By Sam Bennett
Born in Mississippi and raised amid California’s suburban sprawl, composer John Luther Adams lived for forty years in Alaska. Not just a vague source of inspiration, he intended to produce a translation in sound of Alaska’s surrounding environment. His most celebrated attempt is the symphony Become Ocean (2013).
A key element of this translation is the soundscape of Alaska, whose keynote is silence. Adams explains: “On the [California] coast, the keynote is the roar of surf. On city streets and highways, it is the roar of the automobile. Of most modern houses and buildings [it] is the 60-cycle electric hum.” In contrast, the primary sound of Alaska is, paradoxically, silence —a “vast and ancient silence that envelops [Alaska’s] landscape like a frozen ocean of Time” (ibid.). This aquatic metaphor is referenced in Become Ocean’s title.
Written for a large orchestra, the piece presents a mysterious and occasionally forbidding expanse of sound. Its central characteristics, as Paul Kilbey describes, are “harps rippling in soft arpeggios; drums and cymbals rolling with sustained menace; brass blaring like a light on the horizon.” Always intriguing, and generally of quiet intensity, the piece has three sublime crescendos, which toe the line between beauty and dread. The tonally centered work extends nearly an hour; although never abrasive, the piece neither emphasizes singable melodies nor exciting narrative shifts. After a 2015 performance, one critic observed the orchestra as “appear[ing] a little shell shocked from playing endlessly repeated figures” (Swed).
Critic Alex Ross points out that Become Ocean recalls “the swirling stasis that opens [Richard Wagner’s] the Ring.” Wagner’s prelude possesses a similar circularity and menacing beauty; both elicit a feeling of being immersed in a dense, opaque surround. However, Wagner’s quickly develops into a readily countable rhythm, with touching pastoral melodies. Wagner’s opening is extraordinary, as it manages to present a transition from “timelessness to measure time, from indistinct musical shapes to distinct shapes, from simple forms of nature to human consciousness” (Bassett 25). In contrast, throughout the entirety of Become Ocean, we remain submerged in something akin to the amorphous opening moments of Das Rheingold.
Adams believes that “music can provide a sounding model for the renewal of human consciousness and culture” (The Place 1). Become Ocean’s potential for renewal consists in its oceanic quality, and the attendant feeling of returning to the primordial state of nature. In Nobel-prize winner Romain Rolland’s famous response to Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, he coined the term “oceanic feeling” to identify the mystical phenomenon —apparently accessible to all people regardless “of dogma, Credo, [and] every Church organization”—wherein one experiences a “sensation of the ‘eternal’ (which may very well not be eternal, but simply without perceptible limits, and in that way oceanic)” (quoted in Fisher 9). Rolland’s “oceanic feeling” is not a direct revelation of divine presence. Rather, the “oceanic feeling” is an “internal experience” of something eternal-like, as it were, which Rolland nevertheless considers to be the soil of all religious sentiment.
An avid reader of Dostoyevsky, Rolland perhaps discovered the notion of an oceanic feeling from Father Zosima of The Brothers Karmazov. In a homily, Zosima explains that his younger brother once felt compelled, like Francis of Assisi, to “ask forgiveness of the birds.” Rather than insanity, Zosima says it follows from a deep spiritual insight. This insight presents the surrounding world in a new light: as an ocean. “It seems senseless [to speak to birds], yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects” (319). Rolland also studied Hindu mysticism, and was struck by the Indian mystic Ramakrishna’s description of an extraordinary experience: the differentiated forms that populate the world appeared to dissolve, not into pure nothingness, but absolute unity: “The whole scene, doors, windows, the temple itself vanished […] It seemed as if nothing existed any more. Instead I saw an ocean […] boundless, dazzling. In whatever direction I looked great luminous waves were rising” (Quoted in Masson 36).
In both Become Ocean and Wagner’s prelude, the listener experiences a sensation of mythic return, to a period before the world as we know it. This is a period where all the forms that populate our everyday environment —stone in distinction from plant, plant in distinction from animal, animal in distinction from man, etc. —had yet to be given shape. Since the ocean is massive, and can seemingly absorb all forms, it is the natural symbol for this swirling, primordial moment, where all things were joined together in a fundamental unity.
However, when all things lack form and independence, and each is another wave in an all-encompassing ocean —this is chaos, and hence universally dreaded. Yet, according to tradition, this point of highest terror is also, paradoxically, the moment when the divine and nature first crossed paths. Genesis for example begins with the following: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Gen. 1.1-4). Nature in its most basic state of watery chaos and darkness is disorderly and unwelcoming, hence terrifying. Yet this terrifying opening stage is when the supernatural first introduced itself to nature. “Where danger is, the saving power grows.”
In ancient Greece, Hesiod, Thales and Anaximander each associate nature’s opening phase with either chaos, or its natural symbol, the ocean. The muses tell the poet Hesiod that the earth developed from“chaos”; the Western world’s first philosopher, Thales, judged the source-point of reality to be water; coming soon after Thales, Anaximander concluded that the “apeiron”—an infinite mixture of all natural elements —must be the initial state of the universe.
The oceanic feeling of Adams’symphony evokes what myth sees as the original condition of the world —an infinite expanse of unified nature. Imagining such a state is frightening, since there is no order, and nothing human looks back. However, this frightening state is also when spirit joined hands with nature for the first time. In Genesis, spirit comes to primal nature as a forming power of light. Perhaps it is a kind of renewal for us to picture this scene, when “heaven first kissed the earth.”
Adams, John Luther. The Place Where You Go to Listen: In Search of an Ecology of Music. Wesleyan University Press, 2009.
Adams, John Luther. “Resonance of Place.”The North American Review, 1994, pp. 8–18.
Bassett, Peter. Nibelung’s Ring: A Guide to Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Wakefield Press, 2012.
Coogan, Michael David., et al., editors. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts With Epilogue. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.
Fisher, David. Romain Rolland and the Politics of the Intellectual Engagement. Routledge, 2017.
Kilbey, Paul. “John Luther Adams: The US Composer’s Music Poses Challenges in Recording, Such Is the Intrinsic Connection between It and Nature.”Gramophone, Feb. 2018, pp. 62-+.
Masson, J. M. The Oceanic Feeling: The Origins of Religious Sentiment in Ancient India. Springer, 2013.
Ross, Alex. “Water Music.”The New Yorker, 8 July 2013, http://www.newyorker.com/.