Contemplating a Burnt-Out Shell of a World
What’s more desolate than an increasingly empty world slowly burning to a crisp? That’s the implication of John Luther Adams’ Become Desert, the follow-up to his vast, turbulent super-epic symphonic work Become Ocean. As you would expect, where that piece is awash in churning rhythms and a titanic, byzantine interweave of voices, Become Desert is more airy and expansive. The world after global warming takes its toll is one lonely place!
The Seattle Symphony‘s world premiere recording of the work, with Ludovic Morlot on the podium, is streaming at Spotify. Beyond a distant wariness and a deceptively soothing calm, this isn’t horrific music: the composer gives us a wide canvas to contemplate and fill in the grisly details ourselves.
It’s Adams’ most ambient, spectral work to date. Bells slowly rise over a whisper of winds and strings, an arid breeze across the sands. Slowly, a rhythm emerges, akin to the clock chimes that introduce Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album, at a tenth the speed. Keening overtones filter through the expanse of sound, the bells offering a subtle elegy amid the swells, fades and relentless glare. Brass and muted timpani thunder offer ghostly evidence that there was once activity here – or is that simply a thunderstorm, a wake-up call in the here and now? The orchestra finally begin a long advance in waves, but there’s no water in them. Musical cautionary tales don’t get more allusive, yet more vivid, than this. After the coronavirus scare is over, we’d better get busy.