RADICAL HARMONY John Adams

Why you should care
about the modern composer’s new autobiography.

 

BY CHRISTIAN KIEFER

 

 

Classical music is screwed. At some point in the not so distant
past, we Westerners apparently decided en masse that the door was closed on
classical composition, that instead of fostering new works that extended the
range of our long heritage, we should instead channel the energy of our
musicians into endlessly repeating performances of the old masters. And so we
have the newest, hundredth or thousandth recordings of Bach or Beethoven or
Mozart, with a few sprinklings of more recent Tchaikovsky or Debussy thrown in
for good measure. Beyond that, we enter a kind of no man’s land where our
cultural knowledge falls of short. We might know Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian
Spring,” maybe have heard of his “Billy the Kid,” but the distance from Debussy
and Copland and thence from Copland to the present day tends to be cultural
terra incognita.

 

Classical music listeners are not the only ones to blame
here. Classical composition took a staggeringly huge turn in the mid-20th century, incorporation elements of sound that for preceding generations would
have been anathema. Schoenberg’s serialism, a novel use of a twelve note
sequence, was academically interesting but many audiences today still find it
to be difficult going. It seems that atonality, in all its various guises, was
interesting on paper but, at least to mainstream audiences, it was hardly
interesting listening.

 

This is not to suggest that sound must necessarily reach
mainstream audiences to be successful-if such were the case than the measure of
quality would be the latest disturbingly sexy sixteen year old pop diva-but
rather that classical music managed to lose interest in itself as a developing
genre of music. Times have indeed changed and perhaps there no longer remains a
cultural slot for “classical superstar” in the way that Mozart and Beethoven
and others have occupied such a cultural position. Perhaps the slot was for
“music superstar” all along and so that the aforementioned disturbingly sexy
sixteen year old pop diva is taking up a cultural position that, in a previous
generation, might have been occupied by John Adams.

 

That’s John Adams the composer, not John Adams our second
President. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of him. Even if I tell you that
John Adams is quite possibly the most famous American composer actively working
today, you still shouldn’t feel particularly distressed. You’re still the hipster
that you thought you were before reading this. It’s not you who have failed;
it’s your culture on the whole, a culture that celebrates American Idol
contestants and elevates their recorded output into chart-topping status while
by and large ignoring the latest string quartet, chamber symphony, or opera.

 

So you may not know who John Adams is, but you should and
now there are a couple of good places to start: his recently published
autobiography, Hallelujah Junction:
Composing an American Life
, and an accompanying CD of the same name from
Nonesuch. Taken together, these two works offer a rather sweeping entrée into
Adams lifework, his successes and failures, leaving the reader, and listener,
with a greater appreciation of his role in contemporary music and, one hopes, a
notion of the role that contemporary classical music can have in our culture.

 

To state that Adams’ career has been a successful one would
be something of an understatement. He has premiered works with the biggest
symphonies, has been big news in the arts sections of big newspapers, has
worked with the best musicians, and is signed to a record label (Nonesuch) far
hipper than the stogy old mainstay Deutsche Grammaphon. His upbringing and pedigree
is serious Yankee stuff, including a degree from Harvard, and he acknowledges
receiving stinging criticism that he grew up “privileged.” But Adams’ actual
development as a musician comes less from that initial training but rather from
more left-of-classical-center sources: transcribing jazz for practice,
listening to electronica (Aphex Twin gets a name check in the book), and
pondering what the previous generation had failed to do. “Atonality…rather than
being the Promised Land so confidently predicted by Schoenberg, Boulez, and
Babbitt, proved to be nothing of the kind,” Adams writes, ruminating over his
early decision to move away from the atonality that had been the modus operandi
of the preceding generation. “Could it be…that tonality was indeed a fundamental
organizational principle, and that our brains are, in a sense, hardwired to
seek out and find a musical center of gravity in any complex of pitches?”
Indeed it could be and it is.

 

The fact that Adams went (mostly) “tonal” did not mean a
return to some stodgy old version of composition either. Adams was fascinated
by many of the developments of atonalism, the avant-garde, electronic music,
and minimalism, much of which shows up in his work in a variety of ways. His
first (of several) breakthrough pieces included Shaker Loops (1978), a buzzing, circling honeybee of interlocking
strings, and Harmonium (1981), a
large-scale work for chorus. Taken as a pair, these two works provide the twin
nuggets for much that would come after. Adams
has been particularly enamored of the kind of giant vocalizing that Harmonium centers on: huge syllables
breaking unpredictably with relatively narrow harmonic range. This is a
technique that he would use all the way through the more recent opera, Doctor Atomic, a musical presentation of
the development of the atomic bomb and the various moral repercussions and
reverberations leading up to the first detonation.

 

Adams is successful precisely because he knows his
limitations and his internal sonic landscape. As such he is not a radical
innovator-not in the sense of John Zorn or John Coltrane-but this does not mean
he’s a less important cultural figure. Adams’ innovations are twofold. First,
by adopting “new music” materials-atonality, electronic music, minimalism-and
bringing them into a recognizable, tonal form, Adams helps to bridge the gap
between complex and difficult modern material and the more familiar (to
contemporary audiences) classical works. Second, he has breathed new life into
forms that were all but dead to contemporary composers-most importantly the
opera.

 

Of course, there have been plenty of missteps along the way,
or at least that’s what our critics would say. Take for example, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw
the Sky
, a piece Adams describes as a “multivectored love story, an
‘earthquake/romance,’ situated in the ethnic bouillabaisse of urban Los Angeles.” The piece
centers on inner-city life and its various intersections-black, white,
Hispanic, hetero- and homosexual-and indeed it is in grappling with these
intersections that Adams found himself on the wrong side of the critical fence.
“The more conservative critics saw the show as an affront to moral decency, an
example of the typically liberal romanticization of criminals and scofflaws,” Adams writes in Hallelujah
Junction
. I Was Looking at the
Ceiling…
is indeed sometimes difficult to intellectualize when one ponders
Adams’ Yankee upbringing, his life of privilege, the fact that he did not grow
up Hispanic in East Los Angeles, etc. and perhaps this was more obvious and
onerous when the staged version was in full swing. It is worth noting that I Was Looking at the Ceiling… is
represented on the recent Hallelujah
Junction
CD, but only in a single four minute except, perhaps an acknowledgement
on Adams’ part that it was something of a failed experiment.

 

It’s a shame, because in many ways the work that made up I Was Looking at the Ceiling… is a great
entrée point into Adams’ works, particularly
for a listener more heavily schooled in rock and pop music than contemporary
classical. This is Adams grappling with song form, trying to boil down the
force and direction of his music into four, and five, and six minute pieces.
Sometimes he is successful in doing so and sometimes it is less effective, but
as a whole I Was Looking at the Ceiling… does
have a kind of shine to it, particularly in its well-integrated incorporation
of minimalistic analog synth pulses and more traditionally “classical”
instrumentation.

 

The potential criticism that Adams is adopting a kind of
liberal multicultural perspective is one that has increasingly dogged him in
recent years, and it is instructive to hear the composer’s own words on this
issue. “Multiculturalism was the easiest of knee-jerk accusations to hurl at an
artist who revealed (or reveled in) influences outside his or her supposedly
prescribed social setting,” Adams writes. “Of course I am cognizant of how, in
the hands of an aggressive ‘dominant culture’ like ours, any indigenous art for
risks dilution, distortion, or even possible annihilation.” Adam goes on to
claim, rightfully so, that “appropriation is in fact the norm among societies.”

 

 

“Since
earliest recorded time one culture has intermingled its art with that of
another, and that intermingling by its very nature must be subject to
misapprehension, misappropriation, even misuse. Nevertheless,
cross-fertilization more often than not is a willing, even enthusiastic act of
mutual sharing. Like the strengthening of a species through genetic variety, a
crossbreeding off artistic traditions, creatively engaged, can produce robust
new genres.”

 

 

The easiest response is that Adams has not produced any
“robust new genres,” but such a response would be missing the point. The point,
such as it is, is to critique the art rather than the writer and that centering
on Adams’ particular pedigree as part of some
kind of artistic hegemony is beside that point. As Adams’
notes, “Some of the most shockingly original leaps in stylistic evolution have
come about when a profoundly original artist like a Debussy or a Picasso or a
Stravinsky raids an alien culture for his own selfish ends.” In the end, one
can’t help but applaud Adams’ defense of the ideal of multiculturalism, a defense
that can equally apply to his own work as it can to the work of Philip Glass,
The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, or Eminem, all of whom have crossed
cultural and/or ethnic borders in the creation of art.

 

But Adams is better known as a revitalizer than as a
plunderer of “world music.” This is particularly true of his work in opera, a
form he has returned to repeatedly. The mainstream press, if it has ever cared
much for him, turned its collective eyes in a big way to his Nixon in China, an opera that more or
less revitalized the genre and gave it a distinctly American stamp.

 

Nixon in China refers often to Adams’ early interest in
minimalism as a genre and the fact that the only other post-Copland opera of
note-Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach-adheres
strongly to minimalism speaks volumes about the role of that particular genre
as a distinctly American form. Nixon in
China
is, perhaps by dint of its use of minimalism, significantly more
driving than his later Doctor Atomic and feels more musically effective. As operas generally are, it’s still
histrionic stuff but then again no one really expects an opera to be subtle.
It’s all Sturm und Drang and Adams does not
disappoint. One wonders why he finds it necessary to utilize the histrionic
vocal style that makes opera such a difficult listening experience but so it
goes. Celine Dion and her ilk have made all operatic voices sound horrible to
my ears, which proves more about me than it does about Adams (or Dion for that
matter).

 

Having made that admission, I must also admit that I find
Adams’ most recent opera, Doctor Atomic, to be difficult going. The recent DVD release confirms that Adams’ long-time
collaborator, director Peter Sellers, has the subtlety of a battering ram, with
various dancers prancing through scenes at random and histrionic staging that
would even impress Oliver Stone. Adams’ use of dialogue here is strangely
non-musical, an interesting approach, perhaps, but one that ultimately sounds a
bit too much like a parody of the opera as a genre. It does not take much to
imagine the characters of South Park performing such passages. Granted: It’s an opera about the night before the
first test of the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert and it is, therefore,
weighty material; all the more reason not to knock the listener over the head
with it. 

 

In the end, though, Adams’ failures are also his successes. Doctor Atomic is a different animal than
Nixon in China. Each uses different
textual material and different musical approaches and while there are certainly
plenty of similarities, in the end they are different Adamses. There are issues
that return again and again–the chant-like syllabic work of his big choruses,
the size and scope of his biggest pieces, his interest in analog
synthesizers-but Adams is also extending his range and function.

 

Such is the case with his staggeringly beautiful 2002 piece On the Transmigration of Souls, Adams writes a slowly unfurling tribute to the events of
9/11, a kind of requiem that rises slowly from pulses and the repeated names of
the dead and missing. Here is one of Adams’ greatest triumphs, indeed one of
the great triumphs of contemporary orchestral music, a piece of dark and
stirring radiance. Here the syllabic pulses that are standard fare in most of
Adams’ large-scale works are wrapped into the thrum of harp and the keen of
strings, backgrounded against calm speaking voices that continue their
repetition of names. When it finally does reach its crescendo the effect is
like a hammer directly to the listener’s heart. My god, this is what music can
do.

 

“On a dark day I will become nearly overwhelmed at how
little I have mastered in my life,” Adams writes toward the end of his book.
“The ‘next’ piece ought to be the ‘best piece’…But this is never the case.” It
is a fascinating confession and a heartbreaking one. Indeed, if there is one
important thing we learn from Hallelujah
Junction
it is Adams’ is an artist who is successful even in his failures
and by the end of the book one cannot help but root for him as he works on his
next piece, struggles with the latest batch of criticism, or ponders the next
libretto. In the final summation, what the critics say-this one included-are
less relevant than the sound itself: a churning mass of voices and instruments
that stake a serious claim on potential role of classical music in today’s America. It is
certainly worth grappling with.

 

This piece is subtitled “Why You Should Care About Composer
John Adams’ New Autobiography.” I think I’ve answered that query in the text
above, but in case I haven’t been clear enough let me state my case more
bluntly here. John Adams is an important composer: important in the way that
Wagner and Stravinsky and Copland are important. Hallelujah Junction gives us insight into his mind, his heart, and
his pen and it is insight that is valuable, not only as a way to see into the
mind of a great artist but also as a way to see into the mind, the heart, and
the pen of ourselves as Americans and hence as citizens of the world. A heady
claim? Perhaps, but Adams does occupy that role. His music speaks for us all
and even if we do not agree with what it says or how it says it, the sonic
landscape is worth traveling through. There are deserts there, and mountains,
and occasional cities, and it’s called America.

 

Classic music may be screwed, but John Adams has gone a good
way toward repairing that, giving audiences a reason to love or hate classical
music again, to attend a premiere of a new work no one has ever heard before, a
work by a man who is writing about the here and now, rather than the far away
and long dead. We don’t have to like it, but we should at least be paying
attention.

 

 

[Photos Credit: Margaretta Mitchell]

 

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