When we hear the new, we tend to reach for the old. It helps us orient ourselves, brings the past into the present, and projects it into the future. It aids with making sense of the now, filtering it through our own listening histories and preferences. Over the course of John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, rightly awarded this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music and here receiving its Carnegie Hall première with the Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, I thought more and more of another composer for whom music could be political, perhaps more than political: Richard Wagner.

The politics is different of course. Wagner was interested in community, capital, and redemption, Adams is interested in ecology (although Wagner, too, was concerned with nature, as the Ring and Parsifal make clear). So perhaps it was music, rather than worldly goals, that first made the connection. Adams opens his piece in the depths, with low strings, heavy brass, and clusters of winds. It’s a modern day Rheingold if ever there was one, possessed of an inexorable power born of oceanic weight rather than fluvial rush. From then on, it was two sections of Wagner’s texts, rather than his music, that resonated with me anew.

The first was that perplexing announcement of Gurnemanz at the height of Parsifal: “Here time becomes space” (“Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit”). In Become Ocean, time utterly dissolves. The piece is not necessarily radical in terms of structure, instrumentation or theme. Nature, and especially humanity’s relationship to it, has been the subject of countless works, from Strauss’s Eine Alpensinfonie to Smetana’s Má Vlast, as well as the two other works on this programme, Varèse’s starkly lonesome Déserts and the watercolours of Debussy’s La Mer. In his attempt to blend music and natural process, Adams constructs the piece from churning repetitions (just like the currents of water), changing slowly over time as sections of the orchestra play at different speeds, moving steadily through colours, twinkling up high in the harps but always rooted in a sense of immovability in the largely static basses beneath. This triumph of fluid dynamics reimagined as music is not short, at nearly three-quarters of an hour, but that it ends at all is an unwelcome surprise.

Where Become Ocean is more experimental, even radical, is in the way it redefines the relationship between listener and composition, how it reassesses what music can do, and why it can do it. It is less about analysis and feeling, what Wagner called the “synthesising intellect”, and more about immersion, about reconceiving sound as distance, notes on a page transformed into physical (and more than just aural) manifestations. In Become Ocean we are invited, if we possess the concentration and the will, to do exactly that, to feel beyond ourselves, to feel connected to what we cannot actually be, to become ocean. We at times seem on the surface of the water, at times in it, and even of it.

At their best, new ways of composing, however much they rely on the old, sometimes require new ways of listening. One becomes newly aware of sound as a physical quality, of the relationship of one’s body to it, how one’s heart and lungs react to it, accommodate it. The cresting of the piece’s three waves (tides, really) shock the stomach and, particularly in the middle case, the hairs on one’s neck. And so I thought, halfway through, of Isolde’s transfiguration at the end of Tristan und Isolde, when she sings of how sounds are transforming her, of how music has become audible, tangible, drinkable, even visible. Music kills Isolde in the end. Adams’ point is that, through music, we can (re)connect in a less political setting than daily life to the nature that we have done so much to change. Not for nothing does Become Ocean feel more tragic as it goes on, as its palindromic structure reverses and the tides head, altered and weighed down with new sediment, back home.

Carnegie Hall’s “Spring for Music” season, unfathomably now in its last iteration, has always treated orchestras on equal terms. It focuses on what orchestras play rather than how they play it. Few other arenas could tolerate a programme as brave as this, and as a musical community it is simply unacceptable that we cannot find a way to allow it to continue. That the second half of Ludovic Morlot’s programme came off so well was testament to that.

Varèse’s Déserts (1950-1954) represents another generation’s experimentation with sound and its purposes, full of human alienation from the deserts of its title – not just sandy, but snowy, mountainous, urban, and mental. Morlot drew precise playing from the winds and brass of the Seattle Symphony, and remarkably talkative work from his six percussionists. So remarkable was their playing that this work of “mystery and essential solitude”, as Varèse put it, was rendered funny, teeming with life, and almost charming. 

After Adams and Varèse, Debussy was never going to sound progressive in quite the same way. Perhaps it was interpretive choice, perhaps just the way that my ears had been recalibrated by those works, but Morlot seemed to make these three sketches much more deliberate than usual, less painterly and more symphonic. So “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” felt relentless, “Jeux de vagues” less playful and more powerful, and “Dialogue du vent et de la mer” very rhetorical, in a similar way as the Varèse had been. Lucid textures and thoughtful playing suggested that this is an orchestra as at home in the old as the new. Nothing more could be asked.