John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean Wins Pulitzer Prize for Music

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John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean has won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music. Commissioned and premiered by Seattle Symphony on June 20, 2013, the 42-minute score is described in the Pulitzer citation as “a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.”

Also in the running for the $10,000 prize were The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams’s massive oratorio about the final period of Christ’s life; and Invisible Cities, Christopher Cerrone's opera based on the Italo Calvino fantasy novel.

The Seattle Symphony will perform Become Ocean on May 6 as part of the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall. WQXR will broadcast the performance, with Ludovic Morlot on the podium.

Adams, an American composer known for music inspired by the landscapes and sounds of his adopted state of Alaska, has long been associated with his environmentalist concerns. The 61-year-old has composed works for various media including orchestras, chamber ensembles, solo voice, electronics, plus film and television. He is the author of Winter Music (2004), a collection of writings about his life and pursuits in Alaska.

"Music by John Luther Adams is really the sonic landscape of what the environment here is like," said Morlot in a recent interview with WQXR's Elliott Forrest. "You think of Alaska, you [also] think of those beautiful landscape settings of the Pacific Northwest." The piece calls for the orchestra to be divided into three parts on the stage – groups of strings, brass and woodwinds, each with its separate percussion group – which move together and apart and various points in the piece. 

The Pulitzer has a particularly topical thrust this year: It was announced just as the United Nations' panel on climate change was releasing a new report stating that major action is needed quickly if policymakers want to limit global warming to acceptable levels.

The jury for the prize consisted of Ara Guzelimian, provost and dean of the Juilliard School (chair); Justin Davidson, the classical music and architecture critic of New York Magazine; Jason Moran, the pianist and composer; Caroline Shaw, who won last year’s Pulitzer; and Julia Wolfe, composer and co-founder of Bang on a Can.

Listen to portions of the work below (with commentary):