“Listen To The Singing Of The Light”: Composer John Luther Adams’ Become Desert

Jordan Ryan Pedersen immerses himself in composer John Luther Adams' follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Become Ocean."
By    August 28, 2019

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Jordan Ryan Pedersen is waiting for the Weird Al version of this composition, “Become Dessert.”

In the beginning, it is without form. We hear only tinkling on the horizon, the intimations of becoming. Then, the rising. Horns play rays of sunshine, the chiming of bells like the blinking of our eyes. This is John Luther Adams’ Become Desert.

Become Desert, a towering orchestral work for *five* ensembles co-commissioned and performed by the Seattle Symphony, is the spiritual sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Become Ocean. (It also completes a trilogy of which Become River, a lesser-known work Adams composed for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, forms the center.) Desert is a striking contrast to the dark undulation of its predecessor. Ocean, in its intimation of roiling depths, was vertical, diving deeper and deeper into the the blue darkness. Desert is horizontal, an infinite horizon spreading outwards.

Adams has always drawn from his surroundings. He spent nearly the last forty years in Alaska, working as an environmental activist before he committed to music full-time – he helped pass the Alaska Lands Act in 1980. He saw the effects of global warming firsthand. Become Ocean draws from that dread, ending up equal parts evocation of the ocean’s innate beauty, and ill portent of the changes coming to it. It is a grand narrative of triumph and decay.

Become Desert, inspired by Adams’ move to the Sonoran desert, instead immerses us in stasis. If we could imagine ourselves barreling through the depths on Become Ocean, on this piece we observe movement instead of taking part in it. “The longer we stay in one place, the more we notice change,” Adams said in an interview in June. “The more fully present we are in that place, the more fully aware we become.”

Here, Adams does not tell us a story. He invites us to listen for the stories going on all around us.

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