"It would be difficult to make an account of all the ways John Adams’s music has influenced me and my work," Nico Muhly writes in his note in the upcoming 40-disc box set John Adams Collected Works, "but in the spirit of writing something personal, I’d like to offer a few perhaps impersonal observations about his work in a more circular, even crabwise, fashion. There are specific places in John’s music where there is a rhyme hidden across decades, relating to an elusive sense of 'meaning' in his music which radiates across his body of work." You can read his complete note from the box set here.
Nonesuch Records releases the forty-disc John Adams Collected Works, a box set of recordings spanning more than four decades of the composer’s career with the label, on June 24, 2022. It includes two extensive booklets with new essays and notes by Timo Andres, Julia Bullock, Robert Hurwitz, Nico Muhly, and Jake Wilder-Smith. Here is Nico Muhly's note:
As composers mark birthdays and anniversaries of seminal works, it’s too easy to look back at their work as a trajectory: from obscurity to fame, from simplicity to complexity, or from antagonist to institutionalist. We can lazily trace the genealogy of an idea to someone from a former generation (“Oh, I see where she got that...”). We’re sometimes encouraged to let the line bend a bit, as with Stravinsky’s stylistic changes of tack, but otherwise, the rigidity of the line always holds an analytical temptation. It would be difficult to make an account of all the ways John Adams’s music has influenced me and my work, but in the spirit of writing something personal, I’d like to offer a few perhaps impersonal observations about his work in a more circular, even crabwise, fashion. There are specific places in John’s music where there is a rhyme hidden across decades, relating to an elusive sense of “meaning” in his music which radiates across his body of work.
My access to John’s music was always limited by the availability of the scores and recordings when I was young. In 1993, it wasn’t easy to just pop out to the library and grab a giant orchestral score, and, limited to the selections at the local record store or library, I treated each new acquisition as a special occasion. I have a really specific memory of grabbing one of my best friends and a boombox to listen to the newly released CD of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995) in our high school’s cafeteria; the joyful fourths that start that piece and expand out into that bouncy cluster remain a happy memory, a little present of a chord.
One of the first pieces I heard (whose score I wouldn’t look on until easily a decade later) was Harmonium (1981), written the year I was born. It sets “Negative Love,” by John Donne, and two of Emily Dickinson’s most celebrated poems (“Because I could not stop for Death” and “Wild Nights”). The piece is formally organized into three movements in the traditional structure of fast–slow–fast, but within the first and third movements, there is a sub-organizational strategy of large shapes, mostly giant crescendi deploying various devices to swell and expand. Although the work can be lazily categorized as “minimalist” (inasmuch as repetition and layering form the predominant motor driving the ship), every orchestrational strategy here is toothsome, Romantic, dramatic, forceful, and derived from the texts. For instance, I would happily argue that the opening shape of the third movement would satiate even the most perverse Wagner enthusiasts’ Rhine-needs.
Harmonium’s first movement shatters the Donne text through repetition not just of words but by single syllables; even the unison choral moments are split into canons and pulse, leaving us with the thrust of the text abstracted through music.
The second movement treats Dickinson’s poem in almost constant unison; even though there are processes at work, the processes have delivered some proper tunes: “We passed the school where children played” should surely replace some depressing lullaby in common use.
The third movement deploys a combination of abstract and straightforward setting, and contains some of John’s more delicious modulations; even if the motor comes from the lofts of New York in the 1970s, the heart is Americana, romance, style, class, and show business all at once.
In the first movement, one of the more vertiginous waves delivers a choral entrance in full unison, in an ecstatic cluster based around an E-flat chord, on the words: “If any who deciphers beſt, / What we know not, our ſelves, can know, / Let him teach mee that nothing […]”. I’m not sure how I can express how thrilling and mind-blowing that climax was for me to hear as a high school student, with my background in both very traditional text-setting (Schubert) and fully topsy-turvy extended techniques, such as those found in Crumb. Harmonium taught me that you can take a beautiful piece of text and choose how to set it, and mix those choices. It doesn’t have to be the pure abstraction of Berio or the stylized dryness of Stravinsky; it can be both when the text demands it. When talking about the ocean, you don’t need the declamatory watersports of Vaughan Williams’s “Behold! the sea itself! / And on its limitless, heaving breast, thy ships,” followed by crash cymbals. John’s dead-simple, quiet invocation, “Ah—the sea!” bears the full effect of the speaker’s yearning, but in subtle dialogue with the heartbeat of benediction the accompaniment offers.
I heard those climactic chords again, radically transformed, when I first heard The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), written a decade after Harmonium. Its first chorus remains one of John’s most expressive and powerful pieces of music of any kind. Its shape is, in brief, one giant crescendo, but not just in volume: after the first few bars, which consist of just an F minor chord played in even eighth notes, string lines begin floating above the grid, pushing the women’s chorus higher and higher, step by step, as they relive a simple memory of a Palestinian childhood en famille. The orchestra becomes more and more agitated, shifting off the grid as well; the overall rhythmic footprint becomes driving and fervent. That shape ushers in an echo of the same climactic cluster from Harmonium, on nearly the same pitches, but this time the text is steely and clear, itself a declaration of a resilient monotheism so powerfully articulated by Alice Goodman’s libretto: “Though we have paid to drink / Our water, and our wood / Is sold to us, we thank / The only God.” Another bottom-to-top orchestral crescendo delivers us back to a very similar cluster, but here, the text is more strictly narratively emotional: “Let the supplanter look / Upon his work. Our faith / Will take the stones he broke / And break his teeth.” I don’t want it to sound as if I’m belaboring a small technical point—because I am, of course, obsessed with the artistic achievement here—but it’s important for me to note that a similar set of chords deployed entirely differently ten years apart creates a plasticity of meaning within the work of a single artist’s career. Once, the bowsprit of a musical shape; here, a dramatic and savagely powerful cri de coeur.
Speaking entirely personally: I think it should be a truth universally acknowledged that two of the most extraordinary chords of the 20th century are to be found at the beginning of Britten’s Abraham and Isaac canticle and at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Britten’s is an E-flat major chord but without the fifth, so there is a sense of emptiness that, in Britten’s universe, makes room for the voice of God, about to ask Abraham to do something terrible. Stravinsky’s chord is note-for-note more overstuffed than Britten’s: it’s an E minor chord primarily composed of its third, with room between the highest and lowest expressions wide enough to drive a truck through. For me, it’s always represented the sudden but ever-present shock of the Psalmist’s devotions: a purely Old Testament expression of faith, where suffering is real and salvation is distant.
The third such chord, for me, is the sole currency of the opening few pages of John’s Harmonielehre (1985). This opening chord, repeated 40 scourging times, is itself a hollowed-out E minor chord without a fifth. Like its colleague in the Britten, it grabs me by the throat and insists on the mind filling it up, narrativizing it, imbuing it with some covert and personal meaning. The last gesture of the piece, two movements later—during which “minimalist” techniques have somehow become liquid and deliquescent, passing through and being transformed by the ghosts of the 19th and 20th century in an elegant and singular way—is an E-flat major chord, with much of the orchestra ignoring the fifth in their patterns, save for the ones who have it, who hammer it brutally, insisting on a sense of completion, fulfillment, and ecstasy.
This type of chord has come to mean something in John’s work, inadvertently or not, and I think it’s most important to focus on what it means for the listener. Dramatic, frozen pillars of it can be found in Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018) and, most arrestingly, in the orchestral introduction and the interludes attendant to the aria at the end of Act I of Doctor Atomic (2004–05), “Batter My Heart,” which sets John Donne’s sonnet by the same name. The aria begins on a unison D (unisons in opera generally set up something scary, as we know all too well from Wozzeck), agitated and dramatically lit from within, and suddenly expands out to the menace of a D minor chord, again without a fifth, pulsed violently between winds, strings, and timpani. That sonority and distance between the notes becomes an id e fixe in the aria. Here, Robert Oppenheimer is apostrophizing the bomb itself, struggling with the Mystery of the Trinity (a loaded term in Los Alamos), and wrestling with reason, faith, mortification, and destruction. In contrast to the interludes, the vocal lines are lyrical as befits the poem, albeit tormented. Between each vocal utterance, the hollow menace comes back, always dragging us back from any possible resolution into some kind of inexorable terror. The bad version of the end of this act would conclude, of course, in the Saint-Saënsian way with Oppenheimer singing some ridiculously high note, as the walls of the temple come tumbling down all the way upstage. John elects to place us in the middle of a man’s very human fear, and shines strobe lights on the void of this chord for the entire audience to look through.
The first scene of Nixon in China (1987) features, among other celebrated musical and dramatic outrages, a wonderful, athletic aria for Nixon (“News has a kind of mystery”), in which the libretto and the music shuttle quickly between all of Nixon’s preoccupations, hopes, and neuroses. There are fast and incessant pulses throughout, and small text fragments repeat in jittery ways. The text suggests a slightly ominous shift, and then a distant idea moves quite close, and the pulse becomes choppy—a morse code of anxiety. Nixon says, “The rats begin to chew / The sheets. There’s murmuring below. / Now there’s ingratitude! My hand / Is steady as a rock.” He repeats “the rats begin to chew the sheets” several times, under which we begin to hear something quite unsettling: the male chorus starts muttering under their breath, without distinct words. The orchestra hollows out into an e-minor chord with no fifth in it, and we are left with a cold man in a cold, bare airfield; only a rude little key change, a pivot on the wished-for note, tells the choir to calm down and gets us back into the relative warmth of fully formed chords again. Given the stability of the harmonic language and repetition-based economy of the pulse, it’s striking to have this murmur in the background: information without pulse, form, or (planned) pitch.
John uses this technique again in The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2012) a quarter of a century later, but it has been radically transformed from an effect into a highly pressurized and sacred moment. We are to imagine Jesus, Mary of Bethany, and Martha around Lazarus’s tomb, four days after his death. Jesus calls forth Lazarus, and the orchestra melts and shatters: the cellos, quite high, start playing glissandi into uncharted notes; the chorus divides into strange clusters, with some women singing notes held at random lengths, making individual changes of dynamics. The male chorus enters, without notes and only a shape, and the composer instructs: “glossolalia; troubled, anxious muttering.” It grows ever more intense as Lazarus is raised from the dead. For me, the resonance between Nixon’s distant rats, so important in American history, and this moment, so important in the New Testament, is striking. What was a distant effect has become powerful, sacred foreground, and here, as the text and story would suggest, the entire ecosystem of the music is murky, impossible to find footing, and dangerously hazy.
It’s overly convenient to say that John’s music has “changed a lot” over his career (in the enervating way that the parents of childhood friends make it a point to comment about how they knew one when one was [extend hand mid-thigh] tall), but it is also great fun to see the extent to which he has, in fact, moved house a great deal, and in a satisfyingly non-linear way. Many composers are stylistic homebodies, buying early, fixing the place up slowly, maybe tearing up the shag carpet in 1982 to expose the wood beneath and barely re-doing the kitchen in the late ’90s to get rid of the glass brick by the breakfast bar. John has moved from place to place out of an artistic need, happily jettisoning the trappings of one place, knowing he can get them back again. Even when the immediate environment of his music sounds different on the surface, there is always a deep curiosity and vigor to which I can only aspire. His music from this morning doesn’t immediately sound like his music from 1971, or from 1993, or from 2013; the orchestral works don’t sound like bigger versions of the piano pieces, and the string quartets don’t sound like sketches for symphonies. However, on closer examination, you begin to see old friends popping up not just through subtle or explicit influence (“Hey, isn’t that opening of Ceiling/Sky like the impish grandkid of Steve Reich’s Four Organs?”), but through a sense that the things he’s carried with him have taken on additional luster, patina, and emotional resonance. A detail has become a centerpiece; a figurative painting, lit differently, has offered levels of unforeseen abstraction and telling detail. It’s these small details that make me admire John so much: the big shapes are obviously fantastic, effective, powerful, and brilliant, but the little objéts, the strange tools of the trade and talismans kept close to hand, keep me on my toes, with a sense of constant wonder.
John’s now become a colleague and a friend, but it’s worth noting that we most formally met when I was playing orchestral piano in Harmonielehre as a student. The piano plays the opening triple-forte hollowed-out terror-chord with the rest of the band (trust and believe I played it with perhaps too much gusto), but the composer, for reasons perhaps best left unexamined, leaves the piano out of the last 50 bars’ joyful repetition of that fifth. Recently, I made a few calls to other pianists who’d played that part over the years and I expressed my vexation at being left out of the final tutti. Most of them just said, “Oh yeah, I always just play it with the xylophone and the vibes; it’s so good.” Don’t tell John.