"John’s music has been such a constant in my life that it’s reached a base level of my consciousness—it’s part of the way I hear all music now," Timo Andres (pictured here with John Adams in 2007) writes in his note in the new 40-disc box set John Adams Collected Works. "But in this case, it goes beyond the music. John showed me a model for life as an artist, one in which being communicative, permeable, and all-embracing can coexist with good craftsmanship, strongly held opinions, and the pursuit of one’s life’s work with single-minded intensity." 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, this Friday, July 1. 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 the note by Andres (pictured above with Adams in 2007):
My first encounter with John Adams’s music was also one of my first experiences as a “professional” musician. My freshman year of college, I found a niche on campus as the piano accompanist willing to learn anything—the more challenging and contemporary, the better. One of the first students to take me up on this was a violinist who was playing Road Movies on her degree recital. The music was unlike any I’d heard or played before. It had a pulse that was simultaneously relentless and slippery, never quite adhering to a beat, demanding counting skills I hadn’t yet developed. The second I’d gotten the hang of the pattern, it would change slightly, an extra note or rest thrown in to keep things off-balance. But once it finally snapped into place in my brain, this repetitive, groovy, strangely expressive music was there for good.
In retrospect, it was a bit of a fluke that this concise chamber work was my entry point into a catalogue marked by grand operas, oratorios, and (in all but name) symphonies. But then, sometimes it’s easiest to discover things in reverse. At my work-study job in the music library, I devoured all the John Adams albums I could find: Harmonielehre, Nixon in China, El Niño. I nagged the librarians to order more. Even the titles of his pieces—Guide to Strange Places, Gnarly Buttons, My Father Knew Charles Ives—made me want to hear them (which sounds like a trivial thing, unless you know how hapless most composers are at titling). Here were new harmonies, alien textures, ideas about musical time and structure. The music’s scope and ambition matched the acoustical spaces it was built to occupy; there was a wonderful feeling of generosity. I often had the impression of watching a large object moving inexorably through a vast landscape, like how an airplane seems slow and fast simultaneously. The remarkable thing was its ability to encompass so much, working with a relatively concise set of musical tools. Eclecticism never came at the expense of focus; it all sounded like the work of the same person, talking about different subjects, moving among them with playful authority.
As I familiarized myself with more of John’s work, I followed the leads embedded in it, discovering music that had shaped and influenced it: Jean Sibelius, Duke Ellington, Terry Riley, Ingram Marshall (who would become my composition teacher a few years later). Meanwhile, John was pressing ahead with characteristic energy and unpredictability. It sounds strange, but closely following the work of a living composer was then a new experience for me. The objects of my youthful obsessions (Ravel, Ives, Bernstein) all had “double bars” on their careers; you could know everything there was to know. With the release of a new piece of John’s, I felt the same excitement my friends did at the advent of a new Radiohead or OutKast album. So it only made sense my junior year to send myself to San Francisco to cover the premiere of Doctor Atomic for the school paper. I remember being overwhelmed from the opera’s opening surround-sound rumbles right to its final, queasy drone—just as I was when I saw the opera a few years later at the Met, and most recently, in a concert performance at the Barbican. But at the time, for a young composer, it was almost too big a canvas to serve as a useful model for me.
I turned to the piano works—Phrygian Gates and Hallelujah Junction, specifically. Though John is a self-described “non-pianist,” his piano writing has always struck me as wonderfully personal and idiomatic. As an instrument, the piano is well-suited to his music, as comfortable beating time in the percussion section as it is building up rich, Romantic waves of sound. Phrygian Gates, one of his earliest published works, makes use of the full pianistic spectrum, stretched over a big-boned, three-part form. Playing it, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Here was a composer who clearly cared about harmonic beauty (of the sort described by some critics as “unabashed,” but what’s to be bashful about?) while maintaining the sense of rigorous control that can give music a feeling of inevitability, whatever its length and scope. Phrygian Gates has an almost obsessive formal plan, a series of interlocking harmonic and procedural skeletons that I proceeded to take apart and file away for future use while I practiced the piece. As the music passes through those eponymous “gates,” it undergoes stark, sudden change: a smooth, undulating pattern becomes dry and incisive, or a bass line drops three octaves without warning, creating a visceral jolt. To set up and dispatch these kinds of events requires the imposition of a firm authorial hand. Looking back, I realize that this sense of the intellect guiding and shaping the music, even having a good time in the process, was an important part of my initial attraction to John’s music. It confirmed a hunch I had that while a good conceptual framework could be the start of an effective piece, it wasn’t enough: it needed to be personal. This was a composition lesson in itself.
Written 25 years later, Hallelujah Junction wears its discipline more lightly; its chief concern is simply unadulterated pianistic joy. Written for two pianos, the piece’s sounds and rhythms therefore take on an additional dimension, like going from mono to stereo. (It’s also twice as loud, a fact not lost on me as an 18-year-old.) Like Road Movies, it is demanding chamber music; the pianists must each maintain extremely steady internal pulse while listening for hair-trigger responses to each other’s playing, their patterns interlocking at the 16th-note. These patterns grow and evolve in a way that’s emblematic of John’s style, traceable all the way from Phrygian Gates through recent works like the piano concerto Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? In his early pieces, motives—that is, the smallest recognizable thematic chunks of material—develop gradually and methodically, arranged horizontally into repeating patterns. Those patterns are then layered on top of each other, spawning a developmental family tree. This ties the music to the sound of 1960s minimalism if not its conceptual underpinnings; John was never content to let a musical process simply “play out” or stay in the same place for long, as in true minimalism. In Hallelujah Junction, those patterns are no less present, but they’ve been granted more agency. They evolve more quickly and more discursively, the landscape changing as if on time-lapse.
Since I couldn’t play Hallelujah Junction by myself, I channelled my obsession into my own compositional experiments for two pianos, which eventually coalesced into my first record, Shy and Mighty. When I listen to it now, I hear John’s influence on the surface: the athletic interplay between instruments, slowly shifting layered motives, moments of sudden and seismic harmonic motion, extravagant juxtapositions of vernacular and recondite. Over the years, as I’ve absorbed these things more thoroughly, they’ve become part of the substrate of my music, a firm foundation on which to build additional layers.
There’s a productive creative tension at the heart of John’s work. On the one hand, he’s a preternatural communicator: an artist of and for his public, a composer widely embraced beyond the new-music bubble, a writer of books and articles, a prolific conductor and curator. He’s as close as we have to a “dean of American composers” (a title once bestowed on Aaron Copland, to his chagrin). My sense is that John is equally ambivalent about the unofficial role, and that a part of him chafes at the mainstreaming effects of institutional endorsement (the part of him whose father knew Charles Ives, perhaps). As a younger composer, he could be something of an enfant terrible; pieces like Nixon in China, Grand Pianola Music, and especially The Death of Klinghoffer prodded and questioned all sorts of musical, cultural, and political orthodoxies. They turn out to have been good and pertinent questions, but in retrospect, it strikes me that their resonance owed less to savvy topicality than to the music’s visceral thrill.
Of course, one can’t remain an enfant terrible indefinitely. But that’s not to say John’s music has mellowed, or smoothed over, as sometimes happens to composers as they age. Quite the opposite: the populist and the maverick continue to duel. The music rarely swoons or blisses out the way it once did. The rhythms and harmonies which enchanted me 16 years ago haven’t lost their richness, but they’ve wandered into darker, more ambiguous territory. Two recent string quartets feel as densely packed and obsessively developmental as late Beethoven; Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is a boogie-woogie noir driven by menacing syncopations, the orchestra snapping and snarling at the heels of its restless soloist. Driving pulse remains, but the rhythmic figurations sound as though they’re under pressure, and evolve in Baroquely twisted ways. It’s thrilling to be able to trace these aspects of his music over the course of four decades. All the layers are still present and intermittently visible, almost like hearing one of his pieces on a macro scale: an additive process that pushes idea after idea to its logical extreme, and then beyond it, to where it becomes something new.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that when Road Movies was dropped into my lap as a college freshman, it triggered a chain reaction that led me where I am now. I’m grateful the music found me when it did, at such a formative time. For composers, it can be difficult to tease apart the analytical, acquisitive absorption of music from unencumbered enjoyment of it; we’re always on the clock, in a sense.
John’s music has been such a constant in my life that it’s reached a base level of my consciousness—it’s part of the way I hear all music now. But in this case, it goes beyond the music. John showed me a model for life as an artist, one in which being communicative, permeable, and all-embracing can coexist with good craftsmanship, strongly held opinions, and the pursuit of one’s life’s work with single-minded intensity.