John Luther Adams: Become Ocean

Perhaps it’s a bias I have, but I while I don’t mind atonal music being melody-less, I struggle with tonal music that doesn’t even have fragments of a melody. Such music is among the most minimal in minimalism, and tends to test even a patient person like myself. Become Ocean suffers from exactly this problem.

Some background: John Luther Adams is a minimalist composer (or post-minimalist or, God forbid, neoconservative post-minimalist — it’s easy to lose track). I am not, I must admit, all that familiar with his work. In an attempt to better acquaint myself, I sat down tonight and listened to Become Ocean, an award-winning work and perhaps his most discussed.

In the work, Adams has created a vast ocean that’s entirely lifeless. A 40 minute palindrome, the harp plucks away arpeggios, and on all other instruments the notes seem to last never less than a breve, with the occasional crescendoing, tidal chords overwhelming it all. In some ways a vast empty ocean is all the more apocalyptic. Indeed, he is quite likely making a political statement about rising sea levels and the loss of ocean life, as he is well known to be a passionate environmentalist. But listening to the music I was overcome less by fear or sadness than by boredom.

Had I written it (and yes, that’s a big ‘if’), I might have included half-melodic, half-textural snatches of sea life. Maybe that’s too much of a ‘simple gesture’, but the piece otherwise feels so empty.  Or alternatively I would have truncated the last two-thirds and compacted the first third. I don’t think shortening the piece would at all detract from its subtle, inter-weaving musical patterns; if anything it would draw attention to them. Compared to Debussy’s much dynamic (and indeed shorter, yet more substantive) musical depiction of the ocean, La Mer, which came over a century earlier, I must say my instinct is to think of Become Ocean as an over-hyped step back.

I was really hoping to find something compelling within its vastness. Maybe you will like it much more than me:

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