I have followed the work of John Adams since my return from India. At that time, minimalism was all the rage in classical music. I can handle most minimalism, similarly with – say – bluegrass music, only for maybe a half hour. Then I want to go screaming down the street, arms flailing, from the repetition and insane sameness of it all. Philip Glass in particular, though he is critically acclaimed, drives me up the wall and strikes me as enormously overrated.
But things were always different for me with Adams. The repetitiveness of his minimalist style always had something added. I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
His early works like Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), Shaker Loops (1983), Short Ride on a Fast Machine (1986) or the Chairman Dances (1987; from his opera Nixon in China) were ornately rhythmic pieces I wanted to listen to again and again. Even now I enjoy listening to them. Common Tones remains a particular favorite of mine. Ironically being the earliest work I own, it is more indicative of Adams’ mature style that the other compositions mentioned.
With Fearful Symmetries (1988), Adams reached the height of his minimalist style, producing what is for me the best of all his efforts to that point. From here onward, he began to express a more complex voice. Though the work is still fundamentally minimalist, Adams begins to apply these pristine fundamentals to elements of an emerging, unique personal style. This style was more fully realized in his Violin Concerto (1993), which is an obvious departure from his earlier work, and with Naïve and Sentimental Music (1998), a splendid piece on a symphonic scale, dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen.
On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) was a commission that Adams was reluctant to accept. It was a commemoration of the first anniversary of the tragic September 11, 2001 attacks upon America. Adam’s discusses the problems he had with coming up with an appropriate idea for the tragedy that would not seem overdone, common, or disrespectful. (He begins discussing his composition about 1:30 into the video.)
The result is an innovative use of street sounds, spoken words, children and adult chorus, and an over sized orchestra. The names of victims are strewn throughout the work making a very personal, ethereal experience, interspersed with explosive orchestral episodes. Adams won the Pulitzer prize for the composition.
Recently, I purchased The Dharma at Big Sur. This is an amazing work and certainly ranks among the best contemporary classical creations in this first decade of the new century. Essentially a second violin concerto, the piece was composed specifically for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Its world premiere in 2003 was conducted by Salonen. The CD was released in 2006.
There is an excerpt of an interview with Adams on youtube that expresses some of the difficulties the orchestra had in realizing Adams’ intent. (You can see Salonen struggling to master the work in the video and ultimately bringing it to realization, of course.) The initial rehearsals descended into utter chaos. I was reminded of Richard Wagner’s frustrations with the initial rehearsals for the Overture to Das Rheingold, another piece of music in another time which was meant to be performed in another new theatre – Bayreuth.
The overture begins very simply. Just two chords. A slow build of the orchestra. Adding layers of sound. Just like The Dharma opens. Wagner was enraged that the orchestra just couldn’t get it.
But, it seems with very simple compositions there is no context for the performers. They don’t understand how to play together. That is the conductor’s responsibility. But, in the case of both The Dharma and the Das Rheingold Overture, the composer had to intervene and ultimately express what the music was about, beyond the notes written on the score. Only then did the sound jell, the chaos reside, and beauty emerge.
Adams’ inspiration for The Dharma comes from the writings of Jack Kerouac.
Unlike the Das Rheingold Overture (or most any other classical composition for that matter) the orchestra is remarkably muted throughout much of the piece with occasional, transitional exceptions. It creates a simple sphere of supportive tones within which an amazing electric violin commands and dances. The Dharma is an American original, very satisfying, upbeat not brooding, at times joyful but not sappy, gentle yet complex and richly fulfilling.
As with Wagner (I’m thinking of Die Meistersinger more than the Ring here), Adams gives us something unlike anything we’ve heard in classical music before. When I first listened to this it was like discovering an old friend anew. A fresh, vibrant John Adams. Memories were recalled of listening to Mahler or Bartok or Lutoslawski for the first time. So exhilarating.
John Adams, a leader in a particular brand of late 20th century classical music, has transcended the “minimalist” label while producing some brilliant work in the early 21st century, with still many years of composition ahead of him. To have followed him for more than 20 years from his pure minimalist beginnings to his current (more sophisticated) style has been a pleasure and I eagerly await exposure to his more recent compositions. Like the symphony composition from the original operatic material Doctor Atomic and his first String Quartet performed for the first time in January this year to favorable reviews.
Note: Some of the above links to Adams' work are to videos of ballet segments from his operas, and other dance pieces. I don't really get into opera and Adams is no exception. It is important to note that Adams has a abundance of operatic material.