Composer John Luther Adams has intrigued me for years. In Listen to This, my favourite music writer Alex Ross describes The Place Where You Go To Listen, a sound and light installation created by Adams in the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska: “…a kind of infinite musical work controlled by natural events occurring in real time. The title refers to Naalagiagvik, a place on the coast of the Arctic Ocean where, according to legend, a spiritually attuned Inupiaq woman went to hear the voices of unseen birds, whales, and unseen things around her. In keeping with that idea, the mechanism of The Place translates raw data into music: information from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations in various parts of Alaska is fed into a computer and transformed into a luminous field of electronic sound.”
As I write this, I’m listening to Become Ocean, the John Luther Adams orchestral composition commissioned by the Seattle Symphony, first performed in June 2013; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014. The composer noted, “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.” What I’m hearing are the most ravishing harmonies, like wind, water, the swoosh of whales feeding. Dark chords ascend and everything is in them. A song of the universe in a time of crisic, it’s music for our time and I can’t help but think if enough of us listened to it, it might also serve as a call to us to fully address the huge issue of anthropogenic climate change.
Earlier this afternoon we walked over to Haskins Creek to see if the coho had entered this small swift stream from Sakinaw Lake where they’ve been waiting for some time now. And yes, there were fish undulating in the water, a dipper feeding on insects (and maybe eggs) near the creek’s mouth, and the low wintry light spangling everything dull gold. Everywhere huge trees, dense ferns, eagles on their way to feed on the spawned-out carcasses and then distribute them over the ground. The marine-originating isotope Nitrogen 15 is found in the big trees of our coastal rain forests as well as in the hair of bears, wolves, and other animals that feed upon salmon and distribute their remains on land. (I eat salmon weekly and imagine I have my own stores of marine nitrogen too!)
It’s the final movement now, the tidal crescendo of what Alex Ross suggests might “be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history”, and it makes me want to weep — for the beauty of our waters, the salmon cycle, the humpback whale and her calf we saw feeding in Davis Bay earlier this year, and the falling of the sun over the western horizon I am watching from my south-western window as I listen and write. Sometimes music takes us so utterly by the heart and the soul into mystery that we are unwilling to come back to a room, a chair, a wooden desk. In contemplating this beautiful piece of music, I am entirely willing to become ocean.