The sound beyond silence

In one of his discourses, Ajahn Sumedho, a teacher in the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition, tells how:
'I notice the kind of background sound which I refer to as the sound of silence, a resonating, vibratory sound. Is it a sound? Whatever it is - "sound" isn't quite accurate - I begin to notice a high-pitched kind of vibration that is always present. Once you recognise this point - at which one is fully open, receptive; when you recognize this sound of silence your thinking process stops - you can rest in this stream. It's like a stream. It isn't like ordinary sound that rises and ceases or begins and ends. The sound of the bell has a beginning and ending, and so does the sound of birds, the sound of my voice. But behind that, behind all other sounds, is this sound of silence. It's not that we create it or that it comes and goes - in my exploraration of this it's always present, it's just there whether I notice it or not. So once I notice it - and it sustains itself, I don't have to create it - then it's just present, pure presence. '
His search for the elusive sound beyond silence took John Cage through the aleatoric maze that led to 4' 33". In this, the absence of any conventional music defines the sound beyond silence as the chance ambient noises that form the background to our quotidian existence. 4' 33" is, quite rightly, revered as a milestone of contemporary music. But an acceptance that the sound beyond silence - the sonic foundation of our existence - is no more than intrusive chance noise, is an essentially nihilistic viewpoint.

John Cage, and others in his circle including Morton Feldman, influenced the development of John Luther Adams as a composer. But Adams has diverged in an important way from the path that led Cage to 4' 33". In his latest work Become Ocean, Adams proposes that the sound beyond silence is not chance background noise, but the resonating, vibratory sound - Nadha Brahma - that Ajahn Sumedho and other clairaudients hear. Nada Brahma is a Sanskrit expression with roots in Indian Vedic spirituality. It is most commonly translated as 'sound is God', but it also has the wider meanings of 'sound is the world', 'sound is joy', and the ultimate 'sound is the central concept'. This theme is developed in the Upanishads which tell us that the essence of sacred knowledge is sound, and the essence of sound is the resonating, vibratory OM.

John Luther Adams has lived for years in the wilderness of Alaska. His earlier work Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing takes its title from a fourteenth Century mystical Christian text which reflects the teachings of contemplative traditions throughout the world, including the Christian, Judaic, Buddhist, Sufi, and Native American traditions. A preoccupation with fusing sight and sound led Adams to creating installations such as The Place Where You to Listen which pay homage to Wagner's concept of Gesamtkunstwerk - total artwork. In his note for Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing. the composer describes how "the essence of the contemplative experience is voluntary surrender, purposeful immersion in the fullness of a presence far larger than ourselves". Writing with an eloquence that I can only aspire to, Alex Ross suggests that Become Ocean "may be the loveliest apocalypse in musical history", and goes on to describe how:

An aching suspension of D-sharp against an E-major triad recalls the final measures of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony. And the low, dark choirs of brass conjure Wagner. Anyone who has secretly wished, during the swirling stasis that opens the “Ring,” that the music would go on like that forever will find much to love in “Become Ocean.”
Like everything that breaks new ground, Become Ocean has its detractors, with a guest blogger On An Overgrown Path describing it as "tediously long". Which is not a problem: because, as I have learned in my advancing years, there are many different truths for many different people. Become Ocean won the 2013 Pulitzer Music Prize from a shortlist that included the other John Adams' 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary', and has been generously praised in the US music press. But here in the UK, where new music is only covered by the self-styled cultural commentators when it is linked to celebrity, sex or scandal, a work that has the potential to repeat the market impact of Nonesuch's 1992 CD of Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony, has, predictably, been ignored.

To paraphrase Ajahn Sumedho, whatever Become Ocean is, describing it as 'sound' isn't quite accurate. Like Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, this ineffable music speaks of voluntary surrender and purposeful immersion in a presence far larger than ourselves. It is a work of great beauty, great power, and great importance. It is also a work of our time, and the pioneering recording by the Seattle Symphony - which commissioned the work - under Ludovic Morlot on the independent Cantaloupe Music label acknowledges that new audiences want their music up close and personal. Become Ocean comes on two discs. One is an excellent concert hall balance complete with fulsome bass in conventional two-channel sound, while the other disc presents the work in surround sound. But rather than using the almost extinct multi-channel SACD format, the surround disc is encoded to the ubiquitous 5.1 DVD standard and is coupled with pulsating with proto-Gesamtkunstwerk images.

By an auspicious coincidence I had just finished installing a home cinema system for our daughter when Become Ocean arrived, and I was able to audition it in surround sound. In his youth John Luther Adams was a drummer in a rock band and a fan of Frank Zappa. If Max Hole and the other rock music moguls cum classical music revisionists really want to discover how to win new audiences, all they need do is turn up the volume and listen to Become Ocean's low, dark brass choirs in up close and personal surround sound.

The complete recording of Become Ocean can be auditioned here. No review samples involved in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Anonymous said…
Good job placing “Become Ocean” within the context of contemporary music (20th century and beyond). If only a few auteurs listen to the aleatory of Cage and Feldman, and indeed, the sound of that music defies recognition, the first wave of minimalists including Riley, Glass, Reich, and Young captured a wide audience that still pay attention to new works. The disappearance of numerous musical elements was often oddly balanced by furiously shimmering surfaces. In “Become Ocean,” such activity is submerged, if you will, under an oceanic calm that admits no disturbances but continues nonetheless to shift and move. Thus, the music doesn’t beg listening so much as experiencing, however loosely that may be determined. My experience of the recording was two-channel stereo, and I found it far less engaging than, say, the similar exploration of tone and color of Sibelius’ seventh symphony, which dispenses with less. Perhaps an audience for "Become Ocean" is out there, but it remains to be seen.

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