Sunday, March 29, 2015

Adams' good name (reprint from 2004)

Having finally seen Nixon in China (in San Diego last weekend), I thought I'd re-publish this article thought it first appeared in Australian concert programs in 2004.

Adams’ Good Name

John Adams. It’s a good solid New England name. An American is likely to think first of John Adams, the second president, George Washington’s successor. But Australians are more likely to have heard of the composer whose works have been increasingly performed in Australia in recent years. We saw the Australian premiere of El Niño, his new ‘take’ on oratorio, at the Adelaide Festival in 2002, in a concert version directed by his regular collaborator Peter Sellars, who had resigned as Festival Director months before. Harmonielehre was presented twice last year by Australian orchestras: by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and by the Sydney Symphony, who also in November 2003 gave the Australian premiere of Guide to Strange Places, the second of two works by Adams they have co-commissioned. Adams came out for the Australian premiere of Naïve and Sentimental Music in 2000 and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performed Adams’ The Wound Dresser in the Metropolis series some seasons ago. Anyone who saw the reaction of a young audience to Harmonielehre in Sydney in 1999 will realise that here is a living composer who can grab an audience like a Beethoven.
It’s kind of funny that Adams should have a profile in Australia. His career is in many respects a very American story. Born in what our friends across the Pacific refer to as ‘back East’, he had the upbringing of a typical east coast liberal Democrat, indeed remembers shaking Candidate Kennedy’s hand during the New Hampshire primaries in 1960. And of course northeastern USA is a kernel of American music, birthplace of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, not to mention Charles Ives, whose music Adams honours in 2003’s My Father Knew Charles Ives – along with the music from his grandfather’s dance hall at Lake Winnipesaukee, which he remembers from boyhood.
There was Harvard, and then Adams, the young man, went west. He worked as a storeman and at the San Francisco Conservatory before becoming the San Francisco Symphony’s first New Music Advisor and later Composer-in-Residence, where he worked with Principal Conductor Edo de Waart (later to spend ten years as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of the Sydney Symphony), who premiered Harmonielehre and even suggested the idea for the choral symphony Harmonium (premiered in Australia under Hiroyuki Iwaki), and who recently gave the Australian premieres of Naïve and Sentimental Music and Guide to Strange Places.
Adams seems to have embraced a particular sort of Californian-ness. In a recent piece, The Dharma at Big Sur, premiered for the opening of Walt Disney Hall in October last year, he links himself with Bay Area luminaries Lou Harrison, Harry Partch and Jack Kerouac. California may not fully account for the spirit of joy in his music – northern California is a world away from the swimming pools and movie stars of southern California – but early on Adams decided he would not go down the serial path which beckoned young graduates in the 1970s. (If you go by statements by fellow minimalist Steve Reich, the example of the Second Viennese School just doesn’t track with the land of Chuck Berry and burgers.) Adams’ teacher at Harvard, however, had been Leon Kirchner, a pupil of the inventor of serialism Arnold Schoenberg (who himself famously ended up in California, playing tennis with Gershwin, while clinging steadfastly to the aesthetics of ‘old Europe’), and it is Schoenberg and Adams’ ambivalence to his legacy that is one of the subjects of Harmonielehre, his great 1985 symphony.
Symphony? Adams is a second-generation minimalist. While most composers disown labels, Adams was proud to own ‘minimalism’ when he spoke to me during pre-concert interviews in Sydney in February 2000; proud even that it was an American invention. And why not? Minimalism, so simple and repetitive as to drive some people loopy, has at least given back to classical music the possibility of audiences being able to follow musical process. But Adams has written few pieces in this quintessential minimalist vein. Shaker Loops (1983) is perhaps the only one regularly played. Here again the title reminds us of Adams’ absorption in American culture; as does his choice of texts. The words of Jack Kerouac do not actually appear in Dharma, but the poetry of Emily Dickinson appears in Harmonium, and The Wound Dresser (1988) uses a text by Walt Whitman set with a straightforwardness of line learnt from American songwriters like Gershwin or Richard Rodgers. On the Elektra/Nonesuch CD this example of Adams at one extreme is coupled very tellingly with one of his most beautifully-detailed minimalistic pieces, Fearful Symmetries.
But what makes Adams ‘second-generation’ is the way he has re-incorporated elements of the European tradition. Harmonielehre gets its title from the textbook on standard harmony that Schoenberg was writing in 1911 at the time of his launch into atonality, precursor of serialism. There are passages in Harmonielehre that remind one of Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night) or the highly chromatic late music of Schoenberg’s mentor, Gustav Mahler. The arrival of Air Force One in the opera Nixon in China, produced at the 1992 Adelaide Festival, sounds like a cross between Phillip Glass and Wagner, complete with a Siegfried’s Sword leitmotif. But deeper than surface references is the re-evoking of cadential functions. Adams’ is not music that circles in a detached Eastern abandonment of time; it builds up tension to be released in massive climaxes. As a conductor, Adams found over the years that while conducting Terry Riley’s In C, arguably the founding piece of Minimalism, his versions starting getting faster and more anxious. The second movement of his Harmonielehre deals with the Anfortas wound, describing a characteristically European psychological state, but it’s possible that Adams was grappling with an Anfortas Wound of contemporary music, how not to be emotionally crippled by a musical tradition that must have an element of intellectual grit. Naïve and Sentimental Music (1997-98) was inspired by Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 essay of the same name, exploring the difference between spontaneous and cultivated expression.
For Adams is engaged. He deplores the term ‘CNN opera’ yet has found mythic resonance in stories we could find on cable. He became interested in writing Nixon in China when librettist Alice Goodman convinced him that it would be done not as parody, but as some sort of 20th-century heroic opera. As it must: the work looks at the one of the great meetings between East and West. He is currently working on Doctor Atomic, another opera, with the same collaborators, on the inventor of the atom bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Big subjects. His opera The Death of Klinghoffer, based on the hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the Achille Lauro, seems to keep on proving the painful relevance of art. It attracted wide criticism during the first Gulf War, when it was felt to show too much sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Projected performances of the extract Three Choruses from Klinghoffer were cancelled by the Boston Symphony Orchestra after 9/11: the husband of one of the members of the chorus had died on Flight 11, and grieving performers could not give voice to some of the words. But at first the cancellation appeared to be a free speech issue, exciting considerable newspaper discussion and outrage.
Adams has since responded to September 11 with a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece called On the Transmigration of Souls, given its Australian premiere in Sydney earlier this year. It is a disturbing work using for text the mobile phone messages of victims and the words of the ‘Missing’ cards posted at the site. It almost seems to be looking back from the other side of life, and is paradoxically radiant and ethereal – though there is no gliding over the specific last words of the Flight 11 flight attendant: ‘I see water and buildings…’ One can only admire an artist who is prepared to step back into this sort of emotional cauldron. Adams was a risky choice for the New York Philharmonic to commission for this work, given the previous year’s controversy. But also inevitable. As Vincent Plush said in The Australian in January: ‘For some years now, Americans have looked to Adams as a kind of composer laureate, not yet the paterfamilias figure that died with Aaron Copland in 1990, but one of the same stature, nobility of declaration and clarity of purpose.’

Gordon Kalton Williams

Symphony Australia © 2004

For further information I published a more recent interview with John Adams (Traditional Terms) on 5 September 2013.

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