What does infinity sound like?
Visual interpretations of the infinite aren't so uncommon.
Infinity may be glimpsed between two parallel mirrors, within the lushly-starred sky, or through the fractals that permeate our natural world. But to hear infinity, what would that be like? Behold John Luther Adams' Become Ocean. When I listen to this piece, I somehow find it equally possible to imagine either the vastness of outer space or the vast inner space of meditation. There is a paradox here - that the outward and the inward may be expressed by the same sounds. Become Ocean allows us to glimpse the ever retreating cusp of the infinite. Listen to it and see if you can't hear both in its waves of sound.
Sounds Over Time
So how does a composer express this? How is John Luther Adams structuring our perception of time as we hear this piece? Here, form is the key. It is a palindrome: after 21 minutes, the piece reverses. Over 42 minutes, it rises and falls three times. NY Times music critic Alex Ross illustrates the structure, summarizing it thus:
The three climaxes of the work happen when the crescendos of the wind, brass, and string groups coincide, in the passages leading up to Bars 106, 316, and 526. There are corresponding triple-p moments of repose, at Bars 211 and 421. The chart shows only the first half of the piece; because the entire score is a palindrome, the second half follows the same structure in reverse.
To help visualize the structure he describes, I've traced over Alex Ross' notes to show the loudest and quietest moments in each instrument section. The small blue line are the winds. The red line is the brass. The green line is the string section.
If the shape of those waves look familiar, you may recall them from science class! It's the shape of a sine wave, the shape sound energy takes as it propagates through space. A pure sine wave generates the simplest vibration and sounds like this:
The piece comes full circle, taking its form from the essential form of the medium: sound. But not only does energy propagate through air as sound, it also propagates through water this way as waves.
More Than Waves
Around the same time I encountered Become Ocean, I found an essay by a member of my Quaker meeting who had just passed away. His essay added a new dimension to John Luther Adams' work for me. It contains a message that applies not only to spiritual practice, but to love, and perhaps even to the many streams of contemporary classical music.
I am passing along an abbreviated version:
Edit: Three sine waves added together is actually not one big sine wave! It looks something like this: