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Boxed Ears 

From minimalism to Nixon in China to the pop musical, Berkeley composer John Adams has gleefully ignored the boundaries of composition

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999
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A critic once called composer John Adams the Hamlet of contemporary classical music, accusing him of not being able to make up his mind and settle on a specific musical style. It is a charge with which the Berkeley-based Adams is all too familiar. "Recently," he explains, "I read another review that said, 'Well, he started as a minimalist, then he was a neo-romantic, then he became an opera composer, and then he flirted with atonality -- and now I don't know what the hell he's doing.' And I thought, 'Is this a criticism? Does this mean that the work is not important?'"

On Oct. 19, Nonesuch will release The John Adams Earbox, a 10-CD set produced in celebration of the composer's 50th birthday. Spanning more than two decades of his musical output, the set features his famous modern operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, the world premiere recording of Slonimsky's Earbox (from whence the set took its name), as well as the first Nonesuch recordings of several of Adams' more popular works. With the wide range of material presented -- piano and electronic music, orchestral works, chamber music, a violin concerto, operas, and even a pop musical -- the Earbox has the potential either to further confound critics desperately trying to pin a label on the composer, or to clear up the many misconceptions swirling around his eclectic-sounding oeuvre.

Even though his name is regularly lumped together with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Adams, from the start of his career in San Francisco in the early '70s, has taken issue with some of the basic tenets of minimalism. "I don't want to sound like a crabby old critic," says the normally affable composer, "but I felt that as pleasurable as it was, that in most cases there was simply not enough to sustain my intellectual or even my sensualist commitment. Educated, highly sensitized musical ears simply demand more from the musical experience than to put together some attractive sounds and letting them go through their changes. That's where I really part company with the minimalist aesthetic."

While the early compositions on Adams' box set, such as Shaker Loops (1978) and Harmonium (1980), may at first strike the listener as basic minimalist exercises, they are actually works of far greater complexity. Adams' trademark rippling, wavelike patterns are there, but so too are unpredictable, almost violent shifts in mood. Tinged with the orchestral colors and harmonies of late romanticism, these compositions marked the beginning of Adams' mature style -- one that stood in fierce opposition to the cool conceptualism of the modernist movement.

As Adams gained recognition in the early 1980s during his tenure as composer-in-residence at the San Francisco Symphony, criticism from the establishment followed. Instead of being pegged as a minimalist, Adams was now dubbed a neo-romantic. Works like Grand Pianola Music (1982), with its shameless, almost gaudy tunefulness, were seen as a flagrant retreat from the aesthetics of modernism. "There was a whole article devoted to me in The New Republic by Edward Rothstein," remembers Adams. "And it was my first experience of someone roasting me. The diatribe was essentially that I'd taken this pristine, fresh form and just corrupted it." He smiles. "It amazed me that I would have the power and the poison at such a young age to corrupt something. But that was a common criticism of me back in the mid-'80s."

Despite such attacks, Adams' popularity among audiences and orchestras grew. Within 10 years of his starting to write for orchestra, he became one of the most frequently performed living American composers, his accessible, energized compositions a breath of fresh air for both performers and listeners fed up with Western art music. But with Adams' foray into the world of opera, new criticisms were on the horizon.

Nixon in China (1987) and The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) marked radical departures from standard operatic format, taking events from recent cultural and political history and placing them in a 19th-century, grand opera framework. Both works were quickly labeled "docu-operas," with some people dismissing them as operatic pop art before they premiered. But in spite of the naysayers, Nixon drew a good deal of positive press, winning a 1989 Grammy and being hailed by Time magazine as one of the 10 most important recordings of the decade.

Klinghoffer, sadly, fared less well. With its politically charged, ripped-from-the-headlines subject matter -- the 1984 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro by Palestinian terrorists, and the subsequent murder of a wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer -- audiences and critics alike seemed unable to separate fact from fiction, actual event from artistic expression. The work was picketed, criticized, condemned for having little or no artistic value. While it's enjoyed several productions in Europe over the years, it hasn't been staged in America since being performed in San Francisco in 1992.

Many critics accused Adams' music in Klinghoffer of being derivative and ineffective, but for the composer, the opera represented a stylistic breakthrough. "I was reading the Old Testament and I was reading the Koran, and I was reading all these lurid newspaper accounts of the kidnapping," recalls Adams. "And I felt that to deal with this issue and this kind of subject matter -- not only the contemporary aspects of it, but more importantly the timeless aspects of it -- I just couldn't go 'doodle doodle doodle doodle.'

"I just feel that all of those sophisticated, subtle things are simply not in the minimalist canon," Adams continues. "I like the music, but I feel that it's kind of simplistic on a deep psychological level. And so what I was trying to do was use the energy that's been in my music since Shaker Loops or earlier, but create something that had more anxiety in it. And one of the major ways of achieving anxiety is through dissonance."

Klinghoffer led to a handful of surprisingly dissonant works in the early to mid-1990s, such as Adams' Chamber Symphony (1992) and Violin Concerto (1994), which will receive its San Francisco Symphony premiere in January. Critics were utterly bewildered by the extreme change in Adams' music -- as, to a certain degree, was the composer himself. "I felt that the music was on the verge of sounding like something someone else had written," he admits, "and I didn't want to go there anymore." But where he chose to go next shocked even Adams' most unflappable listeners: He decided to tackle the Broadway musical.

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995) is described as an "earthquake/romance," telling of the lives and loves of twentysomethings in inner-city Los Angeles at the time of the devastating 1994 Northridge quake. A 25-pop-song work with lyrics by poet and essayist June Jordan, it was a celebration of tonality and melody after a brief departure from both, as well as a means for Adams to address some of his issues with opera. "Opera is fundamentally perceived now as an archaic art form," says Adams. "Although I'm very fond of the two operas that I wrote, I'm just not convinced that the whole scenario with the orchestra and the pit and even the sound of the operatic voice on the stage is answering our aesthetic needs. So what I was trying to do was to find a theatrical format that felt more modern than the opera."

Needless to say, a pop piece like I Was Looking at the Ceiling didn't further Adams' cause with his critics. The work received a cool reception at its Berkeley premiere and was deemed too "politically correct" with its "rainbow" cast of characters. Critics also said its music lacked the edge that a "real" pop songwriter would have undoubtedly provided. Still, it remains one of Adams' favorite works. "I'm completely bullish on this piece," he says, still basking in the glow of the recent Nonesuch release with Audra MacDonald, "and I think that it will have a very interesting future. There's too much talent in it to have it just die."

Over the last few years, Adams' music has changed again, recalling his so-called neo-romantic period in the '80s, but incorporating his contrapuntal language from the mid-'90s. This can be heard in the final pieces on the box set, such as Lollapalooza (1995), written for conductor Simon Rattle's 40th birthday, and Slonimsky's Earbox (1996). Adams has also returned to writing large-scale works for orchestra: Naîve and Sentimental Music, a 50-minute composition, premiered in Los Angeles in February and will be recorded there in November. The Nativity, an evening-length work for orchestra and voices, will premiere in Paris in December of 2000.

The diversity of Adams' musical output makes for a challenge in evaluating his art; it's like having a box of puzzle pieces from a few different puzzles, and trying to make one complete picture out of them. "I expect to see a lot of serious head scratching in the press for Earbox, " admits Adams, "because I notice how much people who write about music feel they have to find a handle. Somehow style, particularly in the U.S., means something very important."

But listening to Earbox one realizes that what seemed to be complete stylistic breaks are more like organic shifts, a natural evolutionary process of experimenting with new forms and ideas as they arise. But these changes are never at the expense of Adams' singular voice, which remains a constant throughout. What ties the composer's seemingly diverse works together are things experienced more than heard: drama, movement, momentum. Like the work of the minimalists, Adams' music moves over the listener in waves. But while hearing minimalist music can be a passive experience, with patterns and textures merely washing over you, Adams' music is alive and active, pulling you from place to place. And while you can never be sure where you're headed next, chances are it'll be one hell of a ride.

Adams remains unapologetic about his diversity, regardless of criticism. "I think that's what an artist's life should be -- not stuck doing one style," he says. "How tiresome if Picasso had just stayed in his blue period for 60 years, or if Stravinsky had regurgitated Firebird or Rite of Spring. I'm more willing to take a risk of failure, and to try an idea that may not pan out -- and maybe I'll lose a whole year of work on it. But I think it's worth taking a risk. I think of all these wonderful pieces that I never would have written, if I hadn't taken a jump into the unknown."

About The Author

Stacey Kors

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