Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: John Adams

by Daniel Asia

Daniel Asia is a composer and professor at the University of Arizona. Formerly Composer-In-Residence with the Phoenix Symphony, and recipient of a Music Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has been writing or making music for more than 40 years. For more information about him and his music go to www.danielasia.net. His music may be sampled on YouTube, and found on Summit Records and New World Records.

John Adams is one of the most frequently performed of American composers and justly so.

Shaker Loops continues to hold its allure. In its well-handled diatonic materials, bravura approach to rhythm, units cycling through overlapping rhythmic loops, and its stretching of time and romantic accelerandi which have the force of a railroad engine, this is music that is both visceral and intellectual. It is also not completely simple nor purely elemental. He adds a new technique clearly picked up in the electroacoustic music studio, a quasi-filtering process applied to registral filling in or deletion, that separates this minimalist work from those of his then mentors, Reich, Glass, and Riley. The work is not without blemish. Its slow movement, that suggests the undulating and desultory nature of water, grows tedious. The materials are somewhat unformed and anodyne, but it is saved by its classical structure -- the climax comes right at the Golden Mean providing architectural clarity. The fourth and final movement has similar issues.

The trickster element in John's personality comes through best in his Chamber Symphony, which sounds like Ives on uppers. It is witty, rambunctious, and beguiling. Like Shake Loops it succeeds less well in its slow movement as writing a true melody is an issue. John's Book of Alleged Dances is equally witty and humorous.

I find the settings of Whitman in The Wound-dresser to be among his very best vocal writing as his laconic baritone lines are deeply poignant and have just the right American gait. The orchestral accompaniment is never obtrusive but is also never dull, a very fine and tricky path to walk.

I agree with Richard Taruskin's assessment that works like The Death Klinghoffer and El Nino are superficial in comparison, and morally and religiously problematic. Other earlier works like Nixon in China and Harmonium now leave me weary as their machine-gun like rhythms feel like Shoenberg's Pierrot drilling into the pate of my skull.

Among his more recent work is the three movement Dr. Atomic Symphony, a reduction from the opera by the eponymous name. The first movement, In the Laboratory, is portentous but finally melodramatic. The second, Panic, is a wide and deep canvas of music that is fraught, taught, and overly wrought. It is visually graphic and has certain qualities that refer to Shaker Loops in its virtuoso string writing. Its ability to sustain angst is impressive but finally a bit dull. A long horn solo is panoramic but is devoid of musical heft. There is much wind and string filler that occupies, but doesn't extend, dramatic time. The third movement, Trinity, is too sectional and straightforward in its motoric quality which finally just sounds forced. A trumpet tune lacks profile and the return to simplistic minimalist chugging at the end is crass and unworthy.

A setting of the John Donne poem, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," sung by J. Robert Oppenheimer in the opera Doctor Atomic, is considered by many to be a highpoint of the opera. I can't agree, as its churning orchestral interludes sound just adolescently petulant and the faux Purcellian vocal line doesn't turn into true melody as it so desperately seeks to do. Ned Rorem suggests that a composer should never repeat text unless the poet does so. While I am not so doctrinaire, in this case, the repetition of text puts the work over the top and into the realm of melodrama.

Adams has done much better than this opera and its orchestral CliffsNotes version, and I am sure will do so in the future. In this regard, I look forward to hearing his new saxophone concerto an Outlier written for the remarkable Timothy McAllister, as Adams remains one of our great hopes.

First posted on the Huffington Post, posted here with the kind permission of the author.




Editor's Note:

The above article is about the American contemporary composer John Adams. There is another American contemporary composer with almost identical name, i.e. John Luther Adams, who won this year's Pulitzer Prize in Music. Please see article below:

The Pulitzer Prize in music: Still out of tune

by Michael JohnsonAdded 18.04.2014
The $10,000 Music Pulitzer Prize went this year to Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, launching a heated debate in the music world over who was – or wasn’t – most deserving of this perpetually controversial award. One exasperated critic present...




     

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Added 26.03.2018

Johann Sebastian Bach’s B Minor Mass, performed at Symphony Hall on Friday (March 23) and again on Sunday (March 25), was delivered in impressive Baroque style by the Handel+Haydn Society orchestra and chorus.

Added 15.03.2018

The Brahms Scherzo Op. 4 opens with a delicate and playful theme, then carries us along on waves of emotion swinging from the filigree, to the lyrical, the thunderous, and back to the delicate.

Added 09.03.2018

Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human. 

Added 21.02.2018

A new “electronic opera” from Ireland, “Heresy”, broke new ground in contemporary opera a couple of years ago, bringing together Irish vocal talent and the synthesized music of much-decorated composer Roger Doyle.

Added 04.02.2018

Elegant, poised and deeply musical Ran Jia has brought a new freshness to the Franz Schubert piano sonatas, a phenomenal achievement considering how often they have been performed by the greatest pianists of the past 75 years.

Added 31.01.2018

American expat pianist David Lively found happiness in Paris as a teen-aged piano prodigy and got so busy performing and studying  -- with an Alfred  Cortot associate -- that he ended up making his life in France, a “different planet” culturally, he says, compared to that of his native land. 

Added 26.01.2018

When young French pianist François Dumont appeared at the Salle Gaveau in Paris recently, the critics embraced him without reserve. One wrote that his recital “confirmed his place in the family of the best musicians in France”.

Added 13.01.2018

Nearly two hours of Debussy’s solo piano music at one sitting can be, for some, too much impressionistic color to digest. And indeed a woman beside me fell asleep during the twelve Préludes, Book One.

Added 30.12.2017

If I were to help a new listener grapple with Charles Ives’s Piano Sonata No. 2, “Concord, Mass., 1840-1860”, I would share my story of first seeing the score’s opening page.

Added 29.11.2017

Piano practice is like having a dog. If one has lived long enough with such an unnecessary but at the same time critical circumstance, one wonders how others live without it.

Added 29.11.2017

In the world of classical music trios, there are few combinations as natural as the cello, guitar and piano. Operating mostly in the same register, attacking and retreating equally, the instruments can blend beautifully if played with discipline and heart. 

Added 03.11.2017

A California polymath has electrified the music world with his images of classical music in visual form, capturing more than 165 million hits on his Internet postings in just a few years.  Only pop singers or weird videos do better. 

Added 30.10.2017

Ukrainian-born Evgeny Ukhanov, based in Australia for the past 20 years, is an established performer of new music originating in his adopted homeland. Now he has teamed up with friend and Melbourne composer Alan Griffiths on a new CD of selections regrouped under the title “Introspection”. 

Added 09.09.2017
 

If music makes you happy or sad, you are probably an average listener. If it leaves you indifferent, you might be considered insensitive. But if it gives you goosebumps you are in a very special group with connections in your brain anatomy that others may never feel.

Added 31.08.2017

Lake Como, known as the “magic lake” of Italy, has inspired writers and composers for centuries with natural surroundings so conducive to creative expression.

Added 16.08.2017
File 20170815 15219 g8geue

Much of the mythology that surrounds Elvis Presley, who died 40 yea

Added 02.08.2017

Katia and Marielle Labèque -- the glamorous French keyboard siblings -- have achieved a solid legacy of exuberant performances in the two-piano repertoire, ranging from experimental contemporary works to traditional classical-romantic composers.

Added 24.06.2017

I was flipping through my copy of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 6 recently and spotted his two “col pugno” markings. My memory took me back many years to the day I first encountered these violent directions. At the time, I didn’t know what to think.