"Prelude to Flight," A Note by Jake Wilder-Smith, from 'John Adams Collected Works'

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"For a generation of listeners born in the last two decades of the 20th century, the music of John Adams sounded as if it had always been there, a fixed point in a vast musical landscape," Jake Wilder-Smith writes in his note in the new 40-disc box set John Adams Collected Works. "Having already arrived in concert halls and on compact discs before our musical sensibilities began to take shape, this music colored our first impressions of a musical world. But as we grew older, Adams’s music continued to shift and expand. Listening as his work stretched in new directions, we found we had encountered the work of a significant composer in medias res: the narrative firmly established, but still in motion." You can read his complete note from the box set here.

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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 (which you can read here), Julia Bullock, Nico Muhly (which you can read here), Robert Hurwitz, and Jake Wilder-Smith. Below is Wilder-Smith's note:

For a generation of listeners born in the last two decades of the 20th century, the music of John Adams sounded as if it had always been there, a fixed point in a vast musical landscape. Having already arrived in concert halls and on compact discs before our musical sensibilities began to take shape, this music colored our first impressions of a musical world. But as we grew older, Adams’s music continued to shift and expand. Listening as his work stretched in new directions, we found we had encountered the work of a significant composer in medias res: the narrative firmly established, but still in motion.

Removed from the historical moment of its emergence onto the contemporary music scene, our introduction to Adams’s music was untouched by the cultural tensions that influenced its early reception. For those of us who didn’t live through it, tales of opposing factions of Modernists and Minimalists have taken on the nostalgic ring of war stories. The notion of a Minimalist Trinity comprised of Glass, Reich, and Adams—so popularly invoked in Adams’s early critical reception—had little impact on how we heard this music. If anything, it alerted us to the perennial phenomenon in which provisional groupings and cursory labels take root before listeners and critics have fostered the expressive vocabularies new music demands of us.

Adams’s faith in the sweeping possibilities of tonality, harmony, and rhythmic pulse reached us with the inflection of fact, not something fought for. The confluence of musical idioms that overlap, collide, and combine across Adams’s music announced the possibility of a musical multilingualism with startling sincerity, rather than modernist irony or postmodern pastiche.

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When listening to a recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, I have often heard the voices of children in the chorus and thought back to the earliest performances of these works. When these works were still new—not yet fixed in the Western canon—how did they sound to ears unaccustomed to them?

My first encounter with the music of John Adams offered a hint of what those children might have heard. In 2006, I took my place on stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall among the young singers who enter Adams’s Nativity oratorio, El Niño (2000), just as it draws to a close. In the first and final phrases of the poem Adams sets for the children’s chorus, Rosario Castellanos’s “Una palmera,” the musical line crests repeatedly in the interval of a minor second on the stressed syllable: Alta. Desnuda. Única. Poea. Lasting only a second, these moments of dissonance dissipate into a major third as soon they’re touched. Those brief glimmers of dissonance fascinated me. Feeling my voice brush up against the voices of the children beside me, I was captivated by how, in Adams’s hands, that interval—so close, so narrow—sent out a faint ripple when struck. Glistening and shuddering at once, it swept across El Niño’s musical landscape, irrigating it with the sound of children’s voices.

As an 11-year-old, this moment marked my introduction to the music of John Adams. In the years that followed, I, like many others of my generation, came to know Adams’s music primarily outside of the concert hall, listening to recordings of his music with the repetitive intensity characteristic of childhood. While no longer onstage, in the midst of music being made, the rush of performing Adams’s music hadn’t entirely washed away, either. In these recordings, I discovered an invitation into musical worlds almost overwhelming in their forceful presence.

Years later, I would read of John Adams’s own childhood experience with recorded music, listening repeatedly to Bach, Beethoven, Sibelius, Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others on the Magnavox record player his father brought home one Christmas. Hearing Adams’s music, one senses what it must have meant for the young composer to absorb these early musical influences this way: lying on the floor, flush with the speaker, the sound swelling with amplified immediacy. In works as spread apart in his career as The Chairman Dances (1985) and Absolute Jest (2012), you can almost hear the composer dropping the needle time and again on a movement, tune, or phrase, moving fluidly from an Ellington record to a Beethoven symphony, discerning each composer’s delight in rhythms and sounds that jut out unexpectedly and take you by surprise.

In the early years of his musical career, Adams might have heard Ravel drifting into Ellington, hymns evaporating and condensing along the shifting surfaces of Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. When we listen to Adams today, we hear the diverse strands of our own contemporary listening habits drawn together with second-nature ease.

Traveling Music: Traversing Adams’s Collected Works

Adams’s early works came on the heels of an abrupt shift: the cross-country trek that brought him from the academic enclave of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the San Francisco Bay Area, his adopted home since 1972. Here, he would construct his own modular synthesizer (encased in redwood and nicknamed the “Studebaker,” after an old family car), curate unconventional concert series featuring avant-garde music, and embark upon a period of musical experimentation that would lead to his first mature musical works.

If Adams’s move west is sometimes spoken of with intimations of American Progress, it is perhaps an impulse all-too-tempting when faced with a composer who shares his name with an American founding father. Narratives of forward progress, however, insinuate themselves quite often when we seek to trace a line across a composer’s career. Listening for the gradual development of early ideas, we expect a composer’s body of music to reveal the clear contours of sonata form, with youthful exposition maturing into development and culminating in recapitulation. Yet as the 40-year arc of work collected here demonstrates, Adams’s music doggedly resists such narratives. “Rather than viewing ‘progress’ as the paradigm for novelty in the arts,” he cautions in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, “we might be better advised to welcome the idea of ‘variation.’”

So while Adams’s music invites us to follow the outlines of a musical life ever evolving, it also challenges our assumptions about how composers move through their careers. Ever the trickster, Adams turns on their head many of our expectations about how a composer develops and innovates. Spurning conventional naming practices for his symphonic works, he has opted instead for titles teeming with historical and aesthetic implications: Harmonielehre (1985) after Schoenberg, Naïve and Sentimental Music (1998) after Schiller. Allusions illuminating for the earnest listener double as mischievous traps set for the overeager critic. In other composers’bodies of work, small-scale chamber compositions serve as studies that build toward large-scale operatic and symphonic forms. Yet across Adams’s career, we encounter the exact opposite: his operas and oratorios fuel the discovery of new musical forms, and in the works that follow in their wake, the musical ideas so densely layered in his musical dramas seem to fan out—suddenly discernible in their individual shapes.

The breadth and variety of Adams’s music thus begs a question: how do we navigate a body of work that seems to shake off the usual structures and scaffolds we might seek to impose upon it?

Traversing the four decades of music gathered here is like stepping foot onto a landscape that shifts and slides as we travel across it. “We now and then detect in nature slight dislocations, which apprise us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed, but sliding,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his quintessentially American essay, “Circles.” Emerson’s vision of the American landscape suggests a possible path through the 40-year span of music collected here. There is something distinctly American about Adams’s approach to shaping his career: resisting neat narrative lines and rhetorical forms, he delights in sudden swerves and curving paths that bend back upon themselves. Envisioning a musical future rooted in American soil, Adams composes a body of work that re-imagines music history as a foundation that never stands still—a ground sliding subtly underfoot.

Gradual Changes and Sudden Shifts: Phrygian Gates (1977) to Nixon in China (1987)

Moving away from the meditative musical processes suggested by the minimalism of Steve Reich’s Drumming (1970–71) or Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts (1971–74), Adams’s early works feature sudden, dramatic, and unprepared shifts in harmony, rhythm, and meter. Early works, including Phrygian Gates (1977), China Gates (1977), Shaker Loops (1978, rev. 1983), and Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), illustrate how Adams sought to trace new pathways for minimalist techniques, repurposing them in support of new expressive ends. His break from the minimalist aesthetic of gradual change paved the way for his first explorations of what he has referred to as “traveling music,” music that “gives the impression of continuous movement over a shifting landscape.”

In these works, harmonic centers slide into one another, passing from one to the next in waves. Rhythms cross and collide, giving rise to the undulating effects of polyrhythmic motion and the acoustic shimmer of voices unfolding just out-of-phase. Listening as these musical gestures ripple across Adams’s early compositions, we might recall the Pacific swells that lapped against the shore outside the small beachside cottage where he worked out the musical forms underlying Phrygian Gates and other formative early works. But in these waves of sound, we can also discern the influence of the oscillators and waveforms of electronic music merging with Adams’s unique visions of the American landscape.

Beginning with his first published work for solo piano, Phrygian Gates, Adams weaves these fluid movements back and forth into tapestries of tension and release. Across its three movements, constant shifts between Phrygian and Lydian musical modes propel the pianist’s passage through six tonal centers. Drawn along in the constant, moto perpetuo pulse of Phrygian Gates’ musical sibling, China Gates, you find yourself drifting across a familiar landscape made alien, as in a dream. New tonal centers open like vistas that greet you unexpectedly. Climbing higher and higher, you feel yourself on the cusp of a view neatly framed, final and certain—but it never arrives. Instead, your newly elevated perspective reveals only a multiplicity of peaks stretching all around, all notions of finality forever out of reach. As the piece comes to a close, its relentless pulse, finding no place to rest, seems to evaporate into the atmosphere.

In the orchestral works that follow—Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), Harmonium (1980), Grand Pianola Music (1982), and Harmonielehre (1985)—Adams builds expansive musical structures in which these same waves of sound cross and overlap. Though representative of the minimalist grammar underlying Adams’s early compositions, these large-scale works give rise to forms astonishingly varied, and hardly minimal. From the waves that characterize his early works for piano, Adams devised a minimalist syntax capable of absorbing the harmonic vocabulary of late Romantic chromaticism as fluently as the American vernacular.

With a common tone or rhythmic pulse acting as a “hinge,” Adams moves among diverse worlds of sound, finding particular pleasure in moments of elision. In the first movement of Harmonielehre, we hear a G pulsate as the harmony shifts subtly around it, wavering between E minor and E-flat major. In the final movement of Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, “On the Dominant Divide,” it is the archetypal progression of Western tonal music—I–V–I, tonic–dominant–tonic—that rocks back and forth with unabashed delight. Within the arc of Adams’s early career, Grand Pianola Music itself functions as a kind of hinge, moving between the diatonic purity and minimalist leanings of Common Tones in Simple Time and Harmonium and the bold synthesis of chromatic color and minimalist form introduced in Harmonielehre.

Adams has written of how landscapes born in dreams precipitated both Grand Pianola Music and Harmonielehre. Listening to these works, the harmonic transformations and sliding rhythmic planes of Adams’s music seem to rhyme with the fluid movements of dream logic, where faces and landscapes make and unmake themselves with liquid ease, and the fragment of a memory, desire, or anxiety is drawn out into narrative.

With the arrival of Nixon in China (1987), Adams’s first opera, the musical landscapes of his early works give rise to dramatic forms that swerve between the satirical and the sincere, the sacred and the profane. When Peter Sellars proposed that Adams compose an opera about Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, he had already discerned the ease with which Adams’s music moves between emotional states: “It’s funny, then it isn’t,” he observed. In Nixon in China, expressive shifts and empathic leaps almost impossible to conceive manifest in an instant. Richard Nixon, sweating and stuttering in his media-obsessed Act I “News” aria, transforms into a sort of accidental philosopher by the opera’s end. With its interplay of satire and psychological portraiture, Nixon in China transcends any cartoonish vision of Nixon, the historical import of his meeting with Mao, or the changing geopolitical landscape of the late 20th century.

American Variations: Nixon in China (1987) to Doctor Atomic (2005)

The composition of Nixon in China represents a turning point in Adams’s career. Rather than progressing neatly from one to the next, the works that follow in Nixon’s wake tend to veer between contrasting characters and moods. “Along with every dark, introspective, ‘serious’ piece, there must come the Trickster, the garish, ironic wild card that threatens to lose me whatever friends the previous composition might have gained,” Adams reflects in his liner notes for the Nonesuch recording that pairs his elegiac Walt Whitman setting, The Wound-Dresser (1988–89), with Fearful Symmetries (1988), a return to the off-kilter big band orchestrations of Nixon in China.

Composed one after the other following Nixon’s premiere, these two works illustrate one of the primary rhythms underlying Adams’s compositional career: abrupt shifts between consecutive compositions. Likewise, the driving dance club rhythms of Lollapalooza (1995), a fantasia on the syncopations spring-loaded within the word that lends the work its title, are met by the slackened pulse of Road Movies (1995)—a work for violin and piano that summons up drives along roads so straight and so still that you’re never sure whether you’re really moving forward, except when passing objects appear momentarily in the glint of headlights. The possibilities and perils of human transformation that run through his folktale-inspired opera A Flowering Tree (2006) follow his study of the irreversible consequences of the creation of the atomic bomb in Doctor Atomic (2005), a Faustian portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer that unfolds across the desert landscape of Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Though Adams’s captivation with American landscapes, real and mythic, represents a through line in his work, his compositions travel across musical terrains as varied as the topographies they evoke. In the first decade of the 2000s, we move from the precariously shifting ground of Guide to Strange Places (2001) into the Kerouac-inflected California coast of The Dharma at Big Sur (2003); the New England of Adams’s childhood in My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) to the celluloid fantasy of postwar Hollywood in City Noir (2009).

Following the premiere of Nixon in China in 1987, Adams returns repeatedly to musical drama. It is in these works that we sense the most pronounced transformations of his musical language. In each opera and oratorio, Adams channels the unique dramatic demands of the subject matter into expressive energies that reverberate across the concert works that follow.

His theatrical works center on moments in history charged with the potential for tectonic change. Eastern communism comes face-to-face with Western capitalism in Nixon in China, but we soon find its characters’ complex inner lives supplanting the ideologies they purport to represent. The long history of Palestinian-Israeli conflict rushes toward dramatic confrontation aboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship in The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), where individual voices and choral commentaries both clash and converse. The advent of the atomic bomb in Doctor Atomic heralds a future forever altered by a human invention devoid of its creators’ humanity. El Niño, conceived as an opera-oratorio, sets its sights on nothing less than the dawn of Christianity in its nuanced exploration of the mystery, joy, and sheer force of birth through the story of the Nativity.

“History is our mother,” Nixon sings in Nixon in China. Indeed, the diverse subjects of Adams’s operas and oratorios converge in a unique vision of the past, finely attuned to its reverberations across our present lives. “Opera ... exists across time,” Adams’s long-term collaborator Peter Sellars reflected, but the “heart of the operatic form is simultaneity.” In Adams’s dramatic works, the past and present are overlaid, burning into one another like a double-exposed frame of film.

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The transhistorical reach of Adams’s musical dramas is reflected in the inventive nature of their libretti. In her texts for Nixon and Klinghoffer, librettist Alice Goodman distills a wide array of poetic registers—from the King James Bible to the modernist American poet Wallace Stevens—into a voice somehow timeless, even as it remains closely hewed to the contours of the historical events depicted in these works. Individual lines from her libretti—“News has a kind of mystery,” from Nixon in China, or “It sounds like the truth,” from Klinghoffer—can be transposed into the present historical moment with uncanny, and sometimes uncomfortable, relevance.

Beginning with El Niño, Adams’s dramatic works feature libretti assembled from a variety of sources. Texts gathered from various cultures and time periods glide in and out of one another, opening into moments of startling juxtaposition. In El Niño’s account of the Nativity, Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents is represented by feminist Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos’s “Memorial de Tlatelolco,” a stirring and seething response to the 1969 massacre of unarmed civilians in Mexico City. Earlier in El Niño, “The Christmas Star,” by 20th-century Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral, unfolds over a choral setting of “O quam preciosa,” a text by the medieval writer and composer Hildegard von Bingen. As the modern text unspools above the medieval poem, a rush of sound soon engulfs both. Echoes of Gregorian chant break through to the surface for a moment, only to recede again, breaking into repeated fragments that float and shimmer in a stream of sound characteristic of Adams’s choral compositions extending back to his settings of John Donne and Emily Dickinson in Harmonium.

In Doctor Atomic, Sellars’s libretto weaves together documentary material from the Los Alamos laboratory with a broad array of texts, ranging from the Bhagavad Gita to 20th-century writer Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry. Early in the opera, J. Robert Oppenheimer answers physicist Edward Teller’s admission that “no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls” (taken from Teller’s letters) with the words of Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire: “The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing, that at this loss I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card.” Later in Act I, Oppenheimer transforms before our eyes into a metaphysical poet, as Adams brings an earthly physicality and contemporary sheen to his setting of Donne’s 1633 sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Operatic form is like an electric current shot through time in Doctor Atomic, carrying with it histories of human suffering and resistance, traces of our collective dreams and desires.

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Unanticipated resonances emanate from the compositions written in the wake of Adams’s dramatic works. The haunting melody that drifts over strumming chords in the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” from The Death of Klinghoffer forms surprising slant-rhymes with later compositions, including the tender clarinet caresses that characterize the third movement of Gnarly Buttons (1996), and the sinuous melodic line unfurled by unison flutes and oboe in the opening movement of Naive and Sentimental Music (1998). The sheer magnitude of Doctor Atomic leads unexpectedly to the compressed forms that frame the three movements of his Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007). Though the sparks of Adams’s dramatic imagination scintillate across his vast body of work, we find that they ignite musical ideas distinct from their dramatic sources.

Adams’s operas and oratorios have also propelled changes in how sound design and digital amplification are used in opera houses and concert halls. From Nixon on, synthesizers and keyboards with sampled sounds lend new timbral shadings to Adams’s orchestrations. In works as spread apart as Christian Zeal and Activity (1973), John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994) for the Kronos Quartet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), and Doctor Atomic (2005), pre-recorded and manipulated sounds are woven into acoustic fabrics.

While an interest in the possibilities offered by musical technology informs much of his music, here, too, a paradigm of forward progress quickly breaks down. Musical technologies—past and present, analog and digital—influence Adams’s music in unexpected, and markedly non-chronological, ways. It was the piano roll, for example, that prompted Adams’s Century Rolls (1997). Written for pianist Emanuel Ax, Adams’s first piano concerto was sparked by his experience listening to the sounds of the player piano, a technology used by both George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninoff (and many others) in the first decades of the 20th-century, and later by experimental American composer Conlon Nancarrow, whose Studies for Player Piano reimagined the possibilities of a piano that plays itself.

Early acoustic compositions found inspiration in the sounds of synthesizers and underlying forms of electronic music. The “gates” of his early piano works and “loops” and “slews” of Shaker Loops, for example, can be read as technical references, as well as evocations of how this music moves: the gate signals of modular synthesizers, the tape loops of musique concrète, and the electronic slewing that enables analog synthesizers to slide between notes. In his purely electronic compositions for synthesizer, culminating in Hoodoo Zephyr (1993), one senses that the synthesizer may represent for Adams what the player piano did for Nancarrow: a sort of workshop where musical motion can be studied with superhuman precision and gleeful abandon.

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Whenever Adams reimagines musical forms associated with the past, we see that his vision of music history is decidedly non-linear, revealing repeating loops and abrupt splices like those found in the tape music that influenced Shaker Loops. Take, for example, the middle movement of his Violin Concerto (1993), which borrows its title from a Robert Hass poem, “Body through which the dream flows.” While the Baroque chaconne is Adams’s model, here, we meet a chaconne floating in the half-light of dreams: as an eight-bar ground bass cycles through the movement, filtered through shifting, luminous orchestral textures, the violinist unspools long lines of sustained sound. Throughout, a hazy mist hovers between the bass line and the violin, through which filaments of light only occasionally pass, restructured.

Or take the passacaglia that emerges from the wreckage of the 1994 Northridge earthquake dramatized in I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), a musical drama with a libretto by poet June Jordan. The vernacular pop forms with which Adams experiments throughout Ceiling/Sky make the sudden appearance of the passacaglia in the work’s finale all the more surprising. A musical form in which variations layer and elide across a constant bass ostinato, the passacaglia might be translated literally as “a walk along the street”—a far cry from the driving pulse that skids and swerves through Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986).

Over the simple repeated motive that launches the finale of Ceiling/Sky, voices merge and overlap as fragments of the characters’ fears, dreams, and desires fold into one another. “Baby I can’t call an ambulance and even if I could / that wouldn’t do any good because the freeway’s down,” David sings at its start. With all movement in Los Angeles brought to a halt, Adams’s passacaglia speaks of beginning to move again, speak again, love again. Listening to it now—25 years after it was written, in the midst of a pandemic that cleared LA freeways and filled its hospitals—the moment hits with disquieting relevance. When everything crumbles around us, it seems to say, the rhythms that restart our bodies and our souls are not revved-up engines, but the rhythms closest to our bodies: our heartbeat and our breath, the steps we take and the words we utter.

Crosscurrents of Influence: Adams’s Recent Work

For composers navigating the rapidly evolving culture and commerce of contemporary music today, Adams has served as both model and mentor. Even for those composers whose work bears little outward resemblance to Adams’s musical aesthetic, one discerns the imperative of responding to his musical vision.

One of the oddities of influence, however, is that it flows both forward and backward. Whenever a truly new musical voice emerges, its influence casts itself in reverse, ricocheting across the musical past and transforming our perception of what came before. “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it,” T.S. Eliot writes. “The whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” Like the poet who transforms tradition by building upon it, Adams has distilled musical history into a voice as original as it is indispensable to how we listen to the tradition it carries forward today. “John’s musical language isn’t just contemporary,” Sellars has said. “It moves back across and through time.”

After the provocative re-imaginings of the Passion form in Klinghoffer, El Niño, and The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013), one begins to hear Bach’s Passions under Adams’s influence, discerning within them a wholly modern vision of suffering and resilience, rituals of mourning and repetitions of trauma. And after internalizing Adams’s reinvention of dance forms—from The Chairman Dances and John’s Book of Alleged Dances up to his recent piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018)—how can we not hear a hint of Adams in Mozart, as he recasts social dance forms to electrify his operatic structures, or even Mahler, as he infuses his symphonic forms with contaminated Viennese Lündler?

Adams’s vision of Beethoven looms especially large in his work of the last decade. After encountering the rush of Adams’s early work Grand Pianola Music, we may already begin to hear glimmers of Adams in Beethoven at his most exuberant and playful. But in three works written over the last decade—Absolute Jest (2012), Second Quartet (2014), and its “sister piece” Roll Over Beethoven (2014), an arrangement of the Second Quartet for four-hand piano—it’s as though Adams has concentrated and bottled the pure Adams energy already circulating within Beethoven’s music.

The gesture of reanimating a musical past recalls Stravinsky’s excavations of Pergolesi in Pulcinella. While Adams has cited a performance of Pulcinella as an important influence for Absolute Jest and the two works that follow, there is something more deeply personal about Adams’s engagement with this musical material from the past. Listening to them, one can’t help but recall the image of the young Adams listening repeatedly, obsessively, to Beethoven records on the family Magnavox, sussing out the electric impulses behind each melodic phrase, rhythmic cell, and harmonic shift.

Across these three works, shards of Beethoven’s late quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies churn, amassing energy and current. Listening to them, we might think of Rainer Marie Rilke’s vision of old structures as conduits for new technology: the ancient Roman sarcophagi repurposed as aqueducts through which fresh waters might flow, delivering new life. In Absolute Jest, a work scored for string quartet and orchestra, Adams processes fragments of the scherzo movements from Beethoven’s Opp. 131 and 135 quartets through a musical machine in which particles of energy hurtle forward, revitalized and redirected. If the scherzo, rendered literally as “jest” or “joke” in Italian, is not the form most often associated with Beethoven’s late period, Adams reorients our ears: Beethoven somehow sounds different after hearing Absolute Jest.

The past is not to be sworn away or consecrated from a distance in Adams’s contemporary visions of music history, but drawn into a new relationship with the present. Fragments of a musical past, cut-up and converted into an outpouring of energy all Adams’s own, converge in the vision of a musical future in constant conversation with what preceded it.

Adams’s music assures us that the past does not simply recede from view: its waves of influence continue to extend across each cultural era, uncovering renewed meaning and relevance. Like the other music we carry with us—whether Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Late Quartets, or Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder—Adams’s compositions never hold still. We can already discern that works like Nixon in China, El Niño, and Doctor Atomic will mean something uniquely charged for each audience that discovers them in the future, just as each era finds its archetypes, affections, and anxieties crystallized in a different Shakespeare play.

In “Circles,” Ralph Waldo Emerson imagines the course of history and human life not as a line that stretches from origin to conclusion, but as “a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles.” Like the ripples that move out from a disruption in a body of water, each work collected here can be imagined as a small disturbance that unsettles the perceived stillness of the Western canon, setting it in motion once again. Radiating across a surface that never stands still, Adams’s music promises to keep expanding like Emerson’s “self-evolving circle” for each listener who returns to it time and again, and for every generation that encounters it anew.

—Jake Wilder-Smith

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John Adams: Collected Works booklet interior: 'Badwater Road' by Deborah O'Grady
  • Wednesday, June 29, 2022
    "Prelude to Flight," A Note by Jake Wilder-Smith, from 'John Adams Collected Works'
    Deborah O'Grady

    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 (which you can read here), Julia Bullock, Nico Muhly (which you can read here), Robert Hurwitz, and Jake Wilder-Smith. Below is Wilder-Smith's note:

    For a generation of listeners born in the last two decades of the 20th century, the music of John Adams sounded as if it had always been there, a fixed point in a vast musical landscape. Having already arrived in concert halls and on compact discs before our musical sensibilities began to take shape, this music colored our first impressions of a musical world. But as we grew older, Adams’s music continued to shift and expand. Listening as his work stretched in new directions, we found we had encountered the work of a significant composer in medias res: the narrative firmly established, but still in motion.

    Removed from the historical moment of its emergence onto the contemporary music scene, our introduction to Adams’s music was untouched by the cultural tensions that influenced its early reception. For those of us who didn’t live through it, tales of opposing factions of Modernists and Minimalists have taken on the nostalgic ring of war stories. The notion of a Minimalist Trinity comprised of Glass, Reich, and Adams—so popularly invoked in Adams’s early critical reception—had little impact on how we heard this music. If anything, it alerted us to the perennial phenomenon in which provisional groupings and cursory labels take root before listeners and critics have fostered the expressive vocabularies new music demands of us.

    Adams’s faith in the sweeping possibilities of tonality, harmony, and rhythmic pulse reached us with the inflection of fact, not something fought for. The confluence of musical idioms that overlap, collide, and combine across Adams’s music announced the possibility of a musical multilingualism with startling sincerity, rather than modernist irony or postmodern pastiche.

    ______________________________

    When listening to a recording of Mahler’s Third Symphony or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, I have often heard the voices of children in the chorus and thought back to the earliest performances of these works. When these works were still new—not yet fixed in the Western canon—how did they sound to ears unaccustomed to them?

    My first encounter with the music of John Adams offered a hint of what those children might have heard. In 2006, I took my place on stage in Boston’s Symphony Hall among the young singers who enter Adams’s Nativity oratorio, El Niño (2000), just as it draws to a close. In the first and final phrases of the poem Adams sets for the children’s chorus, Rosario Castellanos’s “Una palmera,” the musical line crests repeatedly in the interval of a minor second on the stressed syllable: Alta. Desnuda. Única. Poea. Lasting only a second, these moments of dissonance dissipate into a major third as soon they’re touched. Those brief glimmers of dissonance fascinated me. Feeling my voice brush up against the voices of the children beside me, I was captivated by how, in Adams’s hands, that interval—so close, so narrow—sent out a faint ripple when struck. Glistening and shuddering at once, it swept across El Niño’s musical landscape, irrigating it with the sound of children’s voices.

    As an 11-year-old, this moment marked my introduction to the music of John Adams. In the years that followed, I, like many others of my generation, came to know Adams’s music primarily outside of the concert hall, listening to recordings of his music with the repetitive intensity characteristic of childhood. While no longer onstage, in the midst of music being made, the rush of performing Adams’s music hadn’t entirely washed away, either. In these recordings, I discovered an invitation into musical worlds almost overwhelming in their forceful presence.

    Years later, I would read of John Adams’s own childhood experience with recorded music, listening repeatedly to Bach, Beethoven, Sibelius, Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others on the Magnavox record player his father brought home one Christmas. Hearing Adams’s music, one senses what it must have meant for the young composer to absorb these early musical influences this way: lying on the floor, flush with the speaker, the sound swelling with amplified immediacy. In works as spread apart in his career as The Chairman Dances (1985) and Absolute Jest (2012), you can almost hear the composer dropping the needle time and again on a movement, tune, or phrase, moving fluidly from an Ellington record to a Beethoven symphony, discerning each composer’s delight in rhythms and sounds that jut out unexpectedly and take you by surprise.

    In the early years of his musical career, Adams might have heard Ravel drifting into Ellington, hymns evaporating and condensing along the shifting surfaces of Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony. When we listen to Adams today, we hear the diverse strands of our own contemporary listening habits drawn together with second-nature ease.

    Traveling Music: Traversing Adams’s Collected Works

    Adams’s early works came on the heels of an abrupt shift: the cross-country trek that brought him from the academic enclave of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the San Francisco Bay Area, his adopted home since 1972. Here, he would construct his own modular synthesizer (encased in redwood and nicknamed the “Studebaker,” after an old family car), curate unconventional concert series featuring avant-garde music, and embark upon a period of musical experimentation that would lead to his first mature musical works.

    If Adams’s move west is sometimes spoken of with intimations of American Progress, it is perhaps an impulse all-too-tempting when faced with a composer who shares his name with an American founding father. Narratives of forward progress, however, insinuate themselves quite often when we seek to trace a line across a composer’s career. Listening for the gradual development of early ideas, we expect a composer’s body of music to reveal the clear contours of sonata form, with youthful exposition maturing into development and culminating in recapitulation. Yet as the 40-year arc of work collected here demonstrates, Adams’s music doggedly resists such narratives. “Rather than viewing ‘progress’ as the paradigm for novelty in the arts,” he cautions in his memoir, Hallelujah Junction, “we might be better advised to welcome the idea of ‘variation.’”

    So while Adams’s music invites us to follow the outlines of a musical life ever evolving, it also challenges our assumptions about how composers move through their careers. Ever the trickster, Adams turns on their head many of our expectations about how a composer develops and innovates. Spurning conventional naming practices for his symphonic works, he has opted instead for titles teeming with historical and aesthetic implications: Harmonielehre (1985) after Schoenberg, Naïve and Sentimental Music (1998) after Schiller. Allusions illuminating for the earnest listener double as mischievous traps set for the overeager critic. In other composers’bodies of work, small-scale chamber compositions serve as studies that build toward large-scale operatic and symphonic forms. Yet across Adams’s career, we encounter the exact opposite: his operas and oratorios fuel the discovery of new musical forms, and in the works that follow in their wake, the musical ideas so densely layered in his musical dramas seem to fan out—suddenly discernible in their individual shapes.

    The breadth and variety of Adams’s music thus begs a question: how do we navigate a body of work that seems to shake off the usual structures and scaffolds we might seek to impose upon it?

    Traversing the four decades of music gathered here is like stepping foot onto a landscape that shifts and slides as we travel across it. “We now and then detect in nature slight dislocations, which apprise us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed, but sliding,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his quintessentially American essay, “Circles.” Emerson’s vision of the American landscape suggests a possible path through the 40-year span of music collected here. There is something distinctly American about Adams’s approach to shaping his career: resisting neat narrative lines and rhetorical forms, he delights in sudden swerves and curving paths that bend back upon themselves. Envisioning a musical future rooted in American soil, Adams composes a body of work that re-imagines music history as a foundation that never stands still—a ground sliding subtly underfoot.

    Gradual Changes and Sudden Shifts: Phrygian Gates (1977) to Nixon in China (1987)

    Moving away from the meditative musical processes suggested by the minimalism of Steve Reich’s Drumming (1970–71) or Philip Glass’s Music in 12 Parts (1971–74), Adams’s early works feature sudden, dramatic, and unprepared shifts in harmony, rhythm, and meter. Early works, including Phrygian Gates (1977), China Gates (1977), Shaker Loops (1978, rev. 1983), and Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), illustrate how Adams sought to trace new pathways for minimalist techniques, repurposing them in support of new expressive ends. His break from the minimalist aesthetic of gradual change paved the way for his first explorations of what he has referred to as “traveling music,” music that “gives the impression of continuous movement over a shifting landscape.”

    In these works, harmonic centers slide into one another, passing from one to the next in waves. Rhythms cross and collide, giving rise to the undulating effects of polyrhythmic motion and the acoustic shimmer of voices unfolding just out-of-phase. Listening as these musical gestures ripple across Adams’s early compositions, we might recall the Pacific swells that lapped against the shore outside the small beachside cottage where he worked out the musical forms underlying Phrygian Gates and other formative early works. But in these waves of sound, we can also discern the influence of the oscillators and waveforms of electronic music merging with Adams’s unique visions of the American landscape.

    Beginning with his first published work for solo piano, Phrygian Gates, Adams weaves these fluid movements back and forth into tapestries of tension and release. Across its three movements, constant shifts between Phrygian and Lydian musical modes propel the pianist’s passage through six tonal centers. Drawn along in the constant, moto perpetuo pulse of Phrygian Gates’ musical sibling, China Gates, you find yourself drifting across a familiar landscape made alien, as in a dream. New tonal centers open like vistas that greet you unexpectedly. Climbing higher and higher, you feel yourself on the cusp of a view neatly framed, final and certain—but it never arrives. Instead, your newly elevated perspective reveals only a multiplicity of peaks stretching all around, all notions of finality forever out of reach. As the piece comes to a close, its relentless pulse, finding no place to rest, seems to evaporate into the atmosphere.

    In the orchestral works that follow—Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), Harmonium (1980), Grand Pianola Music (1982), and Harmonielehre (1985)—Adams builds expansive musical structures in which these same waves of sound cross and overlap. Though representative of the minimalist grammar underlying Adams’s early compositions, these large-scale works give rise to forms astonishingly varied, and hardly minimal. From the waves that characterize his early works for piano, Adams devised a minimalist syntax capable of absorbing the harmonic vocabulary of late Romantic chromaticism as fluently as the American vernacular.

    With a common tone or rhythmic pulse acting as a “hinge,” Adams moves among diverse worlds of sound, finding particular pleasure in moments of elision. In the first movement of Harmonielehre, we hear a G pulsate as the harmony shifts subtly around it, wavering between E minor and E-flat major. In the final movement of Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, “On the Dominant Divide,” it is the archetypal progression of Western tonal music—I–V–I, tonic–dominant–tonic—that rocks back and forth with unabashed delight. Within the arc of Adams’s early career, Grand Pianola Music itself functions as a kind of hinge, moving between the diatonic purity and minimalist leanings of Common Tones in Simple Time and Harmonium and the bold synthesis of chromatic color and minimalist form introduced in Harmonielehre.

    Adams has written of how landscapes born in dreams precipitated both Grand Pianola Music and Harmonielehre. Listening to these works, the harmonic transformations and sliding rhythmic planes of Adams’s music seem to rhyme with the fluid movements of dream logic, where faces and landscapes make and unmake themselves with liquid ease, and the fragment of a memory, desire, or anxiety is drawn out into narrative.

    With the arrival of Nixon in China (1987), Adams’s first opera, the musical landscapes of his early works give rise to dramatic forms that swerve between the satirical and the sincere, the sacred and the profane. When Peter Sellars proposed that Adams compose an opera about Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, he had already discerned the ease with which Adams’s music moves between emotional states: “It’s funny, then it isn’t,” he observed. In Nixon in China, expressive shifts and empathic leaps almost impossible to conceive manifest in an instant. Richard Nixon, sweating and stuttering in his media-obsessed Act I “News” aria, transforms into a sort of accidental philosopher by the opera’s end. With its interplay of satire and psychological portraiture, Nixon in China transcends any cartoonish vision of Nixon, the historical import of his meeting with Mao, or the changing geopolitical landscape of the late 20th century.

    American Variations: Nixon in China (1987) to Doctor Atomic (2005)

    The composition of Nixon in China represents a turning point in Adams’s career. Rather than progressing neatly from one to the next, the works that follow in Nixon’s wake tend to veer between contrasting characters and moods. “Along with every dark, introspective, ‘serious’ piece, there must come the Trickster, the garish, ironic wild card that threatens to lose me whatever friends the previous composition might have gained,” Adams reflects in his liner notes for the Nonesuch recording that pairs his elegiac Walt Whitman setting, The Wound-Dresser (1988–89), with Fearful Symmetries (1988), a return to the off-kilter big band orchestrations of Nixon in China.

    Composed one after the other following Nixon’s premiere, these two works illustrate one of the primary rhythms underlying Adams’s compositional career: abrupt shifts between consecutive compositions. Likewise, the driving dance club rhythms of Lollapalooza (1995), a fantasia on the syncopations spring-loaded within the word that lends the work its title, are met by the slackened pulse of Road Movies (1995)—a work for violin and piano that summons up drives along roads so straight and so still that you’re never sure whether you’re really moving forward, except when passing objects appear momentarily in the glint of headlights. The possibilities and perils of human transformation that run through his folktale-inspired opera A Flowering Tree (2006) follow his study of the irreversible consequences of the creation of the atomic bomb in Doctor Atomic (2005), a Faustian portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer that unfolds across the desert landscape of Los Alamos, New Mexico.

    Though Adams’s captivation with American landscapes, real and mythic, represents a through line in his work, his compositions travel across musical terrains as varied as the topographies they evoke. In the first decade of the 2000s, we move from the precariously shifting ground of Guide to Strange Places (2001) into the Kerouac-inflected California coast of The Dharma at Big Sur (2003); the New England of Adams’s childhood in My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) to the celluloid fantasy of postwar Hollywood in City Noir (2009).

    Following the premiere of Nixon in China in 1987, Adams returns repeatedly to musical drama. It is in these works that we sense the most pronounced transformations of his musical language. In each opera and oratorio, Adams channels the unique dramatic demands of the subject matter into expressive energies that reverberate across the concert works that follow.

    His theatrical works center on moments in history charged with the potential for tectonic change. Eastern communism comes face-to-face with Western capitalism in Nixon in China, but we soon find its characters’ complex inner lives supplanting the ideologies they purport to represent. The long history of Palestinian-Israeli conflict rushes toward dramatic confrontation aboard the Achille Lauro cruise ship in The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), where individual voices and choral commentaries both clash and converse. The advent of the atomic bomb in Doctor Atomic heralds a future forever altered by a human invention devoid of its creators’ humanity. El Niño, conceived as an opera-oratorio, sets its sights on nothing less than the dawn of Christianity in its nuanced exploration of the mystery, joy, and sheer force of birth through the story of the Nativity.

    “History is our mother,” Nixon sings in Nixon in China. Indeed, the diverse subjects of Adams’s operas and oratorios converge in a unique vision of the past, finely attuned to its reverberations across our present lives. “Opera ... exists across time,” Adams’s long-term collaborator Peter Sellars reflected, but the “heart of the operatic form is simultaneity.” In Adams’s dramatic works, the past and present are overlaid, burning into one another like a double-exposed frame of film.

    ______________________________

    The transhistorical reach of Adams’s musical dramas is reflected in the inventive nature of their libretti. In her texts for Nixon and Klinghoffer, librettist Alice Goodman distills a wide array of poetic registers—from the King James Bible to the modernist American poet Wallace Stevens—into a voice somehow timeless, even as it remains closely hewed to the contours of the historical events depicted in these works. Individual lines from her libretti—“News has a kind of mystery,” from Nixon in China, or “It sounds like the truth,” from Klinghoffer—can be transposed into the present historical moment with uncanny, and sometimes uncomfortable, relevance.

    Beginning with El Niño, Adams’s dramatic works feature libretti assembled from a variety of sources. Texts gathered from various cultures and time periods glide in and out of one another, opening into moments of startling juxtaposition. In El Niño’s account of the Nativity, Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents is represented by feminist Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos’s “Memorial de Tlatelolco,” a stirring and seething response to the 1969 massacre of unarmed civilians in Mexico City. Earlier in El Niño, “The Christmas Star,” by 20th-century Chilean writer Gabriela Mistral, unfolds over a choral setting of “O quam preciosa,” a text by the medieval writer and composer Hildegard von Bingen. As the modern text unspools above the medieval poem, a rush of sound soon engulfs both. Echoes of Gregorian chant break through to the surface for a moment, only to recede again, breaking into repeated fragments that float and shimmer in a stream of sound characteristic of Adams’s choral compositions extending back to his settings of John Donne and Emily Dickinson in Harmonium.

    In Doctor Atomic, Sellars’s libretto weaves together documentary material from the Los Alamos laboratory with a broad array of texts, ranging from the Bhagavad Gita to 20th-century writer Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry. Early in the opera, J. Robert Oppenheimer answers physicist Edward Teller’s admission that “no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls” (taken from Teller’s letters) with the words of Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire: “The soul is a thing so impalpable, so often useless, and sometimes so embarrassing, that at this loss I felt only a little more emotion than if, during a walk, I had lost my visiting card.” Later in Act I, Oppenheimer transforms before our eyes into a metaphysical poet, as Adams brings an earthly physicality and contemporary sheen to his setting of Donne’s 1633 sonnet, “Batter my heart, three-person’d God.” Operatic form is like an electric current shot through time in Doctor Atomic, carrying with it histories of human suffering and resistance, traces of our collective dreams and desires.

    ______________________________

    Unanticipated resonances emanate from the compositions written in the wake of Adams’s dramatic works. The haunting melody that drifts over strumming chords in the “Chorus of Exiled Palestinians” from The Death of Klinghoffer forms surprising slant-rhymes with later compositions, including the tender clarinet caresses that characterize the third movement of Gnarly Buttons (1996), and the sinuous melodic line unfurled by unison flutes and oboe in the opening movement of Naive and Sentimental Music (1998). The sheer magnitude of Doctor Atomic leads unexpectedly to the compressed forms that frame the three movements of his Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007). Though the sparks of Adams’s dramatic imagination scintillate across his vast body of work, we find that they ignite musical ideas distinct from their dramatic sources.

    Adams’s operas and oratorios have also propelled changes in how sound design and digital amplification are used in opera houses and concert halls. From Nixon on, synthesizers and keyboards with sampled sounds lend new timbral shadings to Adams’s orchestrations. In works as spread apart as Christian Zeal and Activity (1973), John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994) for the Kronos Quartet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls (2002), and Doctor Atomic (2005), pre-recorded and manipulated sounds are woven into acoustic fabrics.

    While an interest in the possibilities offered by musical technology informs much of his music, here, too, a paradigm of forward progress quickly breaks down. Musical technologies—past and present, analog and digital—influence Adams’s music in unexpected, and markedly non-chronological, ways. It was the piano roll, for example, that prompted Adams’s Century Rolls (1997). Written for pianist Emanuel Ax, Adams’s first piano concerto was sparked by his experience listening to the sounds of the player piano, a technology used by both George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninoff (and many others) in the first decades of the 20th-century, and later by experimental American composer Conlon Nancarrow, whose Studies for Player Piano reimagined the possibilities of a piano that plays itself.

    Early acoustic compositions found inspiration in the sounds of synthesizers and underlying forms of electronic music. The “gates” of his early piano works and “loops” and “slews” of Shaker Loops, for example, can be read as technical references, as well as evocations of how this music moves: the gate signals of modular synthesizers, the tape loops of musique concrète, and the electronic slewing that enables analog synthesizers to slide between notes. In his purely electronic compositions for synthesizer, culminating in Hoodoo Zephyr (1993), one senses that the synthesizer may represent for Adams what the player piano did for Nancarrow: a sort of workshop where musical motion can be studied with superhuman precision and gleeful abandon.

    ______________________________

    Whenever Adams reimagines musical forms associated with the past, we see that his vision of music history is decidedly non-linear, revealing repeating loops and abrupt splices like those found in the tape music that influenced Shaker Loops. Take, for example, the middle movement of his Violin Concerto (1993), which borrows its title from a Robert Hass poem, “Body through which the dream flows.” While the Baroque chaconne is Adams’s model, here, we meet a chaconne floating in the half-light of dreams: as an eight-bar ground bass cycles through the movement, filtered through shifting, luminous orchestral textures, the violinist unspools long lines of sustained sound. Throughout, a hazy mist hovers between the bass line and the violin, through which filaments of light only occasionally pass, restructured.

    Or take the passacaglia that emerges from the wreckage of the 1994 Northridge earthquake dramatized in I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995), a musical drama with a libretto by poet June Jordan. The vernacular pop forms with which Adams experiments throughout Ceiling/Sky make the sudden appearance of the passacaglia in the work’s finale all the more surprising. A musical form in which variations layer and elide across a constant bass ostinato, the passacaglia might be translated literally as “a walk along the street”—a far cry from the driving pulse that skids and swerves through Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986).

    Over the simple repeated motive that launches the finale of Ceiling/Sky, voices merge and overlap as fragments of the characters’ fears, dreams, and desires fold into one another. “Baby I can’t call an ambulance and even if I could / that wouldn’t do any good because the freeway’s down,” David sings at its start. With all movement in Los Angeles brought to a halt, Adams’s passacaglia speaks of beginning to move again, speak again, love again. Listening to it now—25 years after it was written, in the midst of a pandemic that cleared LA freeways and filled its hospitals—the moment hits with disquieting relevance. When everything crumbles around us, it seems to say, the rhythms that restart our bodies and our souls are not revved-up engines, but the rhythms closest to our bodies: our heartbeat and our breath, the steps we take and the words we utter.

    Crosscurrents of Influence: Adams’s Recent Work

    For composers navigating the rapidly evolving culture and commerce of contemporary music today, Adams has served as both model and mentor. Even for those composers whose work bears little outward resemblance to Adams’s musical aesthetic, one discerns the imperative of responding to his musical vision.

    One of the oddities of influence, however, is that it flows both forward and backward. Whenever a truly new musical voice emerges, its influence casts itself in reverse, ricocheting across the musical past and transforming our perception of what came before. “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it,” T.S. Eliot writes. “The whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.” Like the poet who transforms tradition by building upon it, Adams has distilled musical history into a voice as original as it is indispensable to how we listen to the tradition it carries forward today. “John’s musical language isn’t just contemporary,” Sellars has said. “It moves back across and through time.”

    After the provocative re-imaginings of the Passion form in Klinghoffer, El Niño, and The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013), one begins to hear Bach’s Passions under Adams’s influence, discerning within them a wholly modern vision of suffering and resilience, rituals of mourning and repetitions of trauma. And after internalizing Adams’s reinvention of dance forms—from The Chairman Dances and John’s Book of Alleged Dances up to his recent piano concerto, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018)—how can we not hear a hint of Adams in Mozart, as he recasts social dance forms to electrify his operatic structures, or even Mahler, as he infuses his symphonic forms with contaminated Viennese Lündler?

    Adams’s vision of Beethoven looms especially large in his work of the last decade. After encountering the rush of Adams’s early work Grand Pianola Music, we may already begin to hear glimmers of Adams in Beethoven at his most exuberant and playful. But in three works written over the last decade—Absolute Jest (2012), Second Quartet (2014), and its “sister piece” Roll Over Beethoven (2014), an arrangement of the Second Quartet for four-hand piano—it’s as though Adams has concentrated and bottled the pure Adams energy already circulating within Beethoven’s music.

    The gesture of reanimating a musical past recalls Stravinsky’s excavations of Pergolesi in Pulcinella. While Adams has cited a performance of Pulcinella as an important influence for Absolute Jest and the two works that follow, there is something more deeply personal about Adams’s engagement with this musical material from the past. Listening to them, one can’t help but recall the image of the young Adams listening repeatedly, obsessively, to Beethoven records on the family Magnavox, sussing out the electric impulses behind each melodic phrase, rhythmic cell, and harmonic shift.

    Across these three works, shards of Beethoven’s late quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonies churn, amassing energy and current. Listening to them, we might think of Rainer Marie Rilke’s vision of old structures as conduits for new technology: the ancient Roman sarcophagi repurposed as aqueducts through which fresh waters might flow, delivering new life. In Absolute Jest, a work scored for string quartet and orchestra, Adams processes fragments of the scherzo movements from Beethoven’s Opp. 131 and 135 quartets through a musical machine in which particles of energy hurtle forward, revitalized and redirected. If the scherzo, rendered literally as “jest” or “joke” in Italian, is not the form most often associated with Beethoven’s late period, Adams reorients our ears: Beethoven somehow sounds different after hearing Absolute Jest.

    The past is not to be sworn away or consecrated from a distance in Adams’s contemporary visions of music history, but drawn into a new relationship with the present. Fragments of a musical past, cut-up and converted into an outpouring of energy all Adams’s own, converge in the vision of a musical future in constant conversation with what preceded it.

    Adams’s music assures us that the past does not simply recede from view: its waves of influence continue to extend across each cultural era, uncovering renewed meaning and relevance. Like the other music we carry with us—whether Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, Beethoven’s Late Quartets, or Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder—Adams’s compositions never hold still. We can already discern that works like Nixon in China, El Niño, and Doctor Atomic will mean something uniquely charged for each audience that discovers them in the future, just as each era finds its archetypes, affections, and anxieties crystallized in a different Shakespeare play.

    In “Circles,” Ralph Waldo Emerson imagines the course of history and human life not as a line that stretches from origin to conclusion, but as “a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles.” Like the ripples that move out from a disruption in a body of water, each work collected here can be imagined as a small disturbance that unsettles the perceived stillness of the Western canon, setting it in motion once again. Radiating across a surface that never stands still, Adams’s music promises to keep expanding like Emerson’s “self-evolving circle” for each listener who returns to it time and again, and for every generation that encounters it anew.

    —Jake Wilder-Smith

    Journal Articles:Artist News

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