Become Ocean

Last updated

Become Ocean is an American orchestral composition by John Luther Adams. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra commissioned the work and premiered it at Benaroya Hall, Seattle, on 20 and 22 June 2013. The work won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music and the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. [1] In 2019, writers of The Guardian ranked it the 10th greatest work of art music since 2000. [2]


The work, in a single movement, was inspired by the oceans of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The composer took his title from a phrase of John Cage in honour of Lou Harrison, [3] and further explained his title with this note placed in his score:

"Life on this earth first emerged from the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean." [4]

Instrumentation and structure

Become Ocean is scored for a large orchestra divided into 3 spatially-separated groups [5] :

Each group is given slowly moving sequences of sound, often in the form of arpeggios for the strings, and each block has its own rise and fall. Thus the groups overlap in an ever-changing pattern. Harmonies are fundamentally tonal; simple diatonic intervals form the basis of the wind instruments' staggered chords. The phrase lengths are constructed so that there are three moments when all the groups reach a climax together; the first is early on, and the second represents the greatest surge of sound. From that point, the music is played in reverse: the entire piece is a palindrome. Music critic Alex Ross has hand-drawn a diagram of the work and digitised it.

Underlying this pattern, a rippling effect is provided by a centrally placed piano (which plays continually throughout), four harps, celesta, one percussionist on bass drums, timpani, tamtam and cymbals, and two percussionists, placed on each side, on mallet instruments.

The composer specifies colored lighting to match the activity of the orchestral groups, but after the first two performances these were not used.[ citation needed ]


The initial review, by Melinda Bargreen in The Seattle Times , was lukewarm, finding the work "pleasant", but:

"after the first 20 minutes or so, the musical ideas had pretty much run their course, and there were no further developments to justify sustaining the piece." [6]

By contrast, Alex Ross, writing in The New Yorker and on his blog, gave a strongly positive review, saying he "went away reeling" and that "[i]t may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history." He compared Become Ocean with The Rite of Spring and also provided a technical analysis. [7] Following the world premiere in Seattle, Morlot and the Seattle Symphony performed the work at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, on March 30, 2014. [8] It was repeated in Seattle at a free concert on May 2, 2014.

The New York premiere of Become Ocean occurred on May 6, 2014 at Carnegie Hall, with the Seattle Symphony and Morlot performing in the now-defunct 'Spring for Music' series at Carnegie Hall. This was the first live performance of the work that Adams himself heard, as an eye condition and resulting surgery caused him to miss the world premiere in Seattle. [9] Reviews, including one by the New York Times chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini, were generally highly complimentary. [10] Subsequent performances have occurred in Winnipeg (February 2015), Los Angeles (November 2015) and Miami (December 2015). [11] [12] [3]

The UK premiere took place in Birmingham at Symphony Hall on 19 May 2016, Ludovic Morlot conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

The work was performed by the MDR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Järvi in Leipzig on 13 January 2017, and was broadcast on the MDR Klassik radio station on 14 January 2017. [ citation needed ]

On 13 December 2019, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra performed Become Ocean, with Seattle Symphony's (former) Creative Director Ludovic Morlot again conducting the piece, this time for its Nordic Premiere. [13]


Cantaloupe Music released the premiere recording on October 30, 2014, on CD and DVD. The DVD includes still images and a surround sound mix supervised by Adams. After hearing this recording of Become Ocean, Taylor Swift donated USD $50,000 to the Seattle Symphony. [14]

"Become" trilogy

Become Ocean was followed by Become River (2014), for chamber orchestra, and Become Desert (2018), for an ensemble of five orchestral and choral groups. The composer said these works formed "...a trilogy that I never set out to write in the first place." [15]

Related Research Articles

John Adams (composer) American composer

John Coolidge Adams is an American composer and conductor of classical music and opera, with strong roots in minimalism.

Pulitzer Prize for Music prize awarded for music

The Pulitzer Prize for Music is one of seven Pulitzer Prizes awarded annually in Letters, Drama, and Music. It was first given in 1943. Joseph Pulitzer arranged for a music scholarship to be awarded each year, and this was eventually converted into a prize: "For a distinguished musical composition of significant dimension by an American that has had its first performance in the United States during the year."

Seattle Symphony American orchestra based in Seattle, Washington

The Seattle Symphony is an American orchestra based in Seattle, Washington. Since 1998, the orchestra is resident at Benaroya Hall. The orchestra also serves as the accompanying orchestra for the Seattle Opera.

The Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition was first awarded in 1961. This award was not presented from 1967 to 1984.

Julia Wolfe American composer

Julia Wolfe is an American composer and professor of music at New York University. According to the Wall Street Journal, Wolfe's music has "long inhabited a terrain of its own, a place where classical forms are recharged by the repetitive patterns of minimalism and the driving energy of rock." Her work Anthracite Fields, an oratorio for chorus and instruments, was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Music. She has also received the Herb Alpert Award (2015) and was named a MacArthur Fellow (2016).

John Luther Adams American composer

John Luther Adams is an American composer whose music is inspired by nature, especially the landscapes of Alaska, where he lived from 1978 to 2014. His orchestral work Become Ocean was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Steven Stucky American composer

Steven Edward Stucky was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer.

David Eric Robertson is an American conductor. He was chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and was formerly music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra from 2005 until 2018.

Christopher Chapman Rouse III was an American composer. Though he wrote for various ensembles, Rouse is primarily known for his orchestral compositions, including a Requiem, a dozen concertos, and six symphonies. His work received numerous accolades, including the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, the Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition, and the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He also served as the composer-in-residence for the New York Philharmonic from 2012 to 2015.

Thomas Dausgaard is a Danish conductor. He "studied conducting at the Royal Academy of Music in Copenhagen and with Norman Del Mar at the Royal College of Music in London. He has taken part in masterclasses with Franco Ferrara, Leonard Bernstein and Hiroyuki Iwaki, and in 1991 he won a conducting fellowship to attend the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute."

Augustin Hadelich Italian musician

Augustin Hadelich is an Italian-German-American Grammy-winning classical violinist.

Adam Oscar Stern is an American conductor. Born in Hollywood, Stern was trained at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. He received his MFA in conducting in 1977 at the age of twenty-one, the youngest music student in CalArts' history to receive a master's degree.

Ludovic Morlot is a French conductor. He was Music Director of the Seattle Symphony from 2011 to 2019.

21st-century classical music is art music, in the contemporary classical tradition, that has been produced since the year 2000.

57th Annual Grammy Awards event

The 57th Annual Grammy Awards were held on February 8, 2015, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The show was broadcast live by CBS at 5:00 p.m. PST (UTC−8). Rapper LL Cool J hosted the show for the fourth consecutive time.

The Cello Concerto of Mason Bates is an American concerto for cello and orchestra, dating from 2014. The work was a joint commission by the Seattle Symphony, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It received its premiere on December 11, 2014 by the cellist Joshua Roman, former principal cellist of the Seattle Symphony and for whom Bates composed the concerto, and the Seattle Symphony, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla.

Andrew Norman is an American composer of contemporary classical music.

The Symphony No. 4 is an orchestral composition by the American composer John Harbison. The work was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony with contributions from the philanthropists Richard and Constance Albrecht. It was given its world premiere in Seattle on June 17, 2004 by the Seattle Symphony under the direction of Gerard Schwarz.

Dark Waves is a 2007 musical composition in one movement by the American composer John Luther Adams. It was commissioned by Musica Nova for the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, who premiered the composition in 2007. The piece is dedicated to the Alaskan conductor Gordon Wright, who died a few days before the world premiere.

Moler is an orchestral work written by the American composer Arlene Sierra. The work was commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, Ludovic Morlot, Music Director. It was first performed at Benaroya Hall on October 26, 2012.


  1. "The Pulitzer Prizes | Awards" . Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  2. Clements, Andrew; Maddocks, Fiona; Lewis, John; Molleson, Kate; Service, Tom; Jeal, Erica; Ashley, Tim (2019-09-12). "The best classical music works of the 21st century". The Guardian. ISSN   0261-3077 . Retrieved 2020-06-12.
  3. 1 2 Lawrence Budmen (2015-12-11). "New World plays Pulitzer winner Adams' riveting score". Miami Herald. Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  4. Joshua Rothman (2014-04-18). "Letter from the Archive: John Luther Adams". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2016-05-14.
  5. Adams, John Luther. "Become Ocean (for Orchestra)". Taiga Press. Retrieved 23 December 2017.
  6. Bargreen, Melinda (21 June 2013). "At SSO, impassioned Shostakovich, Become Ocean". The Seattle Times. Retrieved 29 October 2016.
  7. Ross, Alex. "Water Music" . Retrieved 3 May 2014.
  8. James McQuillen (2014-03-31). "The Seattle Symphony pays a welcome visit to Portland, rejoicing in nature". The Oregonian. Retrieved 2016-06-08.
  9. Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim (2014-05-04). "A Composer Attuned to the Earth's Swirling Motion: A New York Premiere for John Luther Adams's 'Become Ocean'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  10. Anthony Tommasini (2014-05-08). "Out of the Northwest, Through Sea and Desert: Seattle Symphony Explores Nature at Spring for Music". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  11. Holly Harris (2015-02-06). "Composer's work came to him in waves". Winnipeg Free Press. Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  12. Tim Greiving (2015-11-13). "Seattle conductor Ludovic Morlot at the helm of the L.A. Phil for 'Become Ocean'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2016-06-08.
  14. Michael Cooper (2015-12-03). "Taylor Swift Gives $50,000 to Seattle Symphony". The New York Times (ArtsBeat blog). Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  15. May, Thomas (14 March 2018). "Seattle Symphony to present world premiere of John Luther Adams' highly anticipated 'Become Desert'". Seattle Times. Seattle, Washington. Retrieved 1 April 2018.