For most of his life, the composer John Luther Adams has lived, both literally and metaphorically, at the periphery of American concert life. He’s made his home on a ridge outside Fairbanks, Alaska, though he has had regular sojourns in a remote Mexican desert. Until yesterday, neither he nor his music had ever entered Carnegie Hall. At 61 (and a newly minted part-time New Yorker), he made his belated entrance (as part of the final Spring for Music festival) with Become Ocean, a magnificently slow-boiling orchestral tone poem that recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Adams is an inland creature, but maybe because the Seattle Symphony Orchestra commissioned and performed the work, he has produced a kind of tidal music that I have never heard before. There are familiar glints — the timeless rumble of the Rhine that opens Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the sunlit undulations of Debussy’s La Mer (with which the Seattle Symphony’s conductor Ludovic Morlot closed the Carnegie concert). Like both those pieces, Become Ocean opens in the depths, with a primordial exhalation of low brass and trembling double basses. But all glimpses of history soon vaporize, and what’s left is an utterly original, totally immersive sound world.
In a sense, very little happens over the course of the score’s 40-minute span, which rests on a symmetrical structure, a giant palindrome. Time slows, the pulse liquefies, and the disoriented ear begins to drift. Yet the music feels simultaneously slow and hurtling, like a backwards, sped-up film of continents emerging from primordial waters. Any given instant yields a spray of half-perceived events: string tremors, crashing brass, chords that suddenly grind as if straining at frayed ropes, iridescent tinklings emerging through the wash of sound. Then an immense, tectonic crescendo gathers, crests, and subsides. Serenity comes tightly wrapped up with terror.
An idiosyncratic figure who has been gently demolishing conventions and constructing his own genres for more than 30 years, Adams is known for merging instrumental sounds with the noises of nature. He now lives a block from Morningside Park, where a few summers ago I heard his Inuksuit performed by dozens of percussionists who had fanned out among the foliage. Their roars, thumps, clangs, and flutterings mingled with the sounds of birds and traffic — the sonic equivalent of an urban park. In July, his next orchestral landscape Sila, will sound across the Lincoln Center campus. Become Ocean, too, is about boundless nature, but it’s an indoor piece, ravishingly traditional in the way it relies on walls and floor and ceiling to convert raw sound into the illusion of shimmering surfaces and the violent deep.