- A theme underscores conversation about John Adams recent years
of critical acclaim. I hear it in any of about a dozen satisfying quotationsalternately
about turning away from his art-music roots and turning toward his vernacular
influences. But perhaps the theme is best rendered by a caption in the
recent program of the Los Angeles premier production of El Niño,
with the Los Angeles Philharmonic last month. The best American
classical music is very open, very embracing (“LA Phil”
- Critics often describe Adams as a savior of contemporary classical
music (see Finn 37–38 and Kettle 7). As he explains his dissent
from our numerous and lamentable aesthetic campsthe European avant-garde,
minimalism, and modernismhe appeals to what seem like basic values:
emotion, accessibility, and immediacy, among others, all presumably
lacking in the work of university-employed composers. His descriptions
of what is musically possible, on the other hand, seem to suggest a
new era of unity and widespread public consensus. And perhaps Adams
is on to something. Surely if American classical music were anything
like American democracy, Adams would serve a term in high office.
- When I went to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to hear his now-widely-known
oratorio El Niño, I was in search of words for questions
about Adams that I could not quite express. I review the piece now in
an academic context, and the Pulitzer honor awarded him since then gives
my elusive concerns a new edginess. Thinking as an American musician,
I am softened by Adams patriotic testimony about how musical we
Americans are; it makes me want to listen to his music as openly as
I listen, say, to Ellington, Porter, or even Dvorâk. On the other
hand, thinking as someone who teaches at universities, and as someone
who likes a lot of music that is not popular in America, I am on the
defensive. Nevertheless, reflecting on El Niño, I re-open
my ears, as I think Adams would prefer, to the potential for a new continuity
in American music.
- Adams fulfilled two commissions simultaneously with El Niño:
an orchestra-chorus piece for the San Francisco Symphony and an opera
for the Theatre Châtelet in Paris. Here in Los Angeles, as elsewhere,
the production was really a fully-staged opera in all but name: the
chorus and soloists are in near continuous action on stage, with specific
(albeit stark) costumes and scenery. As figures move openly and naturally
through their choreography on a sparse stage, it is worth noting that
coordination with diverse and creative designers has been extraordinarily
well managed. Adams and long-time collaborator Peter Sellars form something
here that often works in grand unison, as though dreamt-of in a single
mind. The libretto is also provocativethe first few texts alone
are already a potent array of contrasts in Christian symbolism: from
constrained medieval invocations of the meaning of virginity (the early
English anonymous I Sing of a Maiden) alongside a meditation
on the divine significances and troubles of conception and pregnancy
(Rosario Castellanos La Anunciación).
- The pared-down orchestra beneath the stage sounded a little unhappy,
each tightly-wound section perhaps hoping for relief from its overlapping
responsibilities to count measures before entering or exiting. (The
instrumentalists were at their best when Adams occasional sparse
passages allowed the principals to contribute variously to longer or
more evolving melodies.) Nevertheless Esa-Pekka Salonen powerfully demonstrated
his commitment to interpret contemporary music with the same nuance
and energy as he offers canonical works.
- Dawn Upshaws extraordinary performance of Memorial
de Tlatelolco in Part Two was the crowning achievement of
the nightthe nine-minute aria lays bare a singers every
imaginable vulnerability: including gigantic shifts of register, rapid
contrasts between shouting and whispering, and competition with a saturated
range of instruments (sometimes coming in gratuitous explosions: shocking
as sonic events, but strangely inexpressive). Upshaw met these vocal
challenges unflinchingly, even while she kneeled, hunched over, on an
empty floor, thrusting an imaginary blade toward her curled abdomen.
And of course she is brilliant, conveying bewilderment, awe, cynicism,
and ecstasy without a tone or a syllable of melodrama.
- A projection of video by Sellars is the centerpiece of the stage;
it was a bit oversized, but the spectacle never overwhelmed the singers
excellent work (as many previewers had feared). It almost stands on
its own as a cinematic narrative; the story, as told on screen, is peopled
with characters whom Sellars says are given voice by singers in the
opera, but who really need no words at all. They stand on beaches, in
motel kitchens, and in quiet parking lots; they kiss and dance, in unpicturesque
deserts. At first, in the view of this camera, diverse faces eloquently
dramatize trepidation, comfort, and weariness, for unknown or everyday
reasons. A short while later, scenes of policemen and Chicana beachcombers
display more clearly the beautiful contradictions with which any of
us might greet a miracle: fear and joy, humility and incredulity, or
even pretense. Our attention is turned from a mere collection of faces
toward a (thankfully) unironic treatment of miraculous experience. Seeing
these bold strokes, I am happy to forgive a few of the rhapsodic moments
and the pale, lip-studded vogue of homeless mother Maryprettily
disaffected and hip. In the end, the whole video animates an essential
message: echoing the gospels, Sellars invites us to cut away vigorously
at the scleroses between white and brown, between law enforcement and
the poor, between those with health care (especially of the pre-natal
sort), and those without.
- It is difficult to know where to begin, in trying to discuss how music
contributes to the evenings other media accomplishments. Adams
succeeds in tying these other elements together, but in another sense
he is in the background. Traditional operatic and choral singing are
forceful and palpable characteristics of our experience. But strangely,
this music embodies many of the aspirations (or faults) of the experimental
styles that Adams once carefully spurned. Instrumental layers and voices
are oriented a bit more toward high concepts and raw sonic experiences
than harmonic continuity, and perhaps more toward rhythmic games than
- For example, although the opening twenty minutes of the opera moves
through overlapping modes, roughly from D minor to E major and back
again, the path on which he moves between these regions is paradigmatically
“modern,” using isolated abstract shifts from one scale
to another, rather than changes of melodic expression. At no time do
changes from one group of modes (F lydian, A minor) to another (E major,
Fsharp dorian) seem to have lasting formal implications, or move
us noticeably from one emotional landscape to another. I can only imagine
that Adams harmony is motivated by opaque structuralist concerns.
- This problem emerges again about a half hour later, in settings of
the seventh through ninth texts (all of which draw on ancient Christian
gospels that never made it into the New Testament). The underlying pulse
of all of these arias and choruses is set against layers of syncopation,
but so often the rhythms resolve outward to square, march-like metricism.
(The great Willard White, as Joseph alarmed at Marys virgin pregnancy,
howls complex thoughts of jealousy and awewho is he who
has deceived me?but even then, Adams reduces his accompaniment
to a series of seemingly equidistant swaths of sound, arranged like
toy blocks.) It makes me wonder whether Adams competing layers
of rhythm are negating many of his more instinctive kinds of musical
expression. The choruses are perpetually rushed and pulsating, but never
really seem to have momentum. The music is fast and slow, but has nothing
that can really belong in the more nuanced heritage of allegro or adagio.
- Not that it should. But for what purpose Adams might avoid such possibilities,
while dwelling alternately on prettiness and shock value, I cannot guess.
This music is not a (paradigmatically minimalist) economic expanse of
small motifs. It also has none of the cleverness or sentimental counterpoint
of the neo-tonal tradition (Percy Grainger, Norman Dello Joio) to which
Adams sometimes seems indebted.
- El Niño, nevertheless, is a rush, in some sense of the
word. At the end of Part One, the L.A. Master Chorus erupts in a magnificent
display of dexterity and force, set to Hildegard von Bingens text
“O Quam Preciosa.” A messiah has now been born, apparently
in the light of predictable but well-balanced rising cadences. I find
myself not knowing what to expect in the remainder of the evening, and
I am both eager and wary to find out.
A close listening:
Pues Me Dios Ha Nacido A Penar
- As mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson began the first syllables
of the oratorios Part Two, the audience around me had barely
to the darkness after a bright and expansive intermission. Now by strong
contrast to what preceded it, Lieberson is alone with a lush but quiet
accompaniment, singing some strange lullaby. In Adams structurally
smooth and paper-like issuing of sound, we are listening for the first
signs of Jesus mortality and youth.
- The intricacy of the aria text and the world of its author Sor Juana
Inés de la Cruz (16481695) may provide clues to Adams
motivations. As told by the great Mexican
poet Octavio Paz, the life of Juana Inés is a struggle between
complex and untidy opposites.1 She was
raised poor, but after charming her way through the Mexican aristocracy,
she chose to become a nun (probably because it was the only available
means of continuing her work as a scholar). Yet much of Sor Juanas
poetry is defiantly secular in tone, and her scholarship on early women
saints is surprisingly prescient of late modern feminism. She is consciously
concerned with the struggles of womanhood in the midst of misogyny,
rather than of Christian martyrdom in the midst of pagans. (Still, her
meditations on the gospels are sometimes near feverish in their devotion.)
- One of Sor Juanas few sacred poemsPues
Me Dios Ha Nacido A Penar (Because my lord was born
to suffer)is Liebersons text. [Click here
for full text.] These words reveal the same messy tensions that Paz
interprets biographically. The struggles are numerous: worldly and heavenly
concerns compete with one another in the mind of a woman praying to
an infant Jesus. The narrator sometimes seems to be the mother Mary
herself; in other moments she is perhaps not even a mother, but a figure
alarmed at the swirl of uncertain futures and purposes that all wakeful
infants seem to possess. The poem serves to reintroduce us to the story
of nativity at what might be the first moment of Jesus infancy.
As such, the aria is strangely poised not between consciousness and
sleep, but between life and mortality.
- Adams manifests the troubled feeling of internal struggle in Pues
Me Dios through a more externalized and overt dialogue between
soloist and chorus. The soloists opening phrase is driven by slightly
precious-sounding upward leapsfirst a minor seventh, then an octave,
then smaller intervals. A coherent sense of a dorian mode (or perhaps
just a brooding raised 6th scale degree in A minor) emerges when the
leaps are compensated by falling skips and steps. As the melody reaches
toward the second line of text, it avoids any feeling of completion,
instead suggesting anxiety, through a single faded repetition of the
words déjenle velar: we hear the cautious tone of
an inexperienced new parent.
- And then we begin again, more emphatically: Because my lord
was born to suffer
I avoided giving in to impatience when
the melody returned with still more examples of tugging lilts and drifting
inflections. The music, after all, is not merely pretty; through Adams
steps and strides, there are some psychological dimensions developing
in Liebersons maternal characater. I wanted to allow myself to
hear what the singer is sayingI wondered if this lasting mood
could illuminate some deeper dramatic purpose.
- As soon as the chorus begins to sing Pues está desvelada
por mi, there is a small and implicitous surprisea raised
third above the same droning A bass, where earlier that
part of the bass motion had been minor. Something was changing: teetering,
or rumbling really, on the brink of otherworldliness. In the next phrase,
or maybe sooner, I thought, this strange new leading tone would propel
us over some gulf or chasm, and into something unknown. [Listen]
- But nothing happened.
- In retrospect, the newly raised third in the bass only seemed startling
to me in the scope of my private yearning for long-range voice leading.
In Adams world, there was a simpler purpose for the various shifts
from one mode to another. He wanted to change the color. He wanted simply
to modulate, to show that perspective had shifted from one of the poems
opinions to its opposite. When the soprano dominates again at the end
of the aria, the bass Csharp yielded again to a Cnatural.
Through it all, the chorus and soprano argued about whether Jesus should
be awake or asleep, but though they inhabited two parallel modes, they
only created a single, immobile, musical space.
- Like much of El Niño, this Pues me dios
serves us relentless orchestral and ornamental intensity and a scarcity
of distinct musical expression. The practical outcome, intended or not,
is that sonorous experiences are disjuncteach one potentially
exciting on its own but unremarkable in its larger context. Whenever
Adams picks up the pace, near the end of most of the oratorios
monologues, there is always just enough noise and luster to keep your
attention from wandering too deeply into consciousness of what you are
hearing. Yet whenever an event seems designed to snatch up your attention
or invite you to come along into the narrative, you can usually bet
it will be quite a while before your attention will be rewarded again.
- After winning the Pulitzer prize last month for his Transmigration
of Souls, a New York Times article quoted Adams discussing
the sometimes-controversial honor (Midgette E1). Adams explains
why the honor should go more often to well-known composers: he reminds
us that American culture is a profoundly musical one. He is pointing,
of course, to the array of rich traditions that, over the course of
more than a century, have evolved among American people. He is saying,
I think, that since some of the music cultivated by American audiences
has been so widely influential in the world, it makes little sense that
an American prize would go to a composer who has not been widely heard
by the American public.
- Adams indicated surprise at winning the award, and gave credit to
a number of composers who never won but are perhaps more deserving:
Monk (Meredith or Thelonius), Harry Partch,
list reads like a whos who of experimentalists that Adams seems
to count himself among. The usual winners, Adams bemoans, are academy
composers. But the university is where the musicians on Adams
list are most commonly heard. The posture of unilateralism in this contest
confuses me. Which team gets the mavericks? Conversely, does my music
have to turn a profit before I can claim Adams lay-friendly moral
- The alarm which Adams sounds, seemingly in the interest of displacing
some of what goes on in the worlds music schools, is a bid for
connectedness to the deeper cultural language
of American traditions. If we can somehow say that Adams' music has
grown from the seeds of rock and roll or hip-hopthough I think
that would be simplisticthen maybe he has a point. In the same
sense that Bernstein and Copeland championed the American vernacular,
today’s musicians could champion aspects of today’s media
culture.2 Maybe Adams’ layers of
sound have accomplished that.
- But even the strained counterpoint of that view is severely lacking
in consciousness of how much variety can be found in American culture
(and in the means of its production)today as ever. From decade
to decade, some radically dissimilar factors can make or break the mass-appeal
and endurance of any kind of music. We are now in a late and strange
era in the development of American culture. There is a wider-than-ever
gap between rich and poor in the arts: a tiny handful of performers
and artists can command in an evening’s work as much as what the
vast majority of their competitors (and sometimes even those sharing
that evening’s stage) can earn in a year. This unilateral vision
of American music isn’t justified by the demands of an audience,
but rather by the demands of an industry and its relationship to name
recognition. An allegory for that discrepancy, of course, is that Adams
has few commercially successful peers. If market success is to be a
factor in awards to composers, then who could legitimately compete?
- Perhaps a stridently anti-university, pro-market view of American
music is also justified by the transformation of music-at-large into
something which is not quite a literature anymore, not in the same sense
that jazz, 20th-century musical theater, or hip-hops pre-commercial
roots, have been. Consumers are now more than ever encouraged to identify
with a type of music because of what it represents as a fixed sound,
rather than to listen through any kind of unfolding or narrative expression.
If nothing else, we can attribute Adams commercial success to
his alignment with the pulse of this sort of identity-oriented listening.
In any point of view, however, there is no reason that musicians making
other kinds of sound or conversationeither in or out of the academyshould
worry that their efforts are in danger of irrelevance.
University of California, Santa Cruz
1. Her mother was criolla
(a light mestizo raised as a Spaniard), and her illegitimate father was
her preadolescent years were spent on a poor farmstead in the mountains,
where there was little hope of access to knowledge or learning of any
European kind; nevertheless she seems to have hungered for it specifically
and uncompromisingly. Long before she was sent to the great Cuidad México
to live with an aunt, she is said to have read prolificly, and of her
own volition. She had no familial ties to the Spanish colonial governors
or other elite, but once in México, she learned Latin quickly,
and taught herself theology well enough to impress a local vicerine.
age sixteen her talents seem to have secured for her a privileged place
as a lady-in-waiting; her knowledge and wisdom made her an attraction
to travelers from as far away as Spain and Italy.
2. This is perhaps the
same embrace of public opinions simplest measurementsi.e.,
the market, and perhaps the instincts of wealthy arts donorsthat
drove U.S. symphony orcherstras in the 1970s and 1980s to point untold
the direction of pops concerts and the occasional laser light show. On
the whole it could be argued the pops movement was less lucrative than
some participants hoped it would be, coterminous as it was with an era
in which small and mid-sized philharmonic societies were decimated.
Finn, Robert. Lyric Opera Cleveland: Adams Ceiling/Sky. American
Record Guide 65.6 (November-December 2002): 37–38.
Kettle, David. M
is for Minimalismand for Moving On. BBC Music Magazine11.2
(October 2002): 7.
LA PHIL Living Music. Los Angeles Philharmonic Association,
Winter-Spring Program 2003. Accessed 29 March 2003 <http://www.LAPhil.com/resources/browse_people.cfm?type=3>.
Midgette, Anne. Dissonant Thoughts on Music Pulitzers. New
York Times 9 April 2003, E1.
Sor Juana, or, The traps of faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers
Peden. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.