Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Composer John Adams: notes on a page, squared

"You have to be careful not to think too much about Beethoven's mastery. Otherwise it's like staring into the sun."—John Adams

"You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?" That's how contemporary composer John Adams described Short Ride in a Fast Machine. One of his most famous pieces, it premiered on today's date in 1986, played by the Pittsburgh Symphony. Adams reveals the concepts behind Ride and other signature works (such as the opera Nixon in China) in Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life. If you've been leery of modern classical music, maybe it's time to get your feet wet!

Adams also writes a blog about music and sundry other themes called "Hell Mouth." I half wish I hadn't discovered it, because the first entry I read had me hooked (just what I need, more reading material!). "Is opening with a bald quote from the Ninth Symphony not unlike Duchamp painting a goatee on the Mona Lisa?" he asks, in talking about using themes from Beethoven's late quartets in a piece called Absolute Jest.
It’s a provocation, for sure, but Duchamp appears to have been making an art-historical comment about values. I am “jesting,” but overall my piece is a serious jest, born of love for the material I’ve chosen to use.
By choosing Beethoven I was yielding to an obsession—maybe even a compulsion— a subliminal connection with the driving energy and rhythmic concision of his music. Returning over and over to it, especially to the piano sonatas and the quartets, has provided a force for renewal ever since I began making my own music.
The raw material: From the Opus 131 C# minor quartet I use two motifs from the scherzo and the fugue theme that opens the first movement. That scherzo, by the way, has what must be the fastest quarter notes ever written. The first part of Absolute Jest is mostly devoted to this material. This, by the way, is “square” music—in other words the phrases and beats are in two or four. The “round” music, the very fast ¾ themes from the Opus 135 F major quartet, appears later. It’s very different music. The C# minor scherzo is intense and driven, whereas the latter, the superfast ¾ scherzo, feels to me like a bouncing ball. It is, by the way, in its original form some of the most difficult string writing ever conceived.
Can we imagine what string players of Beethoven’s day must have thought when they first took a look at these fiendishly difficult quartets? They must have been convinced that, due to his deafness, Beethoven had lost touch with musical reality.
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  1. I came here thinking "Second President of the United States" John Adams, and was a bit confused before I figured it out... Even though some of the more technical language went over my head, this was very interesting. I've always liked allusions and homages in literature, when well done, so I don't see why music should be any different!

  2. Thanks for this, I'm totally lost when it comes to contemporary composers! There's not nearly enough coverage. On the techie side, I use Internet Explorer and it's always fine! Firefox had some difficulties, though...

  3. I really enjoy classical music I'll have to check him out.

  4. I too went into this post thinking I was going to be reading all about John Adams (President) words of wisdom, but this guy is definitely something different, and wow what an accomplished composer and wordsmith, love the quote at the top of the page!!!

  5. I realize that she was singing in English, but I wish I had the libretto for the Nixon in China clip; I feel like there was some humor that went over my head..

    I imagine that string players in Beethoven's day would have thought to themselves after being presented with his quartets: this is a chance for me to improve my playing and perform something that has as yet never been performed before. I feel like the challenge would mostly have been welcomed with excitement.

  6. Wow, I will have to check him out! Though not truly a classical fan, I tend to like more contemporary classical music as opposed to some of the classics.

  7. Did Paganini mind when Brahms wrote his variations? Did Mozart object when Chopin did variations of La ci darem la mano? If they did, I read nothing of it now. Composers borrow themes all the time. Just spell my name right, Beethoven might say.
    I agree with Anonymous that we need a libretto to understand better where Adams is going with his opera. The snippet is undistinguished.

    1. you're right it's hard to convey in a snippet. The opera was telecast in the Live from the Met series, and her long aria was one of the highlights. Of course it would have seemed like so much musical chow mein without the words at the bottom of the screen!
      Are you an opera singer, opera lover?

    2. Just found this: "Mao's wife, on the other hand, was to be 'not just a shrieking coloratura, but also someone who in the opera's final act can reveal her private fantasies, her erotic desires, and even a certain tragic awareness.'"
      There's also a very poignant solo scene w/ Pat Nixon.
      This is from a recent interview w/ Adams about a SF Opera production:
      Q Pat Nixon and Madam Mao are both terrific characters in the opera. Will you talk about them?

      A Pat Nixon is the ideal stand-by-your-man Republican wife, the role of the woman as always standing in the background, but representing core values. Again we saw that very much on display in the recent (primary) campaign, whenever you saw Newt Gingrich or Romney with their spouses. And anyone who ever steps out of the background, as Hillary Clinton did, gets severely criticized.

      Q But in a lot of ways, Pat Nixon is such a touching figure in the opera.

      A When Pat has her moment, she thinks about homeland, American values and Norman Rockwell images. And the poetry that (librettist) Alice Goodman gave her in Act II is really wonderful poetry. Alice managed to summon up these images that are routinely abused by advertising and political slogans, images of sitting around the living room table. Alice did it in a way that's so absolutely sincere and from the heart; when Pat's singing, you're really able to appreciate those values.

      Q What about Madame Mao?

      A She was in her younger years a kind of frustrated artist -- in fact a movie actress -- but she gave that up in search of power, at which she became extremely adept. She was Machiavellian, a terrifying behind-the-throne power, a killer. It makes you almost think of the frustrated painter that the young Adolf Hitler was. At the same time, I felt there was always something very erotic about her.

      Q The libretto works with that idea, too.

      A You know, I conducted "Nixon" at the Met last year, and in many ways really became re-acquainted with it. And I just love the libretto. I love every moment in it. I can't believe there are still people who complain about it being arch or dense or incomprehensible. I think it's just fantastic. Alice caught the tone of the Chinese and the official Communist utterances. She caught the Middle-American tone of the U.S. politicians.

    3. Thank you, JP. I was afraid that "Nixon in China" would be an idea-driven songspiel. Opera is so stylized it hardly seems appropriate for history. (Although, if any President belonged in Shakespearian tragedy, Nixon did.) Adams does hint at some flashes of human feeling, which might salvage some cause for beauty. I will listen for it in his music.

    4. Just read an article in the New Yorker about a new Adams work at the LA Phil. I think I'll do a follow up. Alex Ross says he could have been an exalted Sondheim-type composer if he'd wanted to.
      History is all over opera (think Verdi). I think we need some distance???

  8. Mao Tse-tung had four wives. Which one is she?

    1. Chiang Ch'ing -- fourth wife and a leader of the "Gang of Four."