Every now and then an instrumental composition arises that practically calls out to be supplemented with visual stimuli. I am not talking about works that accompany activity on a stage (as in opera or ballet) or a screen (as in movie soundtracks). I am talking about a concert experience that engages the eye as much as the ears. One of the best examples is probably Benjamin Britten’s Opus 34 “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” which was originally commissioned for an educational documentary about the instruments of the orchestra but manages quite well in the concert hall where members of the audience can easily view “where the action is” as the variations for different instruments unfold.
“Become Ocean,” which won John Luther Adams the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music, has the potential to be such a composition. Many of Adams’ works seem to have been conceived as reflections on his natural surroundings in environments such as Alaska. However, “Become Ocean” was conceived on a more global scale, best expressed by the text that was included with the album of this composition performed by the Seattle Symphony conducted by Ludovic Morlot:
Life on this earth first emerged from the sea.Today, as the polar ice melts and sea level rises,we humans face the prospect that we may once again,quite literally, become ocean.
When I wrote about this recording for Examiner.com back in November of 2014, I approached the music as a more extended approach to a technique that Arnold Schoenberg had explored in 1909, which he called “Chord-Colors.” When Leonard Slatkin preceded his performance of “Become Ocean” with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) in February of 2019, he began by emphasizing the significance of auditory coloration in the score, perhaps overshadowing the more familiar factors of what we tend to recognize as themes. Slatkin’s performance was given video documentation, and that video is now part of the DSO Replay archive on the DSO Web site.
Leonard Slatkin’s “visual design” for his performance of “Become Ocean” (from the Web page for the performance being discussed)
For that performance Slatkin rearranged seating in such a way that different sections could be highlighted through lighting of different colors. The strings occupied the front. Behind them, to the left, were the winds, mirrored by the brass on the right. Two harps sat “at the boundary” between the strings and these two other sections, while the rear was occupied by the percussion.
I would like to believe that between the geometry of the layout and the lighting design, those in Orchestra Hall could follow all the activity churning behind Adams’ rhetoric of gradually changing sonorities and dynamics. Sadly, being there seems to have been the only way to appreciate the rich relationships between what one could see and the associated acts of listening. Those that decide to sample the resulting video are likely to find themselves somewhere along the scale between confusion and frustration.
The good news is that Slatkin’s conducting was clearly sensitive to the physical layout of all the factors that contribute to the overall sonorities. Between his conducting and no end of attentive balancing by his audio engineers, one could not only appreciate the “progression” of those “Chord-Colors” but also discern the “mixture of components” producing each of those colors. Sadly, such discernment would have been better facilitated by keeping one’s eyes closed. More often than not, the camera cues were looking in the wrong place, often observing musicians just sitting there and sometimes looking at a performer relegated below the range of audibility by the audio team. Particularly frustrating was the handling of the two harps, each of which had a distinctively different part to play; and almost always the camera was looking at the wrong one!
Thus, while Slatkin’s opening remarks could not have been more informative and while his overall management of the score was equally impressive, particularly in the few episodes of major shifts in dynamics, where the video is concerned, this is a performance that is best heard without being seen.