And to water we shall return

We begin with this:

“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.”

I really don’t expect to be facing it myself, but what goes around does eventually come around. John Luther Adams affixed that superscription to his composition Become Ocean, commissioned by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in 2012 and premiered by them the next year. It is a fascinating piece, as ordered as anything in the twelve-tone universe, but somehow ambient and random just the same, the ocean as we know it plus what little of chaos theory we’ve been able to comprehend. And I never would have noticed that beginning at bar 316, halfway through, the entire piece is replayed in reverse. (Alex Ross explained all this in The New Yorker, to my intense bafflement.)

Become Ocean won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. (In other news, there is a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition.) And it inspired another Grammy winner:

On Thursday morning, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra announced an unexpected gift — $50,000 from superstar singer Taylor Swift. It was a present from one Grammy Award winner to another.

In a letter to music director Ludovic Morlot, Swift said she was inspired to donate by a recording of John Luther Adams’ Grammy-winning Become Ocean, which the Symphony commissioned, premiered at Benaroya Hall in 2013 and then performed at Carnegie Hall the following year as part of the Spring for Music Festival. The composition, Swift wrote, reminded her of going to her local symphony with her grandmother.

Few American orchestras are as devoted to new and unusual music as the Seattle, and while it isn’t impossible that Swift had heard something this challenging back home in Pennsylvania, I’m thinking that something in the work itself reached her, and she wasn’t quite sure what it was. Which is, in fact, not so far from my own reaction to it.

There is, of course, a trailer:

You can hear the entire work on YouTube. (I actually bought a copy, because, um, whatever.)


  1. McGehee »

    6 December 2015 · 8:51 pm

    Become Ocean? Well, Frank Sinatra, George Clooney and Leslie Sebastian Charles all did it…

  2. Roger Green »

    7 December 2015 · 10:24 am

    Because you believe in folks making money for making music? How radical.

RSS feed for comments on this post