JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: Become Ocean – CD+DVD – Seattle Sym./ Ludovic Morlot – Cantaloupe CA21101 42:00 (9/30/14) (DVD video: Audio PCM 2.0 and DD 5.1) ****:
Become Ocean is an intriguing soundscape that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Adams, not to be confused with minimalist John Adams, is an Alaskan composer whose music is often inspired by nature, and in the case of this composition, the sea. Become Ocean also won a GRAMMY for Best Contemporary Classical Competition.
Adams himself has said “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.” Adams has written for television, children’s theater, acoustic instruments and electronic instruments.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when listening to this oddly-named work, but it was a moving experience. Become Ocean is a 42-minute one-movement composition, filled with rising arpeggios and the gently swaying sounds of strings, harp, piano, brass, percussion and other instruments of the Seattle Symphony. If I had to characterize the piece, I would put in somewhere between Debussy’s La Mer and Ligeti’s Atmospheres, but the reality is the music is an idiom onto itself. If you are comfortable with this style of music, and can appreciate some of Brian Eno’s ambient music, you’ll be pleased with this work.
We get two discs with Become Ocean, a standard CD, and a DVD with a composer-approved 5.1 channel mix. The DVD contains a slide show of images of the sea. I preferred to listen with the video turned off. Both discs sounded fine, and I preferred the multi-channel mix as the right fit for the music. The sound is good, with some deep bass and subtle orchestral textures coming through. I do feel like the work deserved a hi-res release on SACD and Blu-ray but that’s not what we get here. I do note that HDTracks offers a stereo download at the resolution 96/24.
My other gripe is with the packaging of these discs. Nowhere on the outside or in the booklet is there mention of the second disc (the DVD) and people might buy this and never know about it. The discs themselves are enclosed in a cardboard slipcase packed so tightly that you might tear the cover trying to get either of the discs out. The notes are minimal – just a list of all the Seattle Symphony players. Missing is anything about the work or Adams. It’s a missed opportunity, especially for Pulitzer Prize winning music by a composer who is not a household name.
Of course it is the music that counts, and I really liked Become Ocean. One can sit back and become immersed in this music, and come out all the better for the time invested. It’s certainly not a traditional piece of music, but if you are at all open to new musical experiences, let Adams help you Become Ocean, a title that made sense after I listened to this interesting work.