was in my twenties and thirties I spent some time as an environmentalist in Alaska. I then realised I don't have the temperament or quite frankly the courage for life as a political activist. I rededicated myself exclusively to my music and I did so with a leap of faith, which is that music and art can matter as much as politics. In recent years I've come to believe they matter more. But I also believe that the state of the world influences the art we make. A listener can read my two-sentence programme note evoking the rising seas and the melting ice and they can ponder that if they chose to, or they can just take the music. They don't even have to know the title.
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What did it feel like to win the Pulitzer Prize for music?
It was wonderful and a complete surprise. I knew the orchestra had nominated the piece but I don't fit the historical profile of winners so I didn't think I would win. I forgot about it. When they announced it, I was in fairly remote location doing a residency at Michigan Tech university. It was a really busy day and before a public lecture I had run back to the hotel for a power nap. I was drifting off when my phone rang. A friend said I'd just won the Pulitzer Prize, could I give a quote? I had to say, I'm kind of half asleep, can I call you back? But that evening it seemed like the whole town turned up to my lecture. It was so sweet.
What are you working on now?
Since spring, two major works have been premiered. There's a new outdoors piece called Sila: The Breath of the World, for 80 plus musicians. It was premiered at the Lincoln Centre this summer. Last weekend a new piece called Ten Thousand Birds was premiered. Now I'm settling into work on a couple of smaller pieces. I'm writing my second string quartet and also a piece for eight natural horns. I'm really excited about that – it's for the East Neuk Festival in Scotland next summer and it's a joint commission with the Southbank Centre. I'm also working on a a new book, a memoir, about life in Alaska. And I'm plotting another very large orchestral piece.