Celebrate John Adams

John Luther Adams

And, no, I am not talking about John Adams, the composer of gargantuan inanities such as the opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

I am going to write about the other composer named John Adams, more accurately, John Luther Adams: born January 23, 1953; an American composer whose music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of Alaska where he has lived since 1978.[i]  Specifically, I will write about his orchestral work Become Ocean which was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Adams describes himself, saying: “My music has always been profoundly influenced by the natural world and a strong sense of place. Through sustained listening to the subtle resonances of the northern soundscape, I hope to explore the territory of sonic geography—that region between place and culture…between environment and imagination”.[ii]

John Luther Adams has been writing for decades, but has generally been overlooked, that is until relatively recently.  In 2006, Adams was named one of the first United States Artists Fellows, but he truly arrived in a big way in 2014 when Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his orchestral piece Become Ocean, which Alex Ross of The New Yorker called “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”.[iii]

John Luther Adams - become ocean

Become Ocean is a large work, in a single movement, and was inspired by the oceans of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  The orchestra is split into three groups, strings, woodwinds and brass sections.  The work is expressed in slow waves of sound, and each section has its own ebb and flow.  The work is fundamentally tonal; diatonic intervals form the basis of staggered chords.  At the point when these sequences come together and the orchestra reaches it sonic climax, the music is played in reverse: the entire piece is a palindrome.

The Seattle Symphony, the institution that commissioned the work, has given us an excellent surround sound recording conducted by Ludovic Morlot.  Alex Ross had this to say after the premier performance:  he “went away reeling” and compared it with The Rite of Spring in its newness of voice and its ability to provide new shocks for a new century.[iv]

Other recent works include:

  • for Lou Harrison (2004) for string quartet, string orchestra, and 2 pianos
  • Dark Waves (2007) for orchestra and electronic sounds
  • The Light Within (2007) for alto flute, bass clarinet, vibraphone/crotales, piano, violin, cello and electronic sounds
  • Inuksuit (2009) for nine to ninety-nine percussion
  • Sila: The Breath of the World (2014) for choir, percussion, strings, brass, and woodwinds

[i] Garland, Peter. 2007. “John Luther Adams”. Liner notes to John Luther Adams – For Lou Harrison. New World Records.

[ii] Anon. n.d. “John Luther Adams”. Deep Listening Institute. Retrieved Dec 21, 2010.

[iii] Ross, Alex. 2013. “Water Music”. The New Yorker (8 July): (accessed 8 September 2014).

[iv] Ross, Alex. “Water Music”. Retrieved 3 May 2014.

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