Listening to the Anthropocene: John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean

For me, it all begins with listening.

– John Luther Adams

For a period of many weeks during the fall of 2014 I listened to John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean as the soundtrack for my morning commute. As I first walked and later rode the bus along the shores of Lake Mendota, the music awakened me to my surroundings. Even though Adams wrote this work based on his own experiences of the Pacific coast, the piece managed to successfully inhabit my commute in the urban Midwest—the sounds just made sense in my landscape. Yet for all its tranquility, the piece also conjured a sense of impending disaster, what classical music critic Alex Ross describes as “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.” The title of the piece itself is a kind of suggestion—or perhaps even a command—that its audience reflect on the changing world. In this way, it is music for our time: the Anthropocene.

Lake Mendota beginning to freeze, seen from the bus window in December 2014. Photo by Chris Slaby.

Lake Mendota beginning to freeze, seen from the bus window in December 2014. Photo by Chris Slaby.

Over those weeks of listening, the aural intensity of Become Ocean came to represent the real and powerful landscape of the shores of Lake Mendota. My morning commute is usually concerned with the trivialities of my day. But Become Ocean kept me present and alert. It begins with the double basses, emitting a low, powerful rumbling. Then the piano joins in, faintly, one note at a time. Next harp, strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion. One instrument, one section at a time. They overlap, intertwine, and coexist. They build the piece together. Each instrument has its own tonal quality, and together these voices sound almost cacophonous. The crescendo slowly rises to a peak. Some instruments play a string of specific notes (arpeggios), while others hold on to a single note. After about seven minutes all parts coalesce into one body of loud, overwhelming, and ethereal sound. And then the sound begins to recede. The next thirty-five minutes follow the same pattern—rise and fall, ebb and flow. Such aural complexity and intensity grabbed my attention and forced my senses wide open. This atmospheric quality directed my senses outward rather than inward. As the instruments converged, I began to see and feel that same unity and connectedness with the world around me.

Become Ocean is like other pieces of modern and contemporary classical music in that it embraces the abstraction of sound. Prior to the twentieth century, classical compositions usually featured a melody or series of notes that combined to create a theme or a song within the piece. A melody would be introduced early on, then repeated and often modified. We remember, whistle, and hum popular melodies. Rather than use melodies, however, Become Ocean is shaped by waves of sound from different instruments at various volumes. This ambient music makes full use of the emotional power of sound. While melodies are frequently used to create a narrative or a sense of story in a piece, John Luther Adams evokes an environment through aural themes. While the piece makes direct references to the ocean in its ebbing and flowing of powerful sound, we begin to see how easily the sounds can be applied to multiple and diverse land- and waterscapes, through a continuous changing soundscape that conveys both joy and sorrow. We see our own landscapes through this music because it conveys both the enormity and intimacy of change.

Photograph of John Luther Adams in the Alaskan wilderness. Image by Evan Hurd for Cantaloupe Music.

Photograph of John Luther Adams in the Alaskan wilderness. Image by Evan Hurd for Cantaloupe Music.

Adams’ life experiences are consistent with these themes. “You know,” he once said, “there’s this 19th-century idea of the sublime: the idea is that there is an inextricable wholeness to our experience of the world, that contains at once both beauty and terror. And I think I want to be right on that razor’s edge.” Adams found that razor’s edge in Alaska, where he lived for over thirty years, learning to confront the simultaneous beauty and terror of sublime mountain and ocean landscapes. Although his compositions reflect this raw tension, they are still musically sophisticated—he won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize as well as the William Schuman Award (given only occasionally to a significant American composer).

Adams rejects the label of environmentalist; he once claimed, “My work is not activism. It is art.” But his music is nonetheless about connecting with the world around us. Indeed, before becoming a full-time composer, Adams was in fact a committed environmental activist, working for the Alaska Coalition, the Wilderness Society, and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Today, though his environmental views remain the same, his professional focus as an artist is more to evoke than to preach. Adams sees music as a way to create an impact through its broad appeal (as testament, popular recording artist Taylor Swift donated $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony because she enjoyed Become Ocean so much). Any idea of a separation between awareness and aesthetics in the music is thus unnecessary. Adams is neither an opportunist nor a pessimist. He is simply a witness to our place and time.

Liner notes for <em>Become Ocean</em>. Image by Paul Chesley/Richard Friedman for Cantaloupe Records.

Liner notes for Become Ocean. Image by Paul Chesley/Richard Friedman for Cantaloupe Records.

As I have suggested, “our time” means the Anthropocene, a term proposed for our current geologic age, which has been marked by profound human impact on the planet. In a sense, Become Ocean allows us to listen to the Anthropocene, but it also teaches us to listen in the Anthropocene. The shock of the Anthropocene is twofold. First, a single species has a profound impact on the planet, melting polar ice and causing sea levels to rise. Second, this happens without us noticing. We tend not to perceive long-term environmental change—in much the same way that I used to take for granted my own surroundings during my commute before I began listening to Become Ocean. In conveying the power of an ocean in flux, Adams’s work provides one particular soundtrack for listening to the Anthropocene, an act that more generally means paying attention to the world around us and placing our own selves within our surroundings. Instead of rattling through the many thoughts in my head, my time traveling from home to work became focused on the landscapes through which I was passing. So, too, with any landscape in imperceptible and troubling flux.

Featured Image: Become Ocean album cover. Cantaloupe Records. Image by Sebastian Meckelmann.

Chris Slaby is a graduate student in the Department of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where his current research looks at the cultural legacies of the Black Hawk War of 1832. His broader interests include the history of race, ethnicity, and identity, the American landscape, representations of Native Americans, historical memory, and popular culture. Contact.  

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