CD Review: John Adams’ Become Ocean

Unknown.jpegIt’s difficult to review a recording of a new piece of music when it has won the Pulitzer Prize (when did that become important for music, and not just writing?), and when it has been universally acclaimed. It’s also difficult to review said work when it is programmatic; when it is supposed to be about something. As the Pulitzer Committee says, Become Ocean (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.”

And, as we reach the end of 2014, this record is on a number of “best of the year lists.” Which puzzles me.

I guess the part about the ocean is obvious from the cover of the CD, and from the fact that, for my first listen, I accidentally put the DVD into my living room optical disc player, just after playing a Blu-Ray disc, and seeing the visuals that accompany the music. (I had thought there was just a CD, and simply hadn’t gotten around to turning off the TV.) As the music plays, there are a series of photos of water; some from above, others below. So, water is clearly something that this music is “about.”

I’d only heard two recordings by this Mr. Adams before (he is not to be confused with the minimalist composer John Adams, or the politician of the same name), one of which, Four Thousand Holes, I reviewed for MusicWeb. I found it sounded like ambient music, by Brian Eno or Harold Budd, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

The difference here is that Mr. Adams has a symphony at his disposal; the full range of instrumentation and dynamic range. Yet it sounds as though he really doesn’t know how to composer for an orchestra; Become Ocean is a 42-minute drone work, with rising and falling waves of volume, and with arpeggios, played by different instruments, arising and fading away.

Nothing about it suggests a “tidal surge,” or “melting polar ice and rising sea levels;” those ideas would never cross my mind, if I hadn’t read what the Pulitzer Committee had to say. Very little happens in this work, other than the dynamics of the music changing as the instruments play louder and more softly. It has little actual melody; it sounds like one massive chord going through subtle changes, as different instrumental groups are heard.

I was quite astounded to see the otherwise circumspect Alex Ross writing in the New Yorker compare this premiere to that of Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps. Mr. Ross was clearly moved by the work, saying “It may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history,” which is, of course, quoted on the CD. Mr. Ross’s discussion of the work borders on incomprehensible. He says, for example:

“The majestic sonorities emerge from a musical machine, an inexorable process. (“Inexorable” is, in fact, the indication at the head of the score.) There are six hundred and thirty bars of music, plus a bar of silence. The three main sections of the orchestra play sequences of varying lengths, each of which swells to a climax and then fades, and each of which reverses course at its midpoint, in the manner of a palindrome. The winds have fifteen units of forty-two bars (including rests); the brass nine units of seventy bars; the strings twenty-one units of thirty bars. At three points, the crescendos of the various groups coincide, resulting in those Debussy-like climaxes. The really confounding thing is that at Bar 316 the music begins running in reverse. The work is a gigantic palindrome, ending where it began.”

The way the music was made seems to take precedence over the music itself. Who really cares — other than composers or musicians — about what the above paragraph describes? That tells me nothing about the music, about the feeling of listening to the music. In fact much of Mr. Ross’s review discusses the backstory to the work: what inspired Mr. Adams, how it was written, but not so much about the music itself. (Yes, he does talk about chords and how the music recalls Debussy, Sibelius and Wagner, but not what the music sounds like.) I would sum it up as a series of crescendos and diminuendos (sorry, I used technical words, but ones that most people will understand), than eventually die out at the end. One very important problem here is how to know how loud to play this disc; in concert, the dynamics of the music are important, but there’s no benchmark here to know what the correct volume should be. Is the music very soft, building to mildly loud? Or does it begin fairly loud, reaching even louder crescendos? In the absence of any way to know how to listen to it, does it even make sense to listen to it?

This work isn’t easy to label. One could broadly call it minimalist, since not much happens; but it’s not the kind of repetitive minimalism of Reich or Glass. It’s closer to the kind of dark ambient drone music that is quite popular among aficionados of electronic music, with a bit of Sigur Rós thrown in. But I assume that, for the usual audience that attends concerts of symphony orchestras, it will be a surprise; nothing like Le Sacre de Printemps (sorry Mr. Ross), but a surprise nonetheless. And one that may have them squirming in their seats for 42 minutes.

The package includes a CD and a DVD-audio, the latter of which offers both stereo and surround mixes. There is no information about the work itself, nothing about the different formats in the package (for example, does the DVD-A contain high-resolution audio?), and nothing to even tell you that you get both a CD and DVD. If I hadn’t accidentally pulled out the DVD, I might not have known that there are two discs. There is a quote from the composer, saying: “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 found this to be a fairly bland work, with little originality, and not enough “music” to interest me. I’m a big fan of ambient music, and I can see listening to this in the background, and I can even imagine that it might be quite exciting to hear live. But there’s little on this recording that makes me want to listen to Become Ocean repeatedly. I’m clearly in the minority; as I said at the beginning of the review, this disc is showing up in lists of the best recordings of the year. Go figure.

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