The great outdoors is a perennial theme in classical music, usually expressed through bucolic or picturesque works. But the Seattle Symphony knew that to appear on Spring for Music — an annual festival of adventurous programming by North American orchestras — it required a more unusual, daring take on this theme.
The headline-grabber is the opening piece, Become Ocean, by Adams. In April, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, arguably the highest honor for a living American composer. It drew much attention for suggesting, according to the Pulitzer committee, "a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels."
Adams acknowledged the theme of climate change in an interview with NPR Music's Tom Huizenga. "It's perhaps the central defining issue of this moment in our history as a species," Adams said, "so it's always on my mind in everything that I do. It was certainly at the forefront as I composed this piece."
The title, Become Ocean, comes from a poem that John Cage wrote in honor of fellow composer Lou Harrison, describing the breadth of his colleague's music. The final line is "listening to it, we become ocean." Harrison was a mentor to the 61-year-old Adams, who grew up on the East Coast and has lived in Alaska since 1975.
Because the Pacific Northwest and Alaska share a geographic affinity, Adams was the first composer Ludovic Morlot approached after becoming Seattle's music director in 2011. The orchestra premiered Become Ocean June 20, 2013. The 40-minute work calls for the orchestra to be divided into three parts on the stage — groups of strings, brass and woodwinds, each with a separate percussion ensemble — which move together and apart at various points in the piece.
Seattle's Spring for Music program moves in reverse chronological order. After the Adams comes Déserts, Varèse's classic 1950's score that was inspired by the composer's sojourn in the New Mexico desert. The concert ends with Debussy's evocative La mer (1903-05), returning to the maritime theme.
Adams told WQXR's Elliott Forrest that he was at least partly influenced by Debussy, and that he composed Become Ocean while vacationing in the desert. He added that he's happy for the recognition that's come with the Pulitzer.
"I've been working for over 40 years now," Adams said. "Most of those 40 years I've been working in my cabin studio in Alaska, far removed from all this hubbub. It's nice as I get into my 60s now to get a little love. More substantially, it's wonderful that other people are receiving the music and making it their own."