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Musical Metaphor in John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean

Keane Southard
CMP 592: From Metaphor to Paraphrase
May 1, 2019


John Luther Adams’ extended orchestral work Become Ocean employs the use of musical

metaphor in a highly effective way. Composed in 2013 and commissioned by the Seattle

Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Ludovic Morlot, the piece has been so successful that it

won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2014, a Grammy Award for Best Classical

Contemporary Composition in 2015, and even captivated pop star Taylor Swift enough for her to

make a $50,000 donation to the Seattle Symphony.1 What accounts for this piece’s power, for its

ability to earn praise from the hallowed institutions of the classical music world and pop singers

alike? I believe much of this has to do with how the piece uses music as a metaphor for the

ocean and its waves.

While the title itself suggests this metaphor, it is remarkable how strongly the idea of the

ocean is felt through the music as evidenced by how people talk about the work. For example, in

a broadcast from National Public Radio, classical music producers Tom Huizenga and Anastasia

Tsioulcas vividly use this metaphor when talking about their experience of hearing the piece:

TSIOULCAS: You hear and you feel these roiling waves of music that ebb and flow.
And there are also these very darkly beautiful climaxes in which Adams releases these
huge, heaving crests of sound.
HUIZENGA: I love that tsunami of brass, Anastasia.
TSIOULCAS: He does that so well, but also his ocean has its quiet moments, too.
HUIZENGA: Right. I love how he uses the harps, the sound of the harps, the repeating
arpeggios are like glistening reflections of light across the water…
TSIOULCAS: It’s like you’re being swallowed up. And at the end of the piece we’re
being submerged in this deafening silence.
HUIZENGA: And that’s pretty appropriate, I think, but when you’re in the midst of this
huge ocean and the music, what I love about it is that you’re awed by its beauty and its

Michael Cooper, “Taylor Swift Gives $50,000 to Seattle Symphony,” The New York
Times, December 3, 2015,

majesty, yet at the same time, you’re completely terrified of it. I mean, and that’s just
like the real ocean.2

Adams himself uses this metaphor when talking about the piece, saying that “what I really hope

is that this music is an ocean of its own, an inexorable sea of sound that just may carry the

listener into an oceanic state of mind.”3

While the music can easily be described in ocean and wave metaphors by listeners, the

music itself uses this metaphor in several aspects of its construction. In order to understand this

metaphor, we must compare the arrangement of pitches and rhythms to what we experience in

our own body through our experiences in the physical world. As Steve Larson explains, to

understand music in this way we must use a metaphor ourselves: “Whenever we talk about how a

melody moves, how it goes, whether it moves by step or leap, about it going up or down – we use

the metaphor Musical Succession Is Physical Motion. If we talk about music in terms of this

metaphor…then our intellectual response to music may be joined to imagined kinesthetic

responses.”4 Similarly, we need to use metaphor to understand crescendi as going up and

diminuendi as coming down. While these changes in dynamics don’t literally move up or down,

we often think of volume vertically because a higher volume corresponds directly with a wider

amplitude of a soundwave which is often represented graphically along a Y-axis. Using these

metaphors is necessary in understanding Become Ocean as a metaphor.

Tom Huizenga and Anastasia Tsioulcas, “First Listen: ‘Become Ocean’ By John Luther
Adams,” National Public Radio, Sept. 26, 2014,
John Luther Adams, “Making Music in the Anthropocene,” Slate, February 24, 2015,
Steve Larson, A Theory of Musical Forces (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
2012), 31.

Form as Metaphor

The orchestra for Become Ocean is divided into three distinct groups. The first, which I

call the “Woodwind Group” consists of all the woodwinds instruments plus percussion 1 and

harp 1. The second, which I call the “Brass Group” consists of all the brass instruments plus

percussion 2 and harp 2. Finally, the third group, which I call the “String Group” consists of all

the bowed string instruments plus the piano, celeste, and percussion 3. Adams makes these

groups very clear in the score by grouping their staves this way instead of the traditional score

order and by noting that the three groups should be placed on the stage with the Woodwind

Group “upstage right, as far as possible from the Strings and Brass,” the Brass Group “upstage

left, as far as possible from the Woodwinds and Strings,” and the String Group “arrayed in the

widest possible arc, as far downstage as is practical.” 5 This arrangement on stage adds a little bit

of spatial separation of these three groups and helps an in-person audience to better understand

both visually and aurally how each of these groups operate during the piece.

The work spans 630 measures plus a final measure of complete silence held out with a

fermata. With the entire work in 4/4 time at quarter-note=60 (marked as “Inexorable,”

something that could certainly be used to describe the ocean), it is easy to map time points to

measure numbers in the score, as each measure should last exactly four seconds, making the

whole work last exactly forty-two minutes not including the final silent bar. 6

Each of the three groups goes through cycles of different lengths throughout the course of

the work’s 630 measures, and each cycle creates a palindromic arch of pitches and dynamics. As

John Luther Adams, “Become Ocean” (Fairbanks, AK: Taiga Press Co., Inc., 2013).
The only available commercial recording of the work, by the Seattle Symphony
conducted by Ludovic Morlot, is extremely exacting in keeping this tempo throughout, and the
total duration for the recording, including the final bar of silence, is 42’07”.

Example 1 shows, the String Group goes through twenty-one cycles of thirty measures (each

2’00” long) over the course of the work, the Woodwind Group goes through fifteen cycles of

forty-two measures (each 2’48” long), and the Brass Group goes through nine cycles of seventy

measures (each 4’40” long). Taking advantage of the fact that strings can play continuously

without needing a break to rest their “chops,” the String Group is never completely silent and

plays continuously until the final bar, although most instruments in this group, except for

percussion 3 and the piano, do have periods of rest. In contrast, the Woodwind and Brass

Groups begin and end their cycles with several measures of silence, which gives them time to

rest and recuperate in such a long and continuous work. The first and last five measures of each

Woodwind Group cycle is silent, while they only play during the middle thirty-two measures of

each cycle. Likewise, the first and last eight-and-a-third measures of the Brass Group cycle are

silent, meaning the Brass Group only plays during the middle fifty-three-and-a-third measures of

each cycle.

Within each cycle, the changes in dynamic level create a waveform from soft to loud and

back again. In the String Group, the dynamic level goes from PPP to F, FF, or FFF at the

midpoint and back to PPP within each cycle. In the Brass Group, the dynamic level goes from

PP up to F or FFF at the midpoint and back to PP before resting for the final measures of the

cycle, and in the Woodwind Group the dynamics go from PPP or PP to F, FF, or FFF at the

midpoint and back again (see Example 1).

Because of their carefully selected cycle lengths, the ending and midpoints of all three

groups line up at structurally important points in the score. After 210 bars, we reach the one-

third-point of the entire work (14’00”) which is simultaneously the end of the fifth Woodwind

Group cycle, the third Brass Group cycle, and the seventh String Group cycle. After 420

Example 1, Form Diagram of Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (p. 1 of 2)


Example 1, Form Diagram of Become Ocean by John Luther Adams (p. 2 of 2)


measures and another five Woodwind Group, three Brass Group, and seven String Group cycles,

we reach the two-thirds-point of the work (28’00”). Because these points mark the ends and

beginnings of cycles in all three groups, they are the softest points of the piece (apart from the

very beginning and very end) as the Woodwind and Brass Groups are resting while the String

Group has returned to PPP (see Example 1).

In contrast to these softest points, there are three points in the piece where the midpoints

of all three groups’ cycles, and thus the peak of their dynamic waves, correspond to create the

loudest points of the piece. These occur at the downbeat of m. 106 (7’00”) at the one-sixth-

point, the downbeat of m. 316 (21’00”) at the midpoint of the entire work, and at the downbeat

of m. 526 (35’00”) at the five-sixths-point (see Example 1). At all these points, the three groups

have reached a FFF dynamic level. In fact, these are the only points where they reach FFF at all.

The midpoint, m. 316 (21’00”), however, is the climax of the whole work and is elevated by

other aspects of the musical texture, which will be discussed later in this paper.

The work can be clearly divided into both a two-part and three-part structure. As

mentioned above, the ends of every fifth Woodwind Group, third Brass Group, and seventh

String Group cycle line up, which happens every 210 measures (every fourteen minutes) dividing

the piece into three equal parts. While each cycle constitutes a symmetrical dynamic waveform

from soft to loud and back, each third of the piece creates a symmetrical macro-dynamic

waveform within each of the groups. For example, the first and third Brass Group cycles go

from PP to F and back while the second cycle goes from PP to FFF and back (see Example 1). A

similar marco-dynamic wave happens in the Woodwind Group, where the cycles go PPP-F-PPP,

PP-FF-PP, PP-FFF and then proceeds in reverse over the course of each third of the piece, with a

similar structure for the String Group (see Example 1). These marco-dynamic waveforms are

repeated in each third of the entire work.

The work is also clearly divided into two equal halves along the midpoint. As mentioned

above, the midpoint occurs at the downbeat of m. 316 (21’00”) and is the climax of the entire

work and acts as a grand axis of symmetry. After this point, the entire work moves backwards

creating an almost exact palindrome, where the pitch content, dynamics, and orchestration all

move back towards the beginning of the piece, creating the largest waveform of the entire work. 7

Pitch as Metaphor

The metaphor of the piece as an ocean and its waves is also supported by how Adams

uses the aspect of pitch. As with form, the use of pitch creates wave shapes on multiple levels of

the composition.

On the largest scale, the entire piece is one giant waveform in the aspect of pitch, both

when considering the three groups together as well as separately. Before reaching the midpoint

(m. 316, 21’00”), each cycle for each group has a unique collection of pitch classes, with each

subsequent cycle adding and subtracting one, two, or three pitch classes. For the String Group,

the pitch classes are based on stacked perfect fifths, which alternatively can be thought of as

rotating around the “circle of fifths”. For example, the pitch classes of the first cycle (m. 1-30)

are D, A, E, B, F#, and C# while the second cycle (m. 31-60) removes D from the bottom but

I say an almost exact palindrome because, while it seems that the String Group is indeed
an exact palindrome across this axis, several of the parts of the Woodwind and Brass groups do
not move in an exact retrograde right from this point. For example, the arpeggios of percussion
1 and 2 and harp 1 and 2 maintain their regular pattern and do not “turn around” right on the
downbeat of 316. Also, trumpet 1’s note at the end of m. 316 would be a B-flat and not an F if it
were an exact palindrome. Looking at m. 315-16 in the score will make this clear.

adds G# on the top (see Example 2). This is the general process, although sometimes no pitch

classes are dropped while one is added, such as between the second and third cycles, or no

pitches are added while one is dropped, such as between the fourth and fifth cycles (see Example

2). There is also one instance of a retrogression, where the seventh cycle returns to the exact

same pitch classes as the fifth though enharmonically spelled (see Example 2). The reason for

these anomalies will be explained later in this paper.

However, these pitches are not employed in the piece as stacked perfect fifths but are

used in the texture in different registers along with octaves doublings. Example 3 shows all the

pitches in their actual registers as a chord for each String Group cycle. The harmonies of each

cycle are not realized as a stack of perfect fifths but instead as alternating major seconds and

perfect fourths, except for the eleventh cycle which crosses the midpoint. From one cycle to the

next, one or two pitches are added to the top of this stack and taken away from the bottom,

gradually moving the register of the whole harmony higher and higher peaking at the midpoint,

which is where this rule is broken for the climax and other octave doublings are added. As

mentioned before, after the midpoint the entire work moves in retrograde, which includes the

pitch content, creating a large waveform in terms of pitch material and registers.

Because the perfect fifth is the most consonant interval between two pitches of different

letter names, the effect of adding and subtracting a pitch class or two to the collection that is

related by this interval has the effect of creating the smoothest sounding transition between each

cycle. When employed in a long work such as this where the changes in harmony take place

over several minutes, the sense we get is that the harmonies are static and shifting at the same

time, and we may only realize after the fact how far we have been taken tonally. For example,

the piece starts with a six-pitch collection from the D major scale in the first String Group cycle

Example 2, Pitch Classes by Cycle, Become Ocean by John Luther Adams


Example 3, All Pitches (including doublings) by Cycle of Become Ocean


(D, E, F#, A, B, C#), but we can easily be surprised that by the middle of the ninth String Group

cycle (17’00”) we have moved to the complete other side of the circle of fifths, now in the

neighborhood of Db or Gb major! (Gb, Ab, Bb, Db, Eb, F, see Example 2).

These transitions between harmonies are made even smoother by how they are employed

within each String Group cycle. Each cycle, with the exception of the eleventh which crosses the

midpoint, begins with a harmony of four, five, or six notes and stacks another note on top,

alternating major seconds and perfect fourths, every three measures until the midpoint of the

cycle, where the process reverses and a pitch is then removed from the top every three measures.

Example 4 shows this process for the first String Group cycle. This is another example of a

waveform, here occurring over the course of each thirty-measure cycle concurrent with a

waveform in dynamics. The dynamic level is always slowly crescendoing or diminuendoing

and, depending on the cycle, we reach a new dynamic level every two-and-a-half or three


Example 4, String Group Cycle 1, Become Ocean by John Luther Adams

It’s interesting to point out that the twelve-tone aggregate, both within the String Group

and in the whole piece, gets completed in the eleventh String Group cycle. This happens just

before the midpoint by the introduction of a G-natural in m. 310-12 in the violin 1a part, but this

pitch is abandoned for the midpoint climax and is the only instance in the whole piece of a pitch

being added and abandoned before reaching the climax of a cycle. Perhaps Adams knew that

this was the last remaining pitch class he had left unused and felt he should add it just for

completion’s sake, but used it only briefly because of how it clashed harmonically with the G-

flat being used in the other groups at the same time, as this is the only such instance of two

different pitch classes with the same letter name sounding at the same time in the work.

The Brass Group’s organization of pitch is similar to the String Group’s. As shown in

Example 2, the pitch classes used are based on major and minor thirds which are stacked in

alternation. For example, the first cycle uses five pitch classes, D, F#, A, C#, and E, which make

up the harmony of a major ninth chord build on D. For the second cycle, the bottom two pitch

classes of the chord are dropped and two new ones are added to the top of the stack, creating a

major ninth chord built on A. This can also be thought of as the same chord transposed up a

perfect fifth. The third cycle adds two new pitch classes on top but drops three on the bottom,

using four pitch classes that create a minor seventh chord on A-flat, which can also be thought of

as a major ninth chord with the root removed. (There is also an enharmonic shift that happens

between the second and third cycles, respelling this chord as a A-flat minor seventh chord

instead of a G# minor seventh chord.) The fourth cycle also uses only four pitch classes, while

the climactic fifth cycle, which crosses the midpoint of the piece, returns to using five, before the

whole progression of pitches reverses itself.

Also like the String Group, there are many octave doublings in the texture, as shown in

Example 3. While the register from one cycle to the next does generally rise and reach a peak

with the central fifth cycle, it does not do so in as drastic and predictable a fashion as the String

Group does. Nevertheless, a moderate waveform created by the registers of each cycle is

detectable and adds to the piece’s numerous waveforms.


Very similarly, registral waveforms are also created within each cycle, but again not as

drastically as in the String Group. Each cycle begins (and ends) with eight-and-one-third bars of

rest until some of the group’s instruments enter playing three different pitch classes forming a

major or minor triad. New pitches are added roughly every five-and-one-third measures until the

midpoint of the seventy-measure cycle. However, a sudden yet inconspicuous change in register

happens around the one-third point of the cycle, during the twenty-second or twenty-third

measure, with the entrance of more instruments and a shift up an octave, although this shift

happens downward in the fourth and fifth cycles. It is only after this change of instrumentation

that each added pitch is added on the top of the musical texture extending the whole range

upward until the midpoint of the cycle, which of course falls back down in the second half (see

Example 5 this demonstrated in the first cycle.)

Example 5, Brass Group Cycle 1, Become Ocean by John Luther Adams

Just like the Brass Group, the Woodwind Group uses pitch classes based on major and

minor thirds which are stacked in alternation, here creating minor ninth chords (see Example 2).

The only exception to this rule happens in the seventh cycle, where we get another minor third

added on top, a G-flat, instead of the expected G-natural. Each cycle uses five pitch classes and

each subsequent one adds two pitch classes on top of the stack while removing two from the

bottom. Like the other groups, this process continues until the central and climactic cycle of the

group, in this case the eighth cycle, before reversing. Also like the Brass Group, there is a

moderate yet uneven movement upward in register from the first cycle until the middle cycle,

which of course is mirrored in the second half of the work creating another moderate waveform

in register across the piece (see Example 3).

Moderate registral waves are also created within each cycle just as in the Brass Group,

with each beginning (and ending) with five bars of rest followed by some of the group’s

instruments entering on three different pitch classes forming a major or minor triad. Then new

pitches are added roughly every three measures until the midpoint of each forty-two-measure

cycle. Also like the Brass Group, a sudden change in register happens around the one-third point

of the cycle, in the fourteenth measure, with the entrance of more instruments and often a shift

up an octave, although the shift is in a downward direction in the seventh and eighth cycles.

With the exception of the fifth cycle, it is only after this change of instrumentation that each

added pitch is added on the top of the musical texture extending the whole range upward until

the midpoint of the cycle, which of course falls back down in the second half.

The cycles that cross the midpoint of the piece (downbeat of m. 316, 21’00”), namely the

eighth Woodwind Group, the fifth Brass Group, and the eleventh String Group cycles, are treated

in a special and unique way. In order to make the midpoint of the piece the highest climax of the

work, higher than the one-third point (14’00”) and its twin at the two-thirds point (28’00”) which

also feature all three groups reaching FFF dynamic peaks at the same time, these cycles have

some added pitches. As shown in Example 3, the String Group adds low octave Ds in the cellos

and double basses which expand the String Group register to its largest span of any moment in

the piece. Likewise, the Brass and Woodwind Groups also expand their range downward while

simultaneously reaching their highest registers of the piece. As a result, the midpoint has the

widest registral span of the entire piece, from the low B-flat in the tuba part to the high C in the

violin 1a part five octaves and a major second above. It is clear that Adams wanted all players in

the orchestra to contribute to the climax of the work but didn’t want to make the bass instruments

have to play in an extremely high range to maintain the rising of the overall range, so he

expanded it in both directions for these climatic central cycles. Additionally, and as mentioned

before, during these midpoint cycles is the only time we have two different pitch classes of the

same letter name, G-flat and G-natural, sounding at the same time, although the G natural is

dropped for the six measures around the midpoint.

While I have discussed how within each group the adding and subtracting of pitches is

very smooth and inconspicuous, I also want to briefly discuss how the pitches of the three

different groups relate to each other. Even though the length of each group’s cycles is different,

Adams is always careful to keep their simultaneous pitches in the same diatonic region in order

to avoid any harsh dissonances that might stick out of the texture while at the same time having

the overall pitch collection constantly yet slowly shifting (see Example 2). The level of

consonance versus dissonance stays within a fairly small range, but that range is constantly yet

slowly migrating to other key regions. It is this principle which explains the anomalies in each

group’s progression of cycles, such as the String Group occasionally diverting from the “rule” of

each cycle removing a pitch from the bottom of the stack of perfect fifths and adding one to the

top, or the Brass Group diverting from its “rule” of removing two pitches from the bottom of its

stack of thirds and adding two to the top, or the Woodwind Group adding a G-flat in the seventh

cycle when we expect a G-natural according to its “rule” of alternating major and minor thirds in

its stack. Adams adjusts the rules governing how the cycles progress in order to maintain this

uniformity of overall harmonic texture between the three groups.

The use of the metaphor of the piece as waves depends on identifying symmetry, as

waves rise and then fall (or vice versa) so that the fall is a mirror image of the rise. To

summarize the various waveforms of the piece, I will list the various instances of symmetry from

the largest scale to the smallest.

Disregarding the final silent measure of the piece,8 the entire work is, except for some

small details mentioned earlier, a symmetrical waveform that builds to a climax at the midpoint

(downbeat of m. 316, 21’00”). On the next largest level, each third of the piece (lasting 14’00”)

is a symmetrical waveform regarding its form (its organization of cycles) and in dynamics.

However, the outer thirds of the piece are not symmetrical within themselves in terms of their

notes (including pitches, rhythms, instrumentation). On a smaller level, each cycle of each group

is a symmetrical waveform, although they vary in length, with each String Group cycle lasting

2’48”, each Woodwind Group cycle lasting 4’48”, and each Brass Group cycle lasting 4’40”.

Lastly, on the smallest level, the non-woodwind, brass, and bowed string instruments, namely the

two harps, celesta, piano, and the keyboard percussion, create small waveforms by almost always

play ascending and descending arpeggios (occasionally they repeat a single pitch or alternate

between two).

Or perhaps this last measure is a way of assuring that the piece ends (considering when
the notes stop at the end of m. 630 as the end) and is followed by a few seconds of silence much
like it would be preceded by several seconds of silence before the first measure. If we consider
the assurance of a small period of silence before the piece starts and the last silent measure as
part of “a frame to separate [the work of art] from its external environment—to mark off musical
time from the ordinary time before it and after it” as Edward T. Cone talks about, then perhaps
the entire work is indeed perfectly symmetrical. Edward T. Cone, Musical Form and Musical
Performance. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1968), 17.

Rhythm as Metaphor

While I have not discussed rhythm much thus far, rhythm does in fact play an important

role in understanding the piece as a metaphor for the ocean. The three groups each have a

different rhythmic profile. The Wind Group uses only quintuplet rhythms (dividing each beat or

full measure into five equal parts), the Brass Group sextuplets or triplets (dividing each beat or

measure into six or three equal parts), and the String Group either septuplets (dividing each beat

or measure into seven equal parts) or very long sustained notes. By each group having a distinct

way that they divide the beat or measure, it ensures that any note that is not attacked on a beat

will not be sharing its placement with any notes outside of its group. In other words, when all

three groups are playing at the same time, there are sixteen different rhythmic attack points in

each beat (which at quarter-note=60 is exactly one second long) with the only instance of attack

points coinciding happening at the beginning of each beat. The effect is of having a distinct

rhythmic characteristic for each group yet when combined they don’t “lock in” rhythmically with

each other but become a “wash” of texture. When the different groups’ cycles don’t line up and

each one comes to the fore dynamically, we hear its rhythmic identity, as well as its timbral

identity, more prominently than the others. The groups can also be heard as moving slower or

faster, especially if the listener cannot sense the quarter-note beat, which is extremely subtle and

mostly used for synchronization purposes within such a large ensemble.

Adams’ choice of having the three groups’ rhythms be quintuple, sextuple, and septuple

also relates to the large-scale form of the piece. The lowest common denominator of five, six,

and seven is 210. The end of the 210th measure of the piece (14’00”) is the one-third point where

the ends of all three groups’ cycles align for the first time. This is after five Woodwind Group

cycles (which use quintuplets), seven String Group cycles (which use septuplets), and three

Brass Group cycles (which use sextuplets). While we might have expected there to have been

six Brass Group cycles of thirty-five measures each in the first 210 measures, it seems that

Adams chose to double the length of the Brass Group cycles to seventy measures because

otherwise all three groups’ cycles would not line up at their midpoint climaxes together at the

one-sixth point (downbeat of m. 106, 7’00”). If he used a thirty-five measure Brass Group cycle,

the end of a cycle would occur right at the point where the other two groups climax, thus

eliminating the most climactic points of the piece. Instead, Adams made sure that each group

goes through an odd number of cycles during every third of the piece ensuring that halfway

through each third that all cycles would line up their climactic midpoints. Nevertheless, the three

Brass Group cycles are symmetrical, so they also can be thought of as being broken into six even

parts as well. In essence, what we have rhythmically is that each beat where all three groups are

playing creates a composite polyrhythm of five against six against seven notes, which is a

microcosm of the macro-rhythm on its largest level, the three macro-cycles of 210 measures that

constitute each third of the entire piece. This marco-rhythm is shown in both Example 2 and 3,

where each measure of the example corresponds to 210 measures of the entire work.


John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean uses form, pitch, dynamics, and rhythm as

metaphors to depict the ocean through the use of numerous symmetrical waveforms from the

smallest to largest scale. He also makes the music mimic the characteristics of an ocean by

creating a seamless and static texture that is slowly evolving and shifting, and by designing the

piece on such a massive scale, using a large orchestra which performs the piece over nearly

three-quarters of an hour. This makes listening to the work an immersive experience where the

listener is invited to be swept along by the music and overwhelmed by its climactic moments.

Up until this point, I have avoided talking about how this piece connects to Adams’

concerns as an environmental activist and advocate, but I believe that the use of metaphor

supports this connection as well. Adams is well-known for his connection to Alaska, the state he

moved to “to be part of the campaign to save the last great wilderness in North America, and

perhaps to help create a model for a new society.”9 There he served as the executive director of

the Northern Alaska Environmental Center for several years before switching to music full-

time.10 While not an activist any longer, he still believes in the power of his music to help create

cultural and political change. He writes that “If my music can inspire people to listen more

deeply to this miraculous world we inhabit, then I will have done what I can as a composer to

help us navigate this perilous era of our own creation.”11 Specifically with regards to Become

Ocean, he writes that,

It is a meditation on the deep and mysterious tides of existence. Life on Earth first
emerged from the sea. And as the polar ice melts and sea levels rise, we humans find
ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may literally become ocean. As an
artist, my primary responsibility is to my art as art. And yet, it’s impossible for me to
regard my life as a composer as separate from my life as a thinking human being and a
citizen of the Earth.12

John Luther Adams, “I want my art to matter. I want it to be of use’: John Luther
Adams,” The Guardian, Oct. 30, 2018,

After living in Alaska for 25 years, Adams has lived in New York City for the past
several years. (John Leland, “How John Luther Adams, Composer, Spends His Sunday,” The
New York Times, Oct. 23, 2015,
Adams, “I want my art to matter.”
Adams, “I want my art to matter.”

By talking about the melting of the polar icecaps and sea levels rising, Adams ties his piece to

the global problem of climate change and makes it a statement against it. By hearing the piece as

an ocean with its many different musical waves, one can hear/experience the piece/the ocean as

immense, powerful, beautiful, overwhelming, diverse, smooth, and any other number of

adjectives. One can understand the piece/the ocean as having many different moods, characters,

colors, and as something to protect or else its power will overwhelm us. It can give a sense of

our smallness in comparison to nature, yet at the same time show us how one person (with the

help of seventy or so other musicians) has the power to create something that evokes the same

awe, immensity, and beauty as nature’s creations. It can remind us that while the problem of

climate change is a massive one, it is of our own creation and thus we have the power to solve it

as well. None of these observations, reflections, and reactions would be possible without the

power of musical metaphor.



Adams, John Luther. “Become Ocean.” Fairbanks, AK: Taiga Press Co., Inc., 2013.

Adams, John Luther. “I want my art to matter. I want it to be of use’: John Luther Adams.” The
Guardian, Oct. 30, 2018.

Adams, John Luther. “Making Music in the Anthropocene.” Slate, February 24, 2015.

Cone, Edward T. Musical Form and Musical Performance. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.

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Adams, John Luther. Become Ocean. Ludovic Morlot, Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Cantaloupe
Music CA21101, 2014, compact disc.