“Become Desert is both a celebration of the deserts we are given, and a lamentation of the deserts we create.” — John Luther Adams
John Luther Adams’ Become Desert is the much-anticipated sequel to the Pulitzer-winning Become Ocean, and a major milestone in the creative partnership between the composer and the Seattle Symphony with Ludovic Morlot (who completes his tenure as Music Director at the end of the 2019 season). For Adams, who has been called “one of the most original musical thinkers of the new century” by the New Yorker’s Alex Ross, the 40-minute work completes a trilogy he hadn’t intended to write, and yet it emerges as one of his most expansive and consciousness-raising musical statements to date.
In 2010, Adams created musical streams both aurally and visually with Become River. He followed with Become Ocean (2013), which divides the orchestra into three parts to create a vast sense of undulating space and rhythm. The 2014 recording by Morlot and the Seattle Symphony, also on Cantaloupe, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical Chart, and won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
With Become Desert, space is once again a fundamental compositional element, but on a larger scale, with five different ensembles moving at five different tempos. The work features a large orchestra and choir that are deployed as five ensembles that surround the audience. In his 2018 essay for the New York Times, Adams prepares listeners with a map, of sorts, to help find the state of “swimming in light” that he seeks to convey with the music. Along the way, “You begin to feel that this music you had thought was suspended in time is slowly leading you somewhere, pulling you somewhere. It continues upward, rising with inevitable force, like the wind or the light.”
photograph by Dennis Keeley
The second disc in this two-disc set is a DVD featuring a 5.1 surround mix of the recording, as well as a slideshow of desert images, shot by Adams himself, that loops during playback. And as further testament to the technical sophistication of the recording process, producers Nathaniel Reichman and Dmitriy Lipay partnered with Dolby Laboratories to create a Dolby Atmos mix—a first for a Cantaloupe Music release.
In the end, the sonic experience is all-important, and the music is always open to interpretation. “Someone observed that my music never has people in it,” Adams told Classical KING FM’s Dave Beck before the world premiere of Become Desert, “and to a large extent I think that’s right. In this case, I knew there had to be a human voice crying in the desert, and it comes very much from that line by Octavio Paz that I used for the score’s inscription: ‘Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light.’ So the text, such as it is, is a single word: luz, which is Spanish for light.
“But when I take snapshots, I rarely take selfies. I take landscapes with nobody in them, because that’s where I want to be. And that’s where I want you to be. I’m not interested in painting a picture, or telling you a story in music. I want to invite you into something that’s larger than we are, and allow you to find your own way.”