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John Luther Adams

Become Desert (2017)
Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra with co-commissions from the San Diego Symphony and the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. New York Premiere exclusive to New York Philharmonic until further notice.
Work Notes
Handbells can be played by choir Percussion 1-4 (each playing Orchestra Bells, Timpani, and Bass Drum) May be performed with 2 harps, each playing 2 staves
Taiga Press (BMI)
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
40 Minutes
SATB (min 4 on each part)
Programme Note
John Luther Adams Become Desert (2017)

That which is not stone is light.—Octavio Paz

I used to say that if I ever left the tundra it would be for the desert. Now, some forty years after first coming to Alaska, I’ve finally made that move. As I’ve begun to learn the landforms, the light, the weather, the plants and the birds, I’ve dreamed of music that echoes this extraordinary landscape.

Living in Alaska for much of my life, I’ve experienced first-hand the accelerating effects of anthropogenic climate change on the tundra, the forest, the glaciers, the plants, animals and people of the Far North. Living in this desert by the sea, I’ve pondered from a new perspective the melting of the polar ice and the rising of the seas. And now I’m considering more deeply Chateaubriand’s observation:

“Forests precede civilizations, and deserts follow…”

Become Desert completes a trilogy with Become River and Become Ocean. As in both of those earlier works the physical array of the instruments is a fundamental compositional element of this music. The orchestra for Become Desert includes five separate ensembles:

—Woodwinds and crotales

—Horns and chimes

—Trumpets, trombones and chimes

—Voices and handbells (or vibraphone)

—Strings, harps and percussion

These five ensembles should surround the audience.

The strings, harps and percussion are on stage. The other four ensembles are elevated on high risers, or in lofts, boxes or balconies, around the house.

—The strings are seated or standing, dispersed throughout the stage. The harps and percussion are interspersed among the strings, widely separated from one another, and slightly elevated.

—The woodwinds and crotales are elevated at the front of the house, above the strings.

—The horns and chimes are elevated on one side of the house.

—The trumpets, trombones and chimes are elevated on the other side of the house.

—The voices and handbells (or vibraphone) are elevated at the rear of the house.

Throughout the piece, the choir sings a single word—luz (pronounced “loose”)—which, of course, is the Spanish word for light.

—John Luther Adams
August 2016

Read John Luther Adam’s essay reflecting on the sonic lessons of the desert

Preview the score

“the 40-minute work conjures a soundscape that mingles bleakness and sensuality in a manner that is impossible to resist.”
Allan Ulrich, Financial Times,04/09/2018
“[…] you got the point of utter stillness on a monumental scale, with a million little things happening just under your perceptual radar. Give yourself in to it, and the world became both desert and dessert. You had your cake and were eating it too.”
Mark Swed, L.A. Times,03/05/2018
“It’s a 40-minute expanse of shimmering, palpitating musical magic — as beautiful and entrancing a new work as anything to come along in years.[…] It’s the rare sequel that not only lives up to its predecessor, but far outstrips it in artistic effect.”
Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle,09/04/2018
“As a moment-to-moment listening experience, Desert is even more enrapturing than Ocean, in large part due to the surround-sound effect.[…] But the piece is also more transparent, inviting you not to meditate on it from a distance, but to walk in and listen within it.”
Gavin Borchert, Seattle Weekly,30/03/2018
“It’s a rare concert when a major work of Beethoven gets upstaged. Rarer still when the music responsible for the upstaging is brand new.”
Thomas May, The Seattle Times,30/03/2018
"While 'Become Desert' doesn’t have the easily graspable transitions of its predecessor, it is packed with moments of drama in microcosm. Over a nearly 40-minute span, those slight twists combine to create a new route toward a grand impact. Precisely because the two are so distinct in method, “Desert” came across as a thoroughly worthy successor to 'Ocean'."
Seth Colter Walls, The New York Times,30/03/2018
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