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NPR Arts & Life

First Listen: 'Become Ocean' By John Luther Adams

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Every month we're told about 1,000 years' worth of music pours into the mailboxes of NPR's classical music producers Tom Huizenga and Anastasia Tsioulcas, albums from Gregorian chant to music written this year. Today, they're going to tell us about a new recording that really stood out. It won this year's Pulitzer Prize for music. It's "Become Ocean" by the American composer John Luther Adams.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Hello, Anastasia.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hi, Tom.

HUIZENGA: First, I think we need a brief bit of housekeeping. The composer of this music is John Luther Adams. Not to be confused with that other classical composer, just plain old John Adams.

TSIOULCAS: Right and we're talking about his orchestra piece called "Become Ocean." "Become Ocean" was premiered in June 2013 in Seattle, played by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ludovic Morlo and now they've recorded the piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUTHER ADAMS SONG "BECOME OCEAN")

TSIOULCAS: Adams has spent decades living in Alaska and the natural terrain there has inspired a lot of his music. So here he's thinking about the ocean.

HUIZENGA: Yeah, he spent some time at the Pacific Ocean and he said, all I have to do is sleep with the windows open at night and let the sound of the sea seep into my subconscious and get up in the morning and it write. Of course that makes it sound easy, but the piece is actually structurally complicated.

TSIOULCAS: This piece is built out of three mini-orchestras sharing the stage. You hear and you feel these roiling waves of music that ebb and flow. And there are also these very darkly beautiful climaxes in which Adams releases these huge, heaving crests of sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUTHER ADAMS SONG "BECOME OCEAN")

HUIZENGA: I love that tsunami of brass, Anastasia.

TSIOULCAS: He does that so well, but also his ocean has its quiet moments, too.

HUIZENGA: Right. I love how he uses the harps, the sound of the harps, the repeating arpeggios are like glistening reflections of light across the water.

TSIOULCAS: Right, it's like the calm before that next storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUTHER ADAMS SONG "BECOME OCEAN")

HUIZENGA: You know, Anastasia, I think it's really important to talk about the social-ecological aspect of the music. Adams was thinking about global warming when writing this piece and he even says life on this earth first emerged from the sea. Today, as the polar ice melts and the sea level rises, we humans face the prospect that we may once again, quite literally, become ocean.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUTHER ADAMS SONG "BECOME OCEAN")

TSIOULCAS: It's like you're being swallowed up. And at the end of this piece we're being submerged in this deafening silence.

HUIZENGA: And that's pretty appropriate, I think, but when you're in the midst of this huge ocean and the music, what I love about it is that you're awed by its beauty and its majesty, yet at the same time, you're completely terrified of it. I mean, and that's just like the real ocean.

TSIOULCAS: Yeah, totally. And also I have to say I'm thrilled that this piece is getting played and recorded, Tom. You know, so often even prize-winning compositions, they have a premiere and then they just disappear. And I really hope that "Become Ocean" continues to get heard.

HUIZENGA: Me too.

INSKEEP: That's NPR classical producers Tom Huizenga and Anastasia Tsioulcas. You can preview "Become Ocean" as part of our first listen series at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.