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Briefly Noted: 'Become Ocean'

available at Amazon
J. L. Adams, Become Ocean, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, L. Morlot

(released on September 30, 2014)
Canteloupe CA-21101 | 43'14"
When John Luther Adams won the Pulitzer Prize for Music earlier this year, for his orchestral work Become Ocean, he presided over a performance of it at Carnegie Hall the following month. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra, which commissioned and premiered the work last year, has now released a recording on the Canteloupe label. Listening to this pelagic and puzzling work on a sound system cannot truly recreate the effect of hearing it in live performance, so my inevitable disappointment, after so much praise from so many quarters, may be partially due to that lack in my listening life. Given the work's notoriety, I may not have to wait to long for one of Washington's many orchestras to play it in concert. It was an article by Alex Ross a few years ago in The New Yorker that brought the composer to my attention (Song of the Earth, May 12, 2008), and according to that profile, Become Ocean handily achieves what Adams seeks in his compositions.

To create a sense of tidal force, three different groups in the orchestra rise and fall in pre-determined patterns throughout the course of the piece. Here, tinkling harps or searing strings or surging brass ride the peaks of waves and then recede. Curiously, the second half of the piece strikes me as more engaging than the first, somehow seeming to make more sense to my ear. After wondering about that, it occurred to me that it may have something to do with the palindromic nature of the piece: Ross notes that the work's 630 bars consist of two halves that mirror one another, with bar 316 being the midpoint. Something similar happens in the third movement of Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta: at the midpoint, you hear a five-note motif, followed by its exact retrograde, and the piece you have just heard unfurls in reverse. With Become Ocean, it seems like one hears the retrograde form first, and then the non-retrograde form, as if the second half was composed first and the first half then derived from it, but this is only an impression.

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