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Terrible Noise: A symphonic desertscape to dwell in

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Is the desert more intimidating than the ocean?

I’ve thought about this occasionally, growing up in one and visiting the other, in a state so defined by both. Deserts at least have visual boundaries and variations: mountains and hills, salt flats, the traces of ancient rivers. The ocean, at least when the weather is calm, presents an unfathomably vast expanse of uniformity (to the untrained eye).

Herman Melville wrote that “when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it.” The threats of the desert are more apparent, if only because as land animals we are by nature attuned to them. We spend our seaside vacations lost in pleasant idylls, while a trip to the Sonora or Monument Valley at least conjures images of vigorous activity.

And yet the desert is also serene, hushed but not silent, and very full of beauty. A walk alone in the desert is an invitation to thought and deep contemplation in a way that swimming in the sea is not.

I’m not sure the composer John Luther Adams would agree with my pop-psych analysis, but his new piece, “Become Desert,” released last month by the Seattle Symphony and available in all the usual places, sounds at least sympathetic to it. Summing up a 40-minute symphony in a space usually reserved for praise of the three-minute pop song is beyond my ability, but I don’t think I am misleading you by suggesting that “spacious horizons” and “quiet rustlings of wind through sagebrush” might come to mind as you listen.

Whereas its watery predecessor, “Become Ocean,” literally swells and ebbs like the tide, “Desert’s” link between subject matter and form is more varied. Individual instruments stand out. It chimes and rings as it rolls along, and it’s easy to get lost in; I was listening to it on my lunch break and was surprised every time I looked at the time remaining, from both ends. I thought it had been playing for a long time when only 10 minutes had passed, and yet when I looked again, seemingly only moments later, it was almost over. Perhaps evidence that the desert has secrets of its own.

Sometimes I feel less receptive to more ambient music, but I did feel like this piece was often gently nudging me forward in its own way, not allowing my mind to completely wander unmoored.

• Simon Sizer is the legal and obituary clerk at the Yakima Herald-Republic. He’s constantly prattling on about music, so we gave him this column.

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