Sometimes composer John Luther Adams stands in deserts. Sometimes he stands in snowy mountain forests, as you can plainly see here.
The Seattle Symphony presents the world premiere of John Luther Adams's Become Desert tonight. Here he is incongruently standing before snowy mountain forests. Courtesy of John Luther Adams

No matter how normal it may seem to everyone else in the world of symphonic music, I’ll never get over how little time contemporary composers have to deliver their music-babies. For three years, John Luther Adams has been working on Become Desert, the highly anticipated follow-up to his Grammy Award-winning and Pulitzer Prize-winning and extremely awesome composition, Become Ocean. But—because this is just how the American system works—Adams, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, a large technical team, and music director Ludovic Morlot only had two evenings of rehearsal before the big world premiere tonight at Benaroya Hall.

On Tuesday evening I went backstage to watch the concert come together, and to shadow Adams and Morlot as they shaped Become Desert. From my perspective in the wings, it looked like someone had exploded an orchestra. There were instruments all over the place. Big drums onstage, trumpet players setting up in the second-tier balcony, and members of the Seattle Symphony Chorale shuffling in-between some seats in the third tier balcony. I was told this explosion was deliberate.

Brass from above.
Brass from above. James Holt

For the concert, Adams split up the orchestra into five separate instrumental groups—“choirs,” he calls them—and stationed them all over the hall. The operations manager, decked out in classic headset and clipboard, showed me on a chart the positions of all the instruments.

The basses sat up on risers onstage, possibly to account for the hall’s tendency to swallow up low tones. Strings were arrayed in a sunburst pattern, with groups of woodwinds and percussion interspersed throughout. Two groups of brass and bells were posted up in the second tier seats, and there were three rows of singers up in the third tier all the way at the back of the house.

If you sat in the center floor seats, you’d be completely surrounded by instruments. This set-up was designed to ensure the audience would be “fully immersed and swimming in the light” of Become Desert, Adams would tell me over the phone the next day.

Just as the manager was telling me she hadn’t ever seen the orchestra arranged this way before, someone realized the current set-up wouldn’t work because certain instruments wouldn’t fit where they thought they would have, and so Adams had to work up a significantly different organizational strategy to which everyone suddenly had to conform.

The explosion had to be re-exploded.

String sections got swapped around, chimes had to be moved, etc. Concert tech people began discussing new problems amongst themselves in a language I didn’t understand, and the manager started joking about how fun the tour’s going to be considering all the risers and the infinitely variable set-ups of different concerts halls.

The whole scene was kind of chaotic, but everyone seemed accustomed to acclimating to sudden changes of plans only days before an opening.

Because five different groups of instruments play five different tempos, at times Morlot looked like he was conducting dust motes.
Because five different groups of instruments play five different tempos, at times Morlot looked like he was conducting dust motes. James Holt

Because each “choir” plays at a different time signature, Morlot at first rehearsed each section separately. Each sounded pretty but kind of boring on its own. They played these long notes that slowly swelled in pitch and intensity and then slowly subsided. The musicians were a little confused about when they were supposed to breathe since the notes were so long, and they were all a little concerned about when they were supposed to peak their swells. A general anxiety began to mount. I got the sense that the musicians trusted Adams because of their experience giving birth to Become Ocean back in 2013 (the symphony had commissioned the piece two years earlier), but a lot of “we’ll sees” began to circulate among the musicians.

Though he seemed to be an extremely zen cowboy-type dude, and though he’d already given the orchestra a good pep talk before rehearsal, Adams looked a little anxious, too. He was sitting in the center of the auditorium, craning his neck to look at the brass section posted up in the balcony, trying to see if he needed to move around the chimes again. The next day over the phone, he’d explain his anxiety thusly: “It’s not so much anxiety about what you do after Become Ocean, it's more like 'Oh my goodness, this is a big new piece, and we don’t have a lot of time in which to discover it.'”

After a while the whole orchestra took the stage and, on Morlot’s cue, one of the musicians struck a bell.

Become Ocean plops the listener down in the middle of a giant, dark, cresting wave. You ride that wave for 40 minutes, variously freaking out and feeling calm about the impending ecological collapse that will surely wipe out our irresponsible and rapacious species.

But Become Desert immediately suspends the listener midheaven. Instead of surfing the wave, you hover in the air like a soaring hawk and observe the play of light and shadow along canyon walls. And instead of swelling and subsiding, the notes seem to dim and brighten. Or at least that’s how I felt when that bell sounded.

After the initial bell, the music slowly imposed a desert landscape onto the concert hall, as if it had always been there, lying just beneath the skin of the visible. The music hung out in this “emerging desert landscape” zone for a while until a strong shaft of light from the trumpets suddenly brightened the scene. Trombones added depth to the landscape—they were the shadows pooling in the basin of the canyon, the dark clouds threatening the horizon. Four harps introduced a watery warmth, sort of like vapor steaming up from some distant oasis. And then a chorus of human voices came out of nowhere, singing the word “luz,” which is Spanish for “light.”

This was a little funny to me, if only because so many critics pointed out how unpopulated Adams’s musical landscapes sound. And now here we’ve got a whole chorale singing in the stands. Over the phone, Adams told me he’d recently fallen in love with the human voice again. Plus, his inclusion of the “vox clamantis in deserto” (“a voice crying out in the desert”), he said, quoting a line from John Gower’s Latin poem, perfectly aligned with a line from the Octavio Paz poem that inspired the whole composition, “Close your eyes and listen to the singing of the light,” and so he had to do it.

Adams trying to become his own desert.
Adams demonstrates how best to listen to the singing of the light. James Holt

Anyway, back in my own personal desert at Benaroya Hall, all five instrument groups were going full steam, each singing out their own waves of sound at different tempos. At this point I started to realize the genius of breaking up the orchestra and staggering their swells. This way, instead of big swells and crashes, Adams gets little wisps of lucent rivulets streaming through the air. It’s the sonic equivalent of being surrounded by photons. You can’t possibly track the rise and fall of every wave, but you can catch little flits of musical activity here and there. If you don’t completely bliss out in a pure meditative desert vision state, you want to kinda turn your head around a lot and try to catch the little light particles as they whizz by you.

That's exactly the kind of thing Adams says he’s going for. “The space is saturated with sound, but each one of those waves is a new point of interest, a new call to attention,” he said.

But it's also about “hearing light and kind of disappearing,” he said. “This is what I always want for myself when I’m composing, when I’m hearing the music, and what I want from you, the listener: that experience of finding yourself in a strange, beautiful, somewhat scary place and then losing yourself.”

Morlot agrees: “If this is the first time you’re coming to this kind of music: don’t resist it, surrender,” he said. “I’m not saying close your eyes and fall asleep! I’m saying don’t try to find the narrative. Surrender to the sound and the experience—don’t try to analyze the chords that are happening.”

When I wasn’t looking around for stray streams of light, the music’s effect on me, even in its nascent state, was palpable. You know the way people look when they’re about to be beamed up on Star Trek, as if their bodies are about to disintegrate into light? That’s kinda how it felt to Become Desert, except it felt like I was beaming up for about 40 minutes.

This experience is cool for the audience members, but not so cool for the musicians. During breaks in the rehearsal, I asked some of them how it felt to play the piece.

“There is some music that is fun to play, but not so fun to hear. There is other music that is fun to hear, but not so fun to play. This one is more like that,” a string player said. “It’s painful,” he added later in a light-hearted way. Another string player said he felt like his arm was hallucinating.

Adams told me he hears this complaint a lot, and he completely understands. “I’m horrible to musicians,” he said. “I feel their pain, and I just try to—I have faith that they’ll work through it, that they understand because they are real musicians. I think we all know—all those great musicians, and that guy on the podium, and the guy who wrote the score—we know music is a gift and blessing, and that we’ve dedicated our lives to serving it. The players get that.”

Adams, Morlot, and the orchestra having a good ol time.
Adams, Morlot, and the orchestra having a good ol time. James Holt

After the rehearsal, I followed Adams, his assistant, Morlot, and composer-in-residence Alexandra Gardner back to the music director’s office. It was about 10 p.m. and everyone was pretty tired. “Okay, where’s the cognac,” Morlot said, smiling. He handed out little bottles of water, which were blessings. (The concert hall dries you out!)

Morlot spread the score out on a piano top and worked with the assistant to smooth out some aberrations in it. Adams propped himself up on Morlot’s desk and rested for a moment. After a while, the composer and conductor began to talk openly and easily about what needed to change. The two agreed on several things—softer mallets, different positions for some of the instruments, the importance of maintaining a consistent pace, and the difficulty of that.

There was a minor disagreement about how to make the trombones sound darker at a certain moment. Morlot wanted to make them swell their note instead of blast it. Adams wanted the musicians to remove their mutes. Morlot was wary of removing the mutes because high sounds reverberate so loudly in the concert hall, and because his trombones are already pretty enthusiastic. Adams said they could swell and remove the mutes at the same time. Finally, they both agreed that they’d have to hear all the options, and because they showed so much admiration and respect for one another during this creative process, I got the feeling that they’d both feel the same way once they heard them.

Over the phone, Adams told me he “couldn’t do this without Ludo [Morlot]” and that he couldn’t imagine premiering the piece with any other orchestra.

“What we’re doing is completely new. It’s challenging. It’s a little bit disorienting for everyone involved,” Adams said. “And professional symphony orchestras are not really, on the whole, great laboratories for musical experimentation. But there is something very special happening here in Seattle these past few years. And it has everything to do with the wonderful musicians in this orchestra and the Frenchman on the podium. There is no pretension, there’s no mystique of the maestro. Ludo is there to serve the music, he’s intellectually curious, he’s remarkably flexible and broad in his musical experience. These are my people.”

Morlot said Adams was kind for saying that, and added that there does seem to be some kind of special connection between the Seattle Symphony and Adams’s music—beyond the fact that they helped each other win Grammys, and beyond the fact that Taylor Swift likes them both.

“The great thing about this music and the Seattle Symphony is we share that kind of environment, the soundscapes and landscapes John is writing about. That’s why they might be more sensitive to it than the Chicago Symphony, say. It resonates into what we live daily in the environment of the Pacific Northwest.”

Become Desert premieres tonight and runs through Saturday at Benaroya Hall. Then the orchestra goes on the road, hitting up Palm Desert, California on April 4th; Las Vegas, Nevada on April 5th; and then UC Berkeley on April 7th and 8th.