Boxed Ears

John Adams gleefully ignores the boundaries of composition

"I just feel that all of those sophisticated, subtle things are simply not in the minimalist canon," Adams continues. "I like the music, but I feel that it's kind of simplistic on a deep psychological level. And so what I was trying to do was use the energy that's been in my music since Shaker Loops or earlier, but create something that had more anxiety in it. And one of the major ways of achieving anxiety is through dissonance."

Klinghoffer led to a handful of surprisingly dissonant works in the early to mid-'90s, such as Chamber Symphony (1992) and Violin Concerto (1994). Critics were utterly bewildered by the extreme change in Adams's music, as, to a certain degree, was the composer himself. "I felt that the music was on the verge of sounding like something someone else had written," he admits, "and I didn't want to go there anymore." But where he chose to go next shocked even his most unflappable listeners: He decided to tackle the Broadway musical.

I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky (1995) is described as an "earthquake/romance," which tells of the lives and loves of twentysomethings in inner-city Los Angeles at the time of the devastating Northridge quake in 1994. A 25-pop-song work with lyrics by poet and essayist June Jordan, it was a celebration of tonality and melody after Adams's brief departure from both, as well as a means for him to address some of his issues with opera. "Opera is fundamentally perceived now as an archaic art form," says Adams. "Although I'm very fond of the two operas that I wrote, I'm just not convinced that the whole scenario with the orchestra and the pit and even the sound of the operatic voice on the stage is answering our aesthetic needs. So what I was trying to do was to find a theatrical format that felt more modern than the opera."

From minimalism to Nixon in China to the pop musical, Berkeley composer John Adams has gleefully ignored the boundaries of composition
Christine Alicino
From minimalism to Nixon in China to the pop musical, Berkeley composer John Adams has gleefully ignored the boundaries of composition


Tickets cost $21 to $58. For more information call 305-673-3331.
8:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 11, at the Lincoln Theatre, 541 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach.

Needless to say, a pop piece like I Was Looking at the Ceiling didn't further Adams's cause with his critics. The work received a cool reception at its Berkeley premiere and was deemed too "politically correct" with its "rainbow" cast of characters. Critics also said its music lacked the edge that a "real" pop songwriter undoubtedly would have provided. Still, it remains one of the composer's favorite works. "I'm completely bullish on this piece," he says, still basking in the glow of the recent Nonesuch release with Audra MacDonald, "and I think that it will have a very interesting future. There's too much talent in it to have it just die."

Over the past few years, Adams's music has changed again, recalling his so-called neoromantic period in the '80s, but incorporating his contrapuntal language from the mid-'90s. This can be heard in the final pieces on the set's last disc, such as Lollapalooza (1995), written for conductor Simon Rattle's 40th birthday, and Slonimsky's Earbox (1996). Adams has also returned to writing large-scale works for orchestra: Naïve and Sentimental Music, a 50-minute composition, premiered in Los Angeles in February and was recorded there last month for a future release. The Nativity, an evening-length work for orchestra and voices, will premiere in Paris in December 2000.

The range of Adams's musical output makes for a challenge in evaluating his art; it's like having a box of puzzle pieces from a few different puzzles, and trying to make one complete picture out of them. "I expect to see a lot of serious head scratching in the press for Earbox, " admits Adams, "because I notice how much people who write about music feel they have to find a handle. Somehow style, particularly in the U.S., means something very important."

But listening to Earbox, one realizes that what seemed to be complete stylistic breaks are more like organic shifts, a natural evolutionary process of experimenting with new forms and ideas as they arise. These changes, however, are never at the expense of Adams's singular voice, which remains a constant throughout. What ties the composer's aesthetic strands together are concepts experienced more than heard: drama, movement, momentum. Like the work of the minimalists, Adams's music moves over the listener in waves. But while hearing minimalist music can be a passive experience, with patterns and textures merely washing over you, Adams's music is alive and active, pulling you from place to place. And while you can never be sure where you're headed next, chances are it'll be one hell of a ride.

Adams remains unapologetic about his diversity, regardless of criticism. "I think that's what an artist's life should be: not stuck doing one style," he says. "How tiresome if Picasso had just stayed in his blue period for 60 years, or if Stravinsky had regurgitated Firebird or Rite of Spring. I'm more willing to take a risk of failure, and to try an idea that may not pan out -- and maybe I'll lose a whole year of work on it. But I think it's worth taking a risk. I think of all these wonderful pieces that I never would have written, if I hadn't taken a jump into the unknown."

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