It’s difficult to review a recording of a new piece of music when it
has won the Pulitzer Prize — when did that become important for music
and not just writing? — and when it has been universally acclaimed.
It’s also difficult to review said work when it is programmatic; when
it is supposed to be about something. The Pulitzer Committee says, Become Ocean
is “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge,
evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.”
I guess the part about the ocean is obvious from the cover of the CD,
and from the fact that, for my first listen, I accidentally put the DVD
into my living room optical disc player, just after playing a Blu-Ray
disc, and saw the visuals that accompany the music. I had thought there
was just a CD, and simply hadn’t got around to turning off the TV. As
the music plays, there are a series of photos of water; some from above
the surface, others below. So, water is clearly something that this
music is “about”.
I’d only heard two recordings of music by this Mr. Adams before. He is
not to be confused with the minimalist composer John Adams, or the
politician of the same name. One of these - Four Thousand Holes
, I reviewed for MusicWeb International
. I found it sounded like ambient music, by Brian Eno or Harold Budd, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.
The difference here is that Mr. Adams has a symphony orchestra at his
disposal; the full range of instrumentation and dynamic range. Yet it
sounds as though he perhaps doesn’t know how to compose for an
orchestra; Become Ocean
is a 42-minute drone work, with rising and falling waves of volume and
with arpeggios played by different instruments, rising and fading away.
Nothing about it suggests a “tidal surge” or “melting polar ice and
rising sea levels”. Those ideas would never cross my mind, if I hadn’t
read what the Pulitzer Committee had to say. Very little happens in
this work, other than the dynamics of the music changing as the
instruments play louder and more softly. It has little actual melody;
it sounds like one massive chord going through subtle changes, as
different instrumental groups are heard.
I was quite astounded to see the otherwise circumspect Alex Ross
writing in the New Yorker comparing this premiere to that of
Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps
Mr. Ross was clearly moved by the work, saying “It may be the loveliest
apocalypse in musical history” — a claim which is quoted on the CD. Mr.
Ross’s discussion of the work borders on incomprehensible. He says, for
“The majestic sonorities emerge from a musical
machine, an inexorable process. (“Inexorable” is, in fact, the
indication at the head of the score.) There are six hundred and thirty
bars of music, plus a bar of silence. The three main sections of the
orchestra play sequences of varying lengths, each of which swells to a
climax and then fades, and each of which reverses course at its
midpoint, in the manner of a palindrome. The winds have fifteen units
of forty-two bars (including rests); the brass nine units of seventy
bars; the strings twenty-one units of thirty bars. At three points, the
crescendos of the various groups coincide, resulting in those
Debussy-like climaxes. The really confounding thing is that at Bar 316
the music begins running in reverse. The work is a gigantic palindrome,
ending where it began.”
The way the music was made seems to take precedence over the music
itself. Who really cares – other than composers or musicians – about
what the above paragraph describes? It tells me nothing about the
music, about the feeling of listening to the music. In fact much of Mr.
Ross’s review discusses the back-story to the work: what inspired Mr.
Adams, how it was written, but not so much about the music itself. Yes,
he does talk about chords and how the music recalls Debussy, Sibelius
and Wagner but not what the music sounds like. I would sum it up as a
series of crescendos and diminuendos — sorry, I used technical words,
but ones that most people will understand — than eventually die out at
the end. One very important problem here is how to know how loud to
play this disc. In concert, the dynamics of the music are important,
but there’s no benchmark here to know what the correct volume should
be. Is the music very soft, building to mildly loud or does it begin
fairly loud, reaching even louder climaxes. In the absence of any way
to know how to listen to it does it even make sense to listen to it?
This work isn’t easy to label. One could broadly call it minimalist,
since not much happens; but it’s not the kind of repetitive minimalism
of Reich or Glass. It’s closer to the kind of dark ambient drone music
that is quite popular among aficionados of electronic music, with a bit
of Sigur Rós thrown in. I assume that, for the usual audience that
attends concerts of symphony orchestras, it will be a surprise; nothing
like Le Sacre de Printemps
(sorry Mr. Ross), but a surprise nonetheless ... and one that may have them squirming in their seats for 42 minutes.
The package includes a CD and a DVD-audio, the latter of which offers
both stereo and surround mixes. There is no information about the work
itself, nothing about the different formats in the package — for
example, does the DVD-A contain high-resolution audio? — and nothing to
even tell you that you get both a CD and DVD. If I hadn’t accidentally
pulled out the DVD, I might not have known that there were two discs in
the case. There is a quote from the composer, saying: "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."
I found this to be a fairly bland work with little originality, and not
enough “music” to interest me. I’m a big fan of ambient music and I can
see listening to this in the background. I can even imagine that it
might be quite exciting to hear live but there’s little on this
recording that makes me want to listen to Become Ocean