Album Review: “Become Ocean” by John Luther Adams

Become Ocean is a moving work, to say the least. My first listen left me reeling in such a way that I immediately started over from the beginning. Mississippi-born and Alaska-based John Luther Adams won the 2014 Pulitzer for this piece, and it’s imminently clear he deserved the award.

John Luther Adams - Become OceanJohn Luther Adams (not to be confused with California’s John Adams, also nominated for a Pulitzer this year) has the heart of an ambient musician, the hands of a skilled composer and the spirit of the wild. If enjoyed without distraction, you can in fact, “become ocean.”

I first learned of Become Ocean (as many of my friends did) via this excellent episode of Radiolab, excerpting the equally impressive podcast Meet the Composer. Snippets featured in these shows drew me in, but none of that prepared me for how truly impressive as a whole Become Ocean is.

Alex Ross, a contributor to The New Yorker, shared this rough illustration of Adam’s form in an addendum to his review of the piece. The power behind Become Ocean emanates from the overlapping swells of an orchestra distinctly segmented. The result is an ever changing tide, the full ensemble hitting simultaneous crescendos thrice. Become Ocean strikes its most intense moments around the half-way mark; after that point, the piece is performed in reverse. Among many things, Become Ocean is a palindrome.

Alex Ross' diagram of Become Ocean.
Alex Ross’ rough diagram of Become Ocean.

In all honesty, Become Ocean feels like it shouldn’t be possible. At the very least, it’s hard to believe that it was not assembled in post production. Rather, John Luther Adams has created a solid 42-minute composition recorded with a real-life orchestra in full surround sound. Harps in the left ear swell into similar arpeggios on piano dead center, then strings in the right ear. At times, it’s easy to forget that the lulls in each wave are produced by real people, and not computer-built improvisations.

I can only imagine what it felt like to be John Luther Adams, experiencing his work in the flesh for the first time. After a year in composition, Adams did not hear Become Ocean until its third presentation: a packed house at Carnegie Hall. Become Ocean is a must-listen, if only to experience the subtlety and power a master of modern composition such as John Luther Adams can create.

In Adams’ own words:

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.

Check out Become Ocean for yourself on Murfie. While you’re at it, make sure to hear the full story via Radiolab.


John Kruse
@mamtweet

John Praw Kruse is an Operations Manager, and Product Manager for the Murfie Vinyl Service. In his free time, John makes music, including scores for indie films and various shorts. He is the founder of Mine All Mine Records and the Lost City Music Festival. John devours new music.


Interview with Zoë Keating

Photo credit: Chase Jarvis

Zoë Keating is a renowned cellist who uses technology to loop tracks and enhance her live and recorded music performances. Her songs tell stories without words—and luckily we have this interview to make up for that! Read on to learn more about Zoë, in her own words. :-)

(This interview was perviously recorded as a podcast back in January 2014. You can listen to the audio version here.)

[MUSIC: “Optimist” by Zoë Keating]

INTRO: This is Kayla here, with your Murfie podcast. A few days ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Zoë Keating at her show in Madison. Zoë is a world-famous cellist who’s crafted a bunch of scores, in addition to playing with musicians like Amanda Palmer and DJ Shadow. Zoë creates amazing layered compositions by looping cello tracks with her laptop. Not only was her show incredible, but her personality is great, and she told the audience funny stories between songs. Here’s a recording of the interview we had backstage at the theater.

Kayla: So, I’m at the Majestic in downtown Madison right now with Zoë Keating—thank you so much for talking with me today, Zoë.

Zoë: Oh, you’re welcome.

Kayla: I’m excited for the show, first of all. Um, did you just arrive today in Madison?

Zoë: Yeah, like two hours ago [laughs].

Kayla: Okay—what do you think of the cold? It’s finally over zero.

Zoë: You know, I arrived in Minnesota the day after the polar vortex left, so that was pretty darn cold…and in comparison, it feels pretty warm now.

Kayla: Yes!

Zoë: I think it’s like fifteen degrees outside, and it feels lovely.

Kayla and Zoë: [Laugh]

Kayla: I know! Who would have thought we would appreciate fifteen degrees. But you’re from Canada, is that right?

Continue reading Interview with Zoë Keating