John Luther Adams: Composing Become Desert

John Luther Adams: Composing Become Desert



Become Desert completes a trilogy that I didn't set out to write. It began as Become Ocean, and next came Become River. And now Become Desert. The central image of this piece, poetically, is that beautiful line from Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet, "Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light." To me, that's the essence of the piece. This piece is all about space. Space has become, perhaps, the most fundamental compositional element in my music. So much so that with Become Desert, I didn't begin sketching notes, I didn't think about harmonies, or tempos, or line, or anything specific until I had the floor plan. Until I knew, not only what are the instruments, but where are the instruments. In this case we have five instrumental choirs, five distinctly separate ensembles. Become Ocean had three. That seemed to work pretty well, but I wanted to hear a fuller space, both surround and vertically. So I've built on, expanded the space that was Become Ocean, and turns out that my Desert is bigger than my Ocean. But it's because I'm a landlubber, right? Become Ocean, we're sort of on the surface, we're surfing the waves, we're rising and falling, and they’re looming, the waves are looming over us at times, threatening to sweep us away. We might drown. But in Become Desert, we're actually immersed in the sonic space and in the physical and acoustic space. And we're swimming. We're swimming in light. I spend a lot of time in the outdoors, and over the years, I've come to value the deeper experience that comes from being in one place for a while for a sustained period. And learning how the wind shifts, how the light changes, where the birds nest, maybe even how the seasons go. And the longer we stay in one place, the more we notice change. The more fully present we are in that place. The more fully aware we become. And so maybe there's some kind of parallel with my musical landscapes. You're not going to take an outward journey, you're going to take an inward journey. And in order to do that, you just need to settle in, open up, and listen in a different way. And if you do, if you are able to shift that sense of scale, of perspective, small things become big things. And maybe you hear something you haven't heard before. As much as I love the solitary part of my work, it is not finished until it's in the air, until it is shared with other people, but also that's a great moment for me, too. I feel blessed that I get to hear the music. And that I get to hear a piece on this scale, with… in a situation like this that is so open, and receptive and supportive with an audience of people who are coming because they want to hear this thing. They want to hear something they haven't before. How wonderful is that? At least for me, that's what it's all about.

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