An Inviting Apocalypse : Deceptive Cadence John Luther Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, Become Ocean, evokes the end of the world — but it also welcomes us to take a swim.

An Inviting Apocalypse

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/350911062/352290053" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This past April, John Luther Adams became the most recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music. His piece, "Become Ocean," was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony. And a recording of the work will be released on Tuesday. The Pulitzer committee called it a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECOME OCEAN")

RATH: When John Luther Adams got the phone call from the Pulitzer committee, he was in the middle of a teaching residency at Michigan Tech University. And he was exhausted.

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: And it was late afternoon. And I thought, well, before my evening talk, I would go back to the hotel room and catch a quick power nap. And I forgot to turn off my cell phone. And I had just drifted into REM and the phone rang. I heard the word and asked the person on the other end, you know, could I call you back?

(LAUGHTER)

ADAMS: So talk about your wake-up call.

RATH: That's a really aggravated part when you get caught right in that moment as you're falling asleep.

ADAMS: Yeah, yeah, it was. My first reaction was well, this is inconvenient.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: So let's talk about the commission for "Become Ocean."

ADAMS: Sure.

RATH: First, can you explain the concept?

ADAMS: Yeah. That's a fair question. I'm not sure I can give you a fair answer. I'm obsessed with place as music and music as place. And what I want to experience as a listener and what I hope for you as a listener is to discover a strange and beautiful and maybe somewhat frightening new place and invite you in to that place to find your own way and have your own experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECOME OCEAN")

RATH: I don't want to be too literal-minded about music, especially that doesn't have words, but I know that you are somebody who's very concerned with the natural environment. I've seen interviews where I know you're concerned about global warming. So with a title like "Become Ocean," it's sort of hard for me not to read into that - that you're thinking about a time when we might kind of become one with the ocean.

ADAMS: Yes, indeed. I think I kind of want to have it both ways, if I may, in my music. I believe deeply in the inherent power and mystery, the imperative, for music in our lives. And it's my hope that you can listen to this music without knowing anything about what the composer had in mind, including maybe even the title, and find yourself, or lose yourself, immersed in this music and have a real experience, something that touches you and moves you.

And at the same time - and this is talking out of the other side of my mouth - you know, like most of us these days, I think a lot about the future of the present state of the Earth and the future of the human species and specifically about climate change. And as I composed "Become Ocean," I had in my mind and my heart this image of the melting of the polar ice and the rising of the seas. All life on this Earth emerged from the ocean. And if we don't wake up and pay attention here pretty soon, we human animals may find ourselves once again becoming ocean sooner than we imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECOME OCEAN")

RATH: Listening to it, I was expecting almost something different from the title. I would've expected well, this music that sort of overwhelms and you can be absorbed in it. But it don't feel like - I don't feel like I'm drowning. You know, I don't feel a sense of alarm, you know - a siren or anything like that.

ADAMS: You know, there's this 19th-century idea of the sublime. The idea is that there is an inextricable wholeness to our experience of the world that contains at once both beauty and terror. And I think I want to be right on that razor's edge.

RATH: The sense of awesome in its original sense of the word.

ADAMS: Yes. And maybe that's the Alaskan in me. You know, 40 years living in the presence of raging wildfires and river ice breaking free in the springtime. I've been in touch for most of my life - pretty directly in touch - with these elemental forces that are so much bigger and more powerful than - not only than I am, but than I can even imagine. And that can be both terrifying and profoundly reassuring. That's pretty close - for me, that's pretty close to a religious experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECOME OCEAN")

RATH: I'm a bit curious because, you know, being a modern composer in 2014 - it's not the easiest of professions to pick. I'm curious, with getting the Pulitzer, is it like an independent film maker getting an Oscar? Does that open up more possibilities for you?

ADAMS: You know, people have been asking me has it changed my life? And the answer is I'm not sure. I don't think so. But the truth is, Arun, there's really not much in my life that I would want to change. I mean, it's just such a gift to be able to do what I do as a life's work and follow the music, as I like to say, wherever it may lead me. So I'm not really looking for the Pulitzer Prize to change my life. But if the Pulitzer Prize makes it a little bit easier for me to continue my work, then that will be a wonderful thing.

RATH: That's composer John Luther Adams. The recording of his Pulitzer Prize winning work, "Become Ocean," comes out on Tuesday. Until then, you can sample every note of our exclusive First Listen. Go to nprmusic.org for that. John, thank you so much.

ADAMS: It's my pleasure, Arun. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECOME OCEAN")

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.