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John Luther ADAMS (b. 1953)
Become Desert (2018) [40:22]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Ludovic Morlot
rec. September 2018, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Benaroya Hall, Seattle
Includes CD and DVD with 5.1 Surround Sound and Slide Show

John Luther Adams won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his orchestral piece Become Ocean, the forerunner of Become Desert, and itself the conceptual source of a smaller scale tributary, Become River, for chamber orchestra. This ‘other’ John Adams can justifiably lay claim to being the most ecologically conscious of all composers and has not ruled out further pieces in the ‘Become’ series. I listened recently to an off-air recording of Become River to prep for this review and on one music wholesaler’s website the composer states that in creating that 17 minute work he imagined writing, at some point in the future a number of similar works celebrating other features of landscape such as tundra or mountain, so Become Desert may not be the last in the series. On the other hand I also found another Adams quote asserting that “Become Desert completes a trilogy I never intended to write in the first place”. Time will tell whether more will follow.

In any case I found Become River fascinating; a briefer, fleeter and more quixotic piece than either of its siblings in which the broader music of its opening splinters off into innumerable more brittle tributary-like directions. By now I had heard both of the other more extended Become works, and Become River certainly didn’t sound as I expected, although by definition rivers are obviously less expansive than deserts or oceans, their behaviours are more abrupt and unpredictable, and in those terms the brief established by its title is fully satisfied. However its modest dimensions cower in the shadows cast by its siblings, both of which last around 40 minutes and require huge orchestras divided into three and five instrumental groups respectively (Become Desert also employs a choir).

I regard Become Ocean as a quite magnificent work whose impact only increases with familiarity. However my learned colleague Kirk McElhearn clearly didn’t agree in his interesting review of the CD; while I completely accept that works which may seem rather static to some listeners are always going to divide opinion, I do, with the greatest respect feel that some of his comparisons and comments ultimately miss the mark. While I agree that Become Ocean can hardly be regarded as minimalism I do think comparing it to drone or ambient music somewhat underappreciates what Adams attempts (and in my view pulls off) in both of these hugely ambitious canvases. Firstly I feel they each demand (and repay) huge levels of concentration on the part of the listener. The micro-activity that bubbles under the glittering surfaces of Become Ocean coheres into the force that brings about the subtle sonic changes my colleague identifies, but they are perceptible, fascinating and in a constant, bejewelled flux. While the work can obviously be perceived as a topographical or ecological metaphor, the ocean is constantly fickle, almost certainly to the ultimate detriment of humanity, and its light, swells, currents and waves are atmospherically and almost literally imagined in Adams’ ornate details. In its way such minutiae amount to a complexity not too far removed from, say Brian Ferneyhough, although by comparison the sound of Adams’ music couldn’t be more different (or frankly more accessible). The point is that the listener is likely to catch none of this if they are finishing the ironing or attempting to complete the Times crossword while this music is playing,

In fact I would propose that much of Adams music can be more constructively connected to sonic landscape painters such as the late Peter Sculthorpe, or even to Peter Maxwell Davies, especially in his first two symphonies. Coincidentally I spent part of a voyage between the islands of Papay and Mainland in Orkney last year studying the ‘shapeshifting’ on the surface of the water of the Westray Firth (essentially where the Atlantic meets the North Sea) while listening to Become Ocean via decent headphones….I was transfixed by the synchronicities between sound and vision. Unfortunately one will struggle to find somewhere in the UK to similarly investigate the sound world of Become Desert. (Too many people on Formby beach or Morecambe Bay….)

So how does Become Desert work? The orchestra comprises five separate groups, namely woodwinds and crotales; horns and chimes; trumpets, trombones and chimes; voices and handbells (or vibraphone) and finally the strings, harps and percussion. Adams stipulates that in live performance these five ensembles ideally should surround the audience; the group with strings and harps should be seated and spread out on stage while the other formations should be elevated, specifically deployed in particular locations above the main performing space. I mention these spatial arrangements as they seem to have been vividly captured in the 5.1 Surround mix, which as I understand it represents the first time a Cantaloupe disc has made use of the new Dolby Atmos technology. At the head of the score Adams has inscribed a spookily apposite line from the writings of the Mexican poet Octavio Paz “Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light”. Human voices emerge almost imperceptibly within the instrumental textures, and on closer acquaintance with the music the listener becomes more aware that the single syllable word delivered by the choir throughout is luz, the Spanish word for light. Even the colour of this sound changes throughout the piece – at one point in the Surround mix the deeper instruments - brass, timpani and the basses singing this elongated word – coalesce into a sound which literally seems to rise from the earth and consume one’s whole body, an authentic seismic musical experience.

Emerging from the shimmering, glassy, stratospheric sounds with which the work begins, isolated chimes and peals seem to represent discrete entities in a cloudless sky or a featureless landscape, distant, but visible stars perhaps, or maybe rocks, stones or plants. There’s no real sense of gestalt, that these chiming events only make sense in relation to each other; they are separate, almost disconnected from the vast sonic foreground. The work expands and contracts ever so slowly in what is an enormous arch of orchestral sound. Each tiny change in the texture is only perceptible if the listener utterly yields themselves to the music. And there is plenty to hear. Adams’ pacing and orchestration are magisterial, and if Become Desert’s architecture and duration is at one with its predecessor, the mysteries evoked by its sound are completely different. I would advise listeners to hear the CD first; the stereo mix is a joy in itself, and I found the piece utterly compelling in this form. However hearing the DVD via my modest Surround system turned the work into a febrile, visceral experience. The DVD includes visuals: a looped sequence of roughly twenty still photographs of desert landscapes taken by the composer. This is my sole reservation about the Cantaloupe package: the repetitive nature of seeing the same pictures at different points in the score somewhat irritates and distracts, but this is an optional extra rather than an aesthetic requirement. They’re nice shots to be seen once, but with the greatest respect to Adams they underwhelm, although in the final throes of the piece one final shot sees the composer smiling warmly in the desert sun behind a huge pair of shades – it’s oddly touching and has the effect of gently reconnecting the listener to the human race. Perhaps a continuous film of desert images, or a time lapse would have provided a more convincing visual commentary. Paradoxically I found that on second hearing when I turned off the slide show completely I enjoyed a far more holistic, visual experience through closed eyes. Thus Adams’ score most certainly conveys a music one needs to feel as well as hear. Indeed the hi-res stereo mix streamed via a portable DAC and decent headphones in pitch darkness elicits yet more details and associations (the same applies to Become Ocean).

Ludovic Morlot’s tenure as principal conductor of the Seattle Symphony has more or less concluded - Thomas Dausgaard will take the helm later this year, although Morlot has been named conductor emeritus. The Frenchman has turned this immaculate band into the audiophile’s orchestra of choice, and the two John Luther Adams works these forces have recorded for Cantaloupe project a uniquely moving and thrilling grandeur. This package is a shoe-in for my super six at the end of the year; I urge all readers to experience Become Desert - and its equally absorbing predecessor.

Richard Hanlon

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