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Alaskan Composer Wins Pulitzer For 'Become Ocean'

Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams has won the Pulitzer Prize for music with an homage to the sea called <em>Become Ocean</em>.
Evan Hurd Photography
Alaska-based composer John Luther Adams has won the Pulitzer Prize for music with an homage to the sea called Become Ocean.

John Luther Adams, whose music is inspired by — and sometimes performed in — natural landscapes, has won the Pulitzer Prize for music for his symphonic work Become Ocean. The Pulitzer jury described the piece as "a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels." The Seattle Symphony and music director Ludovic Morlot gave the world premiere June 20, 2013.

All of the finalists' works were premiered on the West Coast. The other two nominated composers were previous Pulitzer winner John Adams (no relation) for his oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary and Christopher Cerrone for the opera Invisible Cities;both of those pieces debuted in Los Angeles.

By telephone Monday afternoon, I located John Luther Adams, 61, in Houghton, Mich. (in the state's Upper Peninsula), where he is in residence at Michigan Tech. He said he was napping between classes when he got "a most welcome wakeup call" informing him he'd won the award.

TOM HUIZENGA: Your music is tied so wonderfully to the natural landscapes around us. And this piece Become Ocean is a particularly good example of this. Tell us about this piece.

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: I've spent most of my life in the interior of Alaska, hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, so I'm more of a mountain and tundra guy. But in recent years I've been spending more time by the Pacific Ocean and that was where I composed Become Ocean. As I like to say, it really wrote itself. All I had to do is sleep with the windows open at night and let the sound of the sea seep into my subconscious mind and get up in the morning and write it down.

HUIZENGA: Tell us a little about what Become Ocean sounds like, the scoring and the general feel of the piece.

ADAMS: As the title implies it's an ocean of sound. It's scored for large symphony orchestra, a bunch of percussionists, a large string section, full woodwinds and brass and even four — count them, four — harps. The orchestra is deployed as three separate ensembles. It's really a piece for three orchestras. The different instrumental choirs are separated as widely as possible in the performance space. It works in waves of orchestral sound, in different tonal colors and harmonies that ebb and flow, a bit like waves of the tides over the course of 48 or 50 minutes. And every now and then there are these big tsunamis of sound, when all the crests of all the waves coincide.

HUIZENGA: The Pulitzer jury described your piece as "a haunting orchestral work that suggests a relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels." That made me wonder if you were thinking about global warming while writing this piece.

ADAMS: Aren't we all thinking about global warming all the time? It's perhaps the central defining issue of this moment in our history as a species, so it's always on my mind in everything that I do. It was certainly at the forefront as I composed this piece.

HUIZENGA: Are you trying to fuse us with nature in this piece? The title is Becoming Ocean and there's this push and pull between us as a species and the ocean. We came from the ocean, are we heading back there?

ADAMS: Maybe sooner than we think if we don't wake up and change the way we are living. Part of what I've tried to do in my music, in my life's work, is to try to help us broaden and deepen our attention to the larger music of the world that we inhabit — thru listening, maybe to remember our rightful place in the greater scheme of life on this beautiful stone spinning in space.

HUIZENGA: Any ideas of how winning this award might change your career?

ADAMS: I never thought much about career. I'm an artist. You know, I moved to Alaska in my 20s. I never studied with the right people at the right schools. Early on I didn't win the right prizes. It seems that every time I had the opportunity to make the right career choice, I made the wrong career choice, which in the long run turned out to be the right artistic choice. And now, after 40 years or more of doing this, it seems like maybe there's a larger audience for the work and that's profoundly gratifying.

The Seattle Symphony and Morlot will performBecoming Oceanin New York May 6 during the Spring for Music festival at Carnegie Hall.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.