THE BLOG

Music I (Mostly) Hold Dear: John Adams

04/08/2014 11:23 am ET | Updated Jun 08, 2014

John Adams is one of the most frequently performed of American composers and justly so.

Shaker Loops continues to hold its allure. In its well-handled diatonic materials, bravura approach to rhythm, units cycling through overlapping rhythmic loops, and its stretching of time and romantic accelerandi which have the force of a railroad engine, this is music that is both visceral and intellectual. It is also not completely simple nor purely elemental. He adds a new technique clearly picked up in the electroacoustic music studio, a quasi-filtering process applied to registral filling in or deletion, that separates this minimalist work from those of his then mentors, Reich, Glass, and Riley. The work is not without blemish. Its slow movement, that suggests the undulating and desultory nature of water, grows tedious. The materials are somewhat unformed and anodyne, but it is saved by its classical structure -- the climax comes right at the Golden Mean providing architectural clarity. The fourth and final movement has similar issues.

The trickster element in John's personality comes through best in his Chamber Symphony, which sounds like Ives on uppers. It is witty, rambunctious, and beguiling. Like Shake Loops it succeeds less well in its slow movement as writing a true melody is an issue. John's Book of Alleged Dances is equally witty and humorous.

I find the settings of Whitman in The Wound-dresser to be among his very best vocal writing as his laconic baritone lines are deeply poignant and have just the right American gait. The orchestral accompaniment is never obtrusive but is also never dull, a very fine and tricky path to walk.

I agree with Richard Taruskin's assessment that works like The Death Klinghoffer and El Nino are superficial in comparison, and morally and religiously problematic. Other earlier works like Nixon in China and Harmonium now leave me weary as their machine-gun like rhythms feel like Shoenberg's Pierrot drilling into the pate of my skull.

Among his more recent work is the three movement Dr. Atomic Symphony, a reduction from the opera by the eponymous name. The first movement, In the Laboratory, is portentous but finally melodramatic. The second, Panic, is a wide and deep canvas of music that is fraught, taught, and overly wrought. It is visually graphic and has certain qualities that refer to Shaker Loops in its virtuoso string writing. Its ability to sustain angst is impressive but finally a bit dull. A long horn solo is panoramic but is devoid of musical heft. There is much wind and string filler that occupies, but doesn't extend, dramatic time. The third movement, Trinity, is too sectional and straightforward in its motoric quality which finally just sounds forced. A trumpet tune lacks profile and the return to simplistic minimalist chugging at the end is crass and unworthy.

A setting of the John Donne poem, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God," sung by J. Robert Oppenheimer in the opera Doctor Atomic, is considered by many to be a highpoint of the opera. I can't agree, as its churning orchestral interludes sound just adolescently petulant and the faux Purcellian vocal line doesn't turn into true melody as it so desperately seeks to do. Ned Rorem suggests that a composer should never repeat text unless the poet does so. While I am not so doctrinaire, in this case, the repetition of text puts the work over the top and into the realm of melodrama.

Adams has done much better than this opera and its orchestral CliffsNotes version, and I am sure will do so in the future. In this regard, I look forward to hearing his new saxophone concerto an Outlier written for the remarkable Timothy McAllister, as Adams remains one of our great hopes.