Become Ocean, composed by John Luther Adams, commissioned and performed by Ludovic Morlot, music director, Seattle Symphony Orchestra, won the Grammy for best contemporary classical composition, February 2015.
Indeed, Mr. Adams also won the Pulitzer Prize for the same haunting orchestral piece, suggesting a “relentless tidal surge, evoking thoughts of melting polar ice and rising sea levels,” (2014 Pulitzer Prize Winners, Music.)
Thus and so, global warming gains recognition within a vanguard of artistic creation, on stage in orchestral performance, the Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s first-ever Grammy, 2015.
John Luther Adams (Fairbanks, Alaska) has long been inspired by the expansive, untamed landscape of Alaska. He previously composed Songbirdsongs (1974-80) a nine-piece movement, Night Peace, Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing, and In the White Silence. This fall he’s scheduled to be awarded the William Schuman Award, Columbia University School of Arts. Fittingly, his commitment to the environment, after graduating from Cal Arts, led him to move to the state of Alaska in 1975.
As he discovered, over time, Alaska’s massive frontier imposes itself on the mindset, especially for an artist, as its deteriorating coastal communities are forced to move inland, and climatic glacial falloffs, like the massive Columbia Glacier, which, according to NASA, since the 1980s, has lost half of its thickness, and deteriorating permafrost, spewing methane into the atmosphere, as it also threatens major ground disruption for fossil fuel pipelines, roads, infrastructure, and as well, its ever-increasing temperatures; Alaskan temperature has increased by an average of 3.4F (6F during winters) the past 50 years, more than twice the national average, all of which combines to influence artists like John Luther Adams, whose musicality has now bestowed a pristine “sense of sound” to the world of global warming, like nobody has done before, whilst winning prestigious honors.
The “program notes” for performances of Become Ocean state: “Life on this earth first emerged in the sea. As the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again, we might quite literally ‘become ocean.’”
Adam’s compositional genius brings forth a bold, vigorous, mindful imagery, above and beyond the spoken word, into a realm of genuine sensations of the physicality of the planet. Alex Ross of The New Yorker referred to Become Ocean as “the loveliest apocalypse in musical history.”
Living in Alaska inspired Adams to think and compose like nobody else. Alaska, a state that has been/was so much a part of the great deep freeze of northern latitudes, nowadays sinks and thaws at unprecedented rates. According to Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado: It’s already emitting its own heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane, but the amount will skyrocket in the next 20 to 30 years. Ted Schuur, a permafrost expert at University of Florida, says, “You can see and hear the ice melting.”
Wherefrom the heat? Alaska’s heat is not from Sun Cycle 24, which is “… the most anemic in 100 years,” Mike Wall, senior writer, Sun’s Current Solar Activity Cycle is Weakest in a Century, Space.com, Dec. 11, 2013. “None of us alive have ever seen such a weak cycle,” commenced Jan. 4, 2008.
Therefore, knowing that 2014 was the hottest year on record, ipso facto, Sun Cycle 24, with all of its weakness, apparently is not cooling the planet. However, “deniers” of anthropogenic global warming claim the Solar Cycle is cooling the planet; it’s their newest craze, maybe, hopefully, they are correct. If so, glory hallelujah! As the pale Sun Cycle 24 saves the day from more extreme global warming. According to the National Climatic Data Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “A record warm December sealed the deal to make 2014 the warmest year across the world’s land and ocean surfaces since record keeping began in 1880.”
Not only that, Alaska is heating up despite the cyclical Pacific Decadal Oscillation (“PDO”) pattern, which simply moves heat around, now in a “cooling phase,” ever since the early 2000s. As it goes, by all appearances, Alaska can thank the PDO “cooling phase” and the “anemic” Sun Cycle 24 for sparing what otherwise could be considerably more serious, dangerous temperature increases, turning Alaska into swampy wetlands accompanied by horrendous repercussions, a self-perpetuating disaster in the making, comprising a list of catastrophes way too long to elaborate herein.
However, in the real factual world of science, the IPCC concludes that solar variability is not the cause of global warming over the past 50 years, which, as well, question marks the “cooling business” as recently expounded by the American “denier crowd.”
Regardless, human-caused greenhouse gases like CO2, burning fossil fuels, primarily cause global warming. The evidence is overwhelmingly inconvertible, as seen throughout paleoclimatic studies of the five prior extinction events during the course of Earth’s 4.54 billion years.
Suffice it to say, if Alaska is “the canary,” then the 48 contiguous states need to get off fossil fuels, yesterday.
Music, Writing, Film, Design, Painting & Global Warming
The threat to lifestyles, and life itself, brought to the fore by global warming is rapidly gaining recognition within the cultural pathways of American society. Indeed, the arts have the wherewithal to change public moods, attitudes, and cultural values. That which science misses, art replaces, as for example, communicating with the public, science has no images or succinct messages whereas art brings imagery to the forefront, thousands of silent words that endure.
As for one example of admirable attributes behind art’s worldly reach, Cape Farewell, University of the Arts Chelsea/London, started by artist David Buckland in 2001, works with artists, designers, filmmakers, writers, and other creative endeavors to blend science with art: “One salient image, a novel or song can speak louder than volumes of scientific data and engage the public’s imagination in an immediate way,” (www.capefarewell.com).
Cape Farewell’s science-based artwork is driven by a single subject matter, climate change, and their well-poised organization exhibits throughout the world: “We have worked with visual artists, sound artists, musicians, comedians, writers, film-makers, performance artists, journalists, sculptors, novelists, painters, cartoonists, ceramicists and comedians…We work with scientists and organizations across the UK and internationally to ensure that our work is founded in science. Partner organizations include University College London, Environmental Change Institute Oxford University, National Oceanography Centre, Scottish Association of Marine Scientists and British Geological Survey.”
Remarkably and expeditiously, Cape Farewell has pioneered a worldwide interdisciplinary methodology of artists and scientists, working/synthesizing together to impact the world’s opinion about climate change by utilizing humankind’s oldest form of expression, art.
Along those lines, art blends with science in remarkable fashion, enlivening the subject matter of planetary stress beyond words and formulas of scientists, which are often times beyond the limitations of lay audiences. Art ‘breaks the ice’ in ways science cannot.
Indeed, it is true that nothing mirrors society, shapes society, like the reflective, introspective power of art. It evokes an exuberant vision of who we are, what we are, whether it be film, painting, sculpture, or a novel, society is the mosaic upon which the great impulse to create originates. Already, John Luther Adams’ mysterious, bold, powerful composition Become Ocean has titillated the imagination of like-minded artists, and way, way beyond.
Postscript: “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own,” Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org