ADAMS, John: Complete Piano Music
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John Adams (b. 1947)
Phrygian Gates • American Berserk • China Gates • Hallelujah Junction
"A minimalist bored with minimalism", remarked a writer describing the work of John Adams. This outlines the composer's compositional output very well, although one can hardly describe his vast and very differentiated works in one sentence. In Adams' musical world, the pure and repetitive minimalistic language of the early works by composers such as Terry Riley or Steve Reich rubs shoulders with the sounds of jazz, the long passionate lines of nineteenth-century Romantic music and the direct emotional appeal of pop styles. This has made John Adams one of the most versatile composers of today's music, embracing a wide type of audience which has hardly been achieved before in the history of contemporary classical music.
Learning about Adams's musical environment as a youngster, his open-minded use of diverse stylistic resources nowadays does not come as a surprise. Father Adams being a jazz sax player, mother a jazz singer, he grew up in a family "where Benny Goodman and Mozart were not separated". Playing clarinet in his father's marching band as a teenager, and playing in, composing for and conducting a local community orchestra not much later, he learnt hands-on about the emotional power of music, as some of the people in local audiences burst into tears at even the most banal sounds. At the time John Adams decided to study composition at the prestigious Harvard University, he listened to rock music and free jazz, as opposed to the "serious" music by serialists such as Schoenberg and Webern, which the institution expected him to study. After obtaining his master's degree in 1971, Adams left for San Francisco to explore alternatives to modernism, which he thought of as uncommunicative. From 1972 to 1983 he became head of the new music programme at the San Francisco Conservatory, hearing and seeing a myriad of compositions.
At first experimenting with different unconventional sound resources and electronics, it was not until 1974, at a Steve Reich concert, that he found the solution to realising an individual compositional language incorporating traditional harmony and making the return of direct emotional appeal possible: through minimal music. Inspired mainly by non-Western music, this meditative style was characterized by a strongly pulsating and tonal-based texture of repeating patterns which gradually changed over relatively long stretches of time. This would offer Adams the possiblities to realise his musical goals, but he knew he had to expand the language in his own way to make it speak as he wished.
China Gates (1977) and Phrygian Gates (1977-78) could be regarded as his first works in this language. In both pieces, minimalistic (apparent) repetition plays an important and striking rôle. In both pieces it is also the exclusive return to tonal (modal) writing that makes these works stand apart from modernistic works by other composers of that time. In general, one could compare listening to this music as viewing the earth from a spaceship. Although the earth seems hardly to move, the closer one gets to it, the busier the place gets: first clouds that slowly move, then contours of cities that bustle with energy and eventually the fast vibrations of molecules.
Thus, an undulating piece such as China Gates can be listened to at various levels of awareness. Harmonic progressions are relatively slow, but the inner pulse is fast, and seemingly repeating patterns actually turn out to be often slightly and slowly changed at a closer listen. There are three layers or strata of musical activity: the slow bass notes, which are the root of the modes, and two simultaneously sounding patterns in the treble register, of which one is varied, the other is literally repeated. The structure of the piece is built up of different sections each strictly adhering to one scale, and each marked by a new bass note and pedal change. All together, a highly colourful and atmospheric music is the result, comparable to a diamond which radiates different colours and moods at different angles of light, though it remains the same object. It is the sudden change of colour, or tonal mode, which is referred to by "gate", which is a term borrowed from electronics where a switch changes polarity.
In Phrygian Gates, Adams's individual new and more expressive approach to minimalism can more readily be heard. An epic piece, its intense musical tension is achieved by abrupt changes in energy, mood, speed, rhythm and colour. Dark and light are sharply juxtaposed, owing to the alternation between the sweet and light lydian mode and the more fiery and dissonant phrygian mode. Through tonal modulations, in this case by the cycle of fifths, the music seems to intensify and relax alternatingly as was usual in Romantic music. As the time spent in the lydian mode diminishes over time and the more aggressive character of the phrygian mode gradually determines the work's character, the composition conveys expressive drama previously unknown to minimalism. The slow chordal middle section ("a system of weights and measures") serves as a great musical relief, contemplating the different refractions of light on one single basic harmony, before the fast ripplings of the final section bring the composition to a breathtaking close.
During the years after these piano works, Adams's musical style crystallized even more clearly. Through highly successful orchestral and ensemble works such as Shaker Loops (1978), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Harmonium (1980-81) and Harmonielehre (1984-85), one can hear how the composer incorporated more and more elements of his youth – classical, jazz and pop – in his music, thereby achieving a unique and expressive style, of which the traditional minimalist heritage is only one way of recognising the composer.
It was not before composing two major operas, Nixon in China (1985-87) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1990-91), that Adams returned to the piano. Inspired by a truck stop near his cabin with the same name, Hallelujah Junction (1996) for two pianos seems the composer's personal history translated into music. Starting off with a minimalistic pattern of three syllables (-lle-lu-jah), echoed by the second pianist, the work becomes almost romantic-impressionistic halfway, before the four-syllabled "hallelujah" finally sounds, completely jazzed up and sliced up to atonality towards the end.
Adams's most recent piano work, American Berserk (2001), readily recalls the fractured boogie-woogie style of Conlon Nancarrow. Almost entirely built up out of triadic harmonies, the constant shifting of rhythm and unexpected juxtaposition of harmonies exemplify the composer's claim that "as an expressive tool… [minimalism] absolutely had to evolve and become more complex". Its title is owed to novelist Philip Roth, who wrote alarmingly about the disintegrating world of today. The piece could hardly be more expressive in its individual, present-day style. And that is exactly what makes John Adams so unique.
Ralph van Raat