Sounds of the Infinite

What does infinity sound like?

From  Wikimedia Commons , the free media repository.

From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.

Flickr user  Josh Staiger .

Flickr user Josh Staiger.

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.

Annotation of Alex Ross' analytical illustration. The three waves of the instrumental sections peak simultaneously, creating a grand crescendo, which occurs in the piece three times.

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:

Many Streams, One Ocean

Each of the religious traditions, both major and minor, might be thought of as separate streams. Some of these streams are deeper, some are longer, and some flow more rapidly. Most of them have twists and turns although some more than other. Most of the streams at some point flow into a river and these rivers may connect with other rivers. In time, each stream, some of which are now rivers, reach the ocean. Early on in our journeys, it might be helpful to visit different streams, to dip our toe in and perhaps take a small drink. We might even be led to wade into it to some extent. However, although these steps may give us a basic sense of that stream, they do not really take us anywhere.

At some point, it might be wise to choose one of the streams and to give it our full attention. At first, we might be cautious and inclined to just take a larger drink or perhaps wade further into its shallows. But again, this will not take us anywhere. Eventually, we need to commit ourselves to that stream, to immerse ourselves into it fully. We must then allow it to carry us forward through its twists and turns, slow spots, waterfalls, whatever may come. If we do this, and allow ourselves to be carried forward, we may find that one day we have arrived at the OCEAN. When we finally reach the OCEAN, we experience a vastness and a depth which none of the streams could begin to convey to us.
— November 2012, Radnor Monthly Meeting Newsletter

Edit: Three sine waves added together is actually not one big sine wave! It looks something like this:

Green is strings, red is brass, blue is winds, and black is the three sine waves added together.