Perfect Sound Forever


Photo from the John Adams website

A Progressive Reflection on the Earlier Work of John Adams
by Mark S. Tucker
(December 2006)

Among several other attractants, 'serial minimalism,' a tag loved and hated, forms one of several large cores of progressive rock's fascination with neoclassical works. Rock and roll per se, as formal and repetitious as it is, could never muster the brainworks necessary to import the spellbinding style into its native and often naive genera, nor, for that matter, for the most part, had it the patience or skill, so the task fell to the progrockers to do what they do best: experiment.

The composers normally chosen for emulation were the usual suspects: Philip Glass and Steve Reich, as well as investigations into gamelon, Carnatic, and other exotic musics. However, in too hastily staying within the Glass/Reich fundament, John Adams was missed, the tertiary component in what should be a referential norm. This, dear reader, is a sin that wounds in its absence, as Adams brings to the table what every idiosyncratist does: variants to the canon - in his case, a fuller sense of the permutations inherent to the mode.

John Adams was born in my own hometown (Worcester, Massachusetts), probably in Worcester General - that was the only hospital at that time (1947) that I'm aware of - the proper metaphorical womb of a state rightly viewed historically as a hotbed for radicalism and rebellion, modernly also seen in its similar midwivings of Pogo artist Walt Kelly and anarchist Abbie Hoffman. Adams' first music teacher was his father, Carl, who taught him the clarinet, after which the son developed an unusual attraction for marching band music, playing in local ensembles. This may explain his urge for serialism, what with marching music's frequent restatements and recurring emphases. He graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and trekked to San Francisco, world-known as a bohemia, teaching music at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It wasn't long before he began hooking up with heavyweights.

This is an overview of the pieces most likely to appeal to a sophisticated rock & roll audience, particularly of the progrock vein. Like Glass and Morton Subotnick, Adams moved afield of his initial oeuvre and that shift deserves separate attention... but not here. The years covered are 1985-1998 and the works highlighted deserve indexing within the progressive music fundament, not merely the classicalist venue wherein he presently resides.

NEW AGE TREACLE: Light Over Water (New Albion, 1985)

Though one can tend to trust anything Adams releases, the New Albion label can be a dicey proposition, often quite good, sometimes feeble. This disc was commissioned for an L.A. County Museum of Art installation and that alone triggers alarms (LACMA's modern art sensibilities tend to be of the Art Herd variety- i.e. Warholized). Ostensibly composed "for brass and synthesizers," don't believe it: it's really "for John Adams and an occasional horn or two." One cannot realize how errant the undertitling is until hearing the opening horn-strikes fade into a commencement of interminable and tweedly high register adding-machine synth interplay.

Were I to spin the record sight unseen, you'd not argue if I lied and claimed it was just some half-way decent indie release produced in a tech-geek's garage. The mix is way trebly, giving a two-dimensional tracing-paper quality to what should've been a far more transparent view, and Adams' minimalisms are of the tritest sort, stuff neither David Borden nor Ernest Woodall would've touched for all the OPtion awards in Sioux Falls (or did that sad rag even have awards?).

John was not quite, at this precise moment, the fully realized heavyweight he'd later become, though that'd change very quickly indeed - in the same year, in fact, as we'll see in Harmonielehre. Here, he's feeling his way between the after-effects of Terry Riley in Berlin-y prog and New Age, not fully saccharinizing his composing hand nor overburdening his mind. The ambiance's shift from thin earthly terrain to decently etched far planets with semi-hospitable environs. Unfortunately, he also occasionally has the damnedest habit of juxtaposing serious-sounding pastiches above trivial lines, fomenting dissonance where what he really wanted was a compatible contrast.

Light Over Water isn't given to maintaining base theme structures. There's a good deal of variety present but only within the limited scope of sedentary contemplation and semi-pastorals. In that then, for the pacifically philosophical, a sort of mildly stimulating dead zone is created, a bed for tired intellectuals, where one can feel Thoreauvian, resting in gardenias and jonquils, pseudo-wilds looming three steps from home.

Near the end, the pace picks up, the horns crash back in and things begin hopping, not exactly the denouement expected but welcome nonetheless. The blood won't pound but you'll be relieved to be afforded moments of dynamism in this jar of marshmallow fluff. A good thing, too; the needle would clog with cotton candy were matters to continue unabated. In the end, I'm damned if I can say what this release is all about or if I even care.

WAGNER...IN FITS AND SPURTS: Harmonielehre (Nonesuch, 1985)

Nonesuch having a weightier investment in its name than New Albion, we shouldn't be too surprised that though this was presented the same year as Light Over Water, it's the ebullient and somewhat gutter-worldly Hyde to Light's mild-mannered and fey Jekyll. Adams retained Light's abrupt opening sequence, then built on it with infinitely more care and blood. Like a violent bursting of curling tendrils breaking through a dank forest into light, Harmonielehre sheds a far deeper gaze upon living breathing tableaus than Light ever tried for. Of course, having an orchestra (the S.F Symph) to limn one's visions never hurts, but it's obvious Adams was, as he put it, coming out of "a multifaceted crisis" (a creative one) and this well-crafted saga exorcised whatever demons might've been infesting him at the time. Amply present are heights and depths that all the more ably contrast Light for the relative treacle-sauce it had been, demonstrating Adams hadn't really been a kitchen-table indie slacker after all.

With little in the way of minimalism, there's still a premonitory atmosphere toward that inclination, so the skittering string section, playing behind bursting sprints of foreground energies, gives his repetitive mode a strongly dyed palimpsest, a veneered overprint in the fabric of the entire opus. Foreknowledge of Adams' serialist basing neither adds to nor detracts from what he's doing here, which is dragging certain aspects of classicalism into the 20th century, whether they like it or not. His respect for elder formalisms comforts while also intriguing, but doesn't erect walls. His homeground is somewhere in the bridge between Romanticism and Impressionism, but this work is shot through with many revisionist strokes, girding our loins for Bartokian sections and post-genre overlays.

But then, Harmonielehre is also kindred to Light in its pools of peacefulness, oases which retain an alpha orientation and flair rather than recessing to the beta traits of glib academics or the soaped billboardings of Light. As with that predecessor, though, what the point and picture are, one can't truly say. The composer claims the themes to be Wagnerian, mythological and the legend of Anfortas, but those seem only just so much after-the-fact impromptu philosophising to keep critics and museum mavens solaced. Even the sleeve crit, speaking with the composer in the liner notes, reveals that his ongoing re-visitations prompted revisions to initial conceptions. Just so: Harmonielehre's a sophisticated caprice, a well-crafted lark, a proper cure to the artistic malaise Adams had been enduring, a statement that his creative lull was not the dilettante's statement of place and never would be, invested now in a venture inventing itself rather than toeing a prescribed narrative line. The closing movement, an ode from a Meister Eckhardt tale (in which the Christian mystic is accompanied to heavenly vacations by some animalcule boneheadedly dubbed 'Quackie'), dares even more: the composer digs beneath the work's overstructure to dredge its minimalist roots, parading them like gods reborn. That section is indeed Wagnerian and a fitting finale to a moody shape-shifting work.

STRANGE MATURITY: The Chairman Dances (Nonesuch, 1987)

This CD's a gatherum. The title cut's culled from a work-in-progress, an extended opera nomenclatured "Nixon in China", which would normally be the centerpiece, save that the follow-on, "Christian Zeal and Activity", is such an odd and hilarious work that it has become a cult classic amongst erudite listeners (a critic's polite way of saying that the audience here is small). Still, Chairman is a logical "pre-successor" to "Fearful Symmetries" in many ways. Starting out in extreme dynamism, it portrays another cityscape, this time nominally Chinese, though the style really gives no reason to imagine it in such flavoring. If anything, as the end section clearly illustrates, the emphasis is on the American presence in China, approximating a classed up '20s vibe, painting the advent of Chairman Mao and his consort stepping through a foxtrot together as a gramophone peals out cadence.

"Christian Zeal" is something of a distant prefiguration of Gavin Bryars' epic Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. The emphasis is not on the matrixing score, languid and washed, but on a found recording from 1976 of some Christian wackaloon, chopped and channeled, plundered and "remixed", to redirect attention to the absurdity of the Christian message itself and to the unutterably propagandistic intonations that inevitably accompany proselytizing. The voicing and imbecility of the sermon are undeniably Swaggartistic; in fact, that the very exposure of it slides from under some rock and into daylight is an act of revelation and amusement. The original recording alone is also fascinating. Re-set and scrambled, it takes on new subtleties that would flit by much too quickly otherwise.

The "Two Fanfares for Orchestra" are just that, each slightly over four minutes and processed as such exercises should be. Each is given time to develop but never allowed to crash down as usual fanfares do, ordinarily blaring out stentorian messages, thus they bear Adams' signature. The composer's rarely brash, always polite, and would never dream of chafing one's nerves. These two pieces may well be an entirely new wrinkle in the catalogue.

"Common Themes in Simple Time", the longest scripture (20:37), is a fantasia, a shimmering tapestry of varying depictions heavenly and terrene. Trad classicalism blends with serialism to yield a cozy mongrel resplendent in new fur. Though much occurs while the themes shift and disappear, the overall effect is extremely ambient, injecting an intelligence rare to the form and much in accord with the ideas Eno germinated. It must be said, though, that a quietude is mainly kept by muting the orchestra's horn section - a somewhat artificial restraint that succeeds beautifully. Don't be deceived by the relative simplicities here (hence the title), there's a hell of a lot going on; it just isn't being shouted.

PROGBOY EN REGALIA: Shaker Loops/Light Over Water (Nonesuch, 1987)

This is the one that attracts the sophisticated progheads, the ones looking for a bit more than ceaseless regurgitative emulations of a base catalogue. "Loops" has been presented many times, indeed Adams acknowledges that it's the favorite of his writings amongst conductors and players, so another recital was hardly a problem. For New Albion, perhaps then, the release became useful in transferring the earlier capture of "Light" two years earlier, on vinyl. As everyone seemed resolute in forsaking LPs for the inferior CD format, why not satisfy the market? Of course, um, if one strives to make the re-issue seem not a mere repackaging but rather a new recording, well, that's okay, isn't it? I mean, when the label slightly mis-states the time against the vinyl and sorta forgets to remember to include the piece's true date, as they so faithfully do even with "Shaker" here, so as to heighten the impression that the buyer-collector's really getting a whole new shebang, we can let that go, can't we? Brows furrow.

"Shaker" is highly atypical of serial compositions for its radical shifts in theme, emphasis, and tone. Adams wasn't content to follow the rules, he wanted more elasticity, and though that may not have been what was intended when Schoenberg invented the form, it's certainly what came to be in many composers' burgling of it. Thus, all is well in Mudville if past and present can be so well reconciled in the listener's mind. And they are. The Ridge Quartet's joined by three "side members" to deliver the 28:37 recital, recorded in 1979, and if one detects a very slight Dempster orientation to the affair, that's attributable to the drawn out nature of the composition, yielding a more meditative impression despite a number of alarmed and vibrant passages. It might be ventured that even aficionados of Peter-Michael Hamel's work could alight here happily, should they also be broad enough to enjoy such neoclassicalists as Jasun Martz and Daniel Denis.

OBSCURITY & REPETITION: The Wound-Dresser/Fearful Symmetries (Nonesuch, 1989)

Adams' "operetta" "Wound-Dresser", a 19:06 short form, is taken from Whitman's poem of the same title, concerned with those who tended casualties in the Civil War, itself digging beneath flesh to get at the underlying metaphysical fundament, a grimly told tale of the best meeting the worst. Therefore, the toned-down nature of the enterprise should surprise no one, as philosophy is a pensive art. The anguish inherent in the situation is carried mostly by the baritone Sanford Sylvan, augmented by trumpeter Chris Gekker and less so by violinist Naoko Tanaka, the orchestra behind contenting itself to paint and embroider. To call this a pastorale would be a mistake but it's cast in that die. Rather, it's a penseé, brooding and dark but reaching for shards of light to dispel the nihilism inherent in the situation presented. No matter how it might be approached, the subject's a squeamish one, something most prefer not to attend, hence probably, a partial explanation of Adams' distraction away from an admiration of Whitman's expressive powers. To have sunk it down to the level of the intro to Britten's Billy Budd would have been too dismal and to launch it into higher levels would've been equally in error, so the very core of the poem prevented the composer from any form of adventurousness. Sometimes, the listener is forced just sit down and emote along with the protagonist. That very requirement guarantees that "Wound Dresser" will never come within spitting distance of "The Chairman Dances" and, thus, the first half of the release remains fairly obscure.

The second half, entirely inappropos to "Dresser", is a blessing and one of the strongest aces in Adams' canon, fit to sit proudly upright with Reich's Music For 18 Musicians and Glass' Glassworks or Koyaanisqatsi. Taken from Blake's famous tiger poem, it has no relation to its companion and was, Adams admits, an exercise to get away from over-seriousness, which he sees suffocating too much of the modern repertoire (exactly right, as Leonard Bernstein would more than happily agree). The difference between minimal serialism and counterpoint, despite whatever David Borden may wish to posit to the contrary, is an academic one and I'll not belabor it here; suffice to say that, for Adams, the song came out of his necessity to reinvestigate counterpoint during the writing of the third act of the earlier Chairman Dances, another of his masterpieces. One can easily see, knowing this, why the symmetrical nature of such composing impressed itself even more deeply into Adams' thinking and led to the inadvertent remembrance of Blake's piece. Other than that, it has no relation, being a cityscape that would fit the most upbeat propaganda needs of a capitalist orientation film for high schools; it's that good and Riefenstahl would have been envious. This is not to draw similarities between Adams and such nefarious external motives but just to say that those media, which would demand the best, would also instantly latch onto this without a second thought... provided they weren't neanderthalically catholic in their patronage to trad classical modes.

"Symmetries", during its 28:03 length, appears to have sections but that's owable to the episodic nature of portraying whatever picture Adams had in mind (as said, one easily envisions a bustling '50's metropolis idealized to sit as a Shape of Things To Come paradigm). It isn't merely a ceaseless drone of variations, having as many shifts as King Crimson's marvelous "Lizard" suite - and the oboe solo, deep into the hubbub, will bring back a few memories to those already aware of Fripp's masterwork, grinningly spiced here with a speakeasy's boozy flavorings.

POLITICS SUPS WITH VENDETTA: The Death of Klinghoffer (Nonesuch, 1992)

This is the release that, to turn the paraphrase correctly, everyone owns and no one listens to, not because it's all that difficult but because the long tale cleaves most closely of all the composer's works to formalisms otherwise eschewn in large part by progressive listeners (Eno proclaimed classical music to be dead, therefore, apparently, it is; case closed?). That's a shame because it's also Adams' most impassioned opus - manneredly passionate, mind you - and one of the rare modern proofs that re-scraping the rusty well of antiquity can tap back into vivifying waters, perhaps even re-tune new ears to the many intelligences of their forebears' hands.

Ironies abound here. Adams commenced work on Death while the U.S. was carting in-country-made weapons of mass destruction over to the brutal Saddam Hussein, a CIA creature faithful to his captaincy in a client-state role, bidding him wreak carnage on elements inimical to American business interests - an act a later bumbling moron, couped into the highest office in the land, would shutter up and reverse in order to launch a completely illegal war against same. Hence, the opera, a statement on the murder of the Jewish traveler Leon Klinghoffer at the hands of Palestinian terrorists, was conceived in blood, reflective of blood, and wrought thenceforth appropriately. Much of this 2-CD work is dreary, attractive in its desolation, when not nervous and paranoid.

There's no serialism save for a few repeating figures that might stand as substitutes. Several long recessed chorus sections draw the audience away briefly from the immediacy of the main figures (passengers on the floating hotel, the Achille Lauro) and give respite until the next round of emotional conflict. Their recitations reflect the more spooky of the vast ocean's qualities, especially nautically becalmed waters, portentous and bleak. Sections become surreal, particularly in the segment juxtaposing The Austrian Woman, The Captain, and one of the terrorists, Mamoud - it's the Austrian Woman's off-kilter matronly tones that tilt the atmosphere, listing it like a slow and threatening leak in the hull of the ship.

The first CD goes through a rather incredible slow-down for much of its tail section, until the chorus re-enters and reminds us that beneath all the philosophizing, yearning, and reminiscing is a very real and immediate danger. Its vigor is like water splashed up from the Lauro's wake and draws to an abrupt halt, with the second CD opening with the chorus in a more reflective mood, leading into revelations upon the motives of the Palestinians and their longstanding grudges for a multitude of pains suffered at the hands of Israeli aggressions. For this, an innocent Jewish man must die. Here's the center of the opera- a meditation on the impossibility of reconciliation. It's plainly shown in Mamoud's indoctrination that to sit with one's enemy is traitorous, ignominious, and leads to death. The tenor of the music, almost the soundtrack to a documentary, underscores this fact, as every voice becomes vastly more conversational, a matter of pedestrian exchanges, almost a confessorial exchange between protagonists and antagonists. The situation is symbolic, mirroring innocent Palestinians killed by ideologically driven Israelis who rarely ever saw their victims, even from a distance, also reflecting Israelis murdered by desperate, angry, vengeful Palestinians lacking the money, power, and the U.S. backing the Israelis had, to answer the incursions. This is the ground the theme stands upon: we're seeing a blood feud of many, many years. Its resolution is impossible so long as memory drives primitive vendetta lusts.

The most interesting part is the closing soliloquy of Klinghoffer's wife, who abuses the captain for his clumsy attempt at a sad duty to relay the news of her husband's demise, berating him for his weakness, his inability to rescue her spouse... while she herself, the text makes plain, also did nothing. Her complete ignorance of the Palestinian situation is shocking, though dismissible for the moment in light of her loss. Nonetheless, the woman aptly illustrates again the dominance of passion over reason, like it or not, leaving the moral of the opera a bit unclear. Had the composer meant it to be so ambiguous? It solved nothing! Yet, that's indeed the situation; thus, the finale's correctly existential, if not nihilistic. More than anything else, this may explain the underlying sense of loss critics had when reviewing the premieres as well as the formal release: what's it really telling us? You'll have to decide for yourself- partisan sympathies will not erase history.

COMPOSITIONAL NON-LINEARITY: Gnarly Buttons/John's Book of Alleged Dances (Nonesuch, 1998)

Adams contracted two dread diseases in "John's Book" (which, though billed second, comes first in the CD): Frisell's Fever and a bit of Zappa's Recurring Perfervid Flu, re-Americanizing the hallowed "native" catalogue through a twisted version of his own idiom while having a go at semantically-tickling nomenclatures, not to mention an injection of dizzying virtuosity for the players.

Therefore, who better than the Kronos Quartet to carry out the composition? The work was, after all, written for them. And so, the infamous ensemble, justly lauded if a trifle over-godhooded, was shuffled in to tackle the task, having been successful in similar hybridizations over a long period. The demand was immediately rewarded in a buzzing solo interchange in the third movement ("Dogjam") that's really a guitar duet executed on violins, conversational as hell, like two old biddies animatedly gossiping over the backyard fence, complex as a Celtic mandala. In fact, there are so many transmuted rock devices in the piece that it's an anagrammatical treasure trove

"Gnarly Buttons" is performed by the London Sinfonietta in a 12-piece manifestation, with Adams conducting, and is much more a Stravinsky-ish spring thaw frolic than half-nuts gambol. Clarinetist Michael Collins takes the foreground and keeps it, leading the rest of the ensemble down a winding path, strings percolating behind. "Buttons" is not a pastoral piece but can be counted a denouement to the far more bizarre "Book." The dances of "Book" were not intended to be played in order and "Buttons'" three pieces could be used as asides, indexed within whatever order a performer cared to execute.

There's a broad sense of Adams having done what he damn well pleased here, so the CD cannot be seen conceptually except in the loosest most evanescent way. If you have one of those older players optioning the machine's own random playbacks, it won't matter what order the diodes and capacitors choose, the effect will be the same. Even the slow and easy closer "Put Your Loving Arms Around Me", a piece as filled with mystery as sentimentality, could go anywhere: as prelude, middle eight, rest sequence, or outro.

Except for Light, laying an ear to these works is immensely rewarding. Adams is well regarded on his home turf, but, in prog circles, save for literate mags like The Wire, the caliber of so-called "critics" has been exceedingly dismaying, to put it mildly; hence, their regard, when it appears at all, has proven irrescuably drivelous. Thus, Adams is often passed over when aficionados of erudite progressive musics make their choices, woefully uninformed via genre rags. Hopefully, the above will dispel that somewhat. Even more hopefully, a few prog-crits here and there, in order to finally do some small form of justice to the musics they fetishize, will develop the ear (and sigh! the literary skills) necessary to command a bit more than standard slobbery paeans to unceasing chirographic and sonic clichés. It needn't be added that none of us should hold our breath on that last expectation.

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