Review Essay | John Adams and a Certain Counterpoint of Contemporary Reasoning: The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s El Niño, March 2003

A theme underscores conversation about John Adams’ recent years of critical acclaim. I hear it in any of about a dozen satisfying quotations—alternately 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” 4).

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 camps—the European avant-garde, minimalism, and modernism—he 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 provocative—the 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 Upshaw’s extraordinary performance of “Memorial de Tlatelolco” in Part Two was the crowning achievement of the night—the nine-minute aria lays bare a singer’s 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 Video screen in El Ninobeachcombers 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 Mary—prettily 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 evening’s 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 balanced phrases.

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, F–sharp 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 Mary’s virgin pregnancy, howls complex thoughts of jealousy and awe—“who 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 Bingen’s 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 oratorio’s Part Two, the audience around me had barely readjustedLorraine Hunt Liebersonto 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 (1648–1695) 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 Juana’s 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 Juana’s few sacred poems—“Pues Me Dios Ha Nacido A Penar” (“Because my lord was born to suffer”)—is Lieberson’s 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 soloist’s opening phrase is driven by slightly precious-sounding upward leaps—first 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 Lieberson’s maternal characater. I wanted to allow myself to hear what the singer is saying—I 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 surprise—a 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.

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 poem’s opinions to its opposite. When the soprano dominates again at the end of the aria, the bass C–sharp yielded again to a C–natural. 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 disjunct—each 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 oratorio’s 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, … ”—the list reads like a who’s 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 authority?

The alarm which Adams sounds, seemingly in the interest of displacing some of what goes on in the world’s 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-hop—though I think that would be simplistic—then 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-hop’s 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 conversation—either in or out of the academy—should worry that their efforts are in danger of irrelevance.

Ben Carson
University of California, Santa Cruz

Works Cited

Finn, Robert. “Lyric Opera Cleveland: Adams’ ‘Ceiling/Sky.’” American Record Guide 65.6 (November-December 2002): 37–38.

Kettle, David. “M is for Minimalism—and for Moving On.” BBC Music Magazine 11.2 (October 2002): 7.

“LA PHIL – Living Music.” Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, Winter-Spring Program 2003. Accessed 29 March 2003 <>.

Midgette, Anne. “Dissonant Thoughts on Music Pulitzers.” New York Times 9 April 2003, E1.

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana, or, The traps of faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.


  1.  Her mother was criolla (a light mestizo raised as a Spaniard), and her illegitimate father was basque. Most of 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. By 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 opinion’s simplest measurements—i.e., the market, and perhaps the instincts of wealthy arts donors—that drove U.S. symphony orcherstras in the 1970s and 1980s to point untold millions in 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.