‘An Insistent Pulse-Driven Juggernaut’: On The Life and Work of John Adams

by Benjamin Poore

John Adams, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life
Faber 352pp ISBN 9780571231164 £18.99

Keeping track of the advances and retrenchments of 20th-century classical music requires a certain tolerance of paradox, or at the very least a wickedly dialectical sense of humour. Overthrowing the tyranny of traditional musical forms and harmony by the Second Viennese School on the one hand (Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg), and the polyrhythmic, percussive orchestral soundscapes of Igor Stravinsky on the other, has led to some rather curious contradictions. The late great serialist magister Pierre Boulez, regarded rightly as both demagogue and genius, is known equally for his declaration that the opera houses must be blown up, and for going on to conduct the one of the greatest productions of all time of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps has, culturally speaking, modulated far from its riotous opening at the Theatre du Champs Elysses in 1913; I once heard its music soundtracking a surreal skit about the footballer John Fashanu in Chris Morris’ ingenious newscasting parody The Day Today.

John Adams, the American composer who turned 70 this year, was seen as an alarming firebrand and provocateur for writing the kind of luscious, sweeping orchestral music that the non-specialist public would probably find quite unobjectionable. Alongside his minimalist peers Steve Reich and Philip Glass – likewise scorned by a certain section of the avant-garde at the time – Adams was the subject of lavishly produced concert series dedicated to his music at London’s Barbican concert hall this spring. His autobiography, part compositional bildungsroman and part manifesto, was republished in paperback late last year, and dramatises the curious tensions of not only his extremely successful career but those of 20th-century classical music in general.

The first half of the book explores Adams’ early life, education, studying undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Harvard before moving out west to settle in San Francisco, a city that has left a major stamp on his creative output. His gorgeous setting of Walt Whitman’s civil war poetry for baritone and orchestra, The Wound-Dresser (1988), was shaped partly by his experience of his father’s decline from Alzheimer’s, but also those made frail by AIDS in that city in the 1980s. The bay and the Golden Gate Bridge provided the backdrop too for his Harmonielehre for orchestra, the piece, we learn, inspired by the dream of an oil tanker rising ‘like a Saturn V Rocket’ from the waters. Indeed, the openness and expansiveness of that landscape inflects the wide and deep textures of his orchestral and vocal works.

The major episodes in the latter half of the book gravitate around the composition of large-scale vocal works, particularly his breakthrough opera Nixon in China (1987), his controversial treatment of the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the PLO, The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), his hispanic nativity El Niño (2000), and his opera on the testing of the first nuclear bomb by Robert Oppenheimer, Doctor Atomic (2005). The importance of Adams’ partnerships with director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman are stressed throughout.

The major turning point in his compositional career, though, comes before the writing of Nixon, with his wedding of fin-de-siecle diatonic harmony – a structure that plays with our expectation of resolution following tension, the yearning feeling we associate with the opening of Tristan – with the repetitive structures and textures of American minimalism in works like Harmonielehre (1985) and the earlier Grand Pianola Music (1982). But these works also signalled a considerable shift away from the straightforwardly repetitive minimalist structures of works like Shaker Loops (1987), more directly inspired by Philip Glass and Steve Reich.

This period saw Adams finally jettison his commitment to the electronic experiments and open-ended, chance procedures of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, as well as the stringent formalism of the European serialists of the Darmstadt school and Boulez’s IRCAM, for whom the sine qua non of composition was abstract process above all. His own doubts the dicta issued in what he calls Pierre Boulez’s ‘machine-gun prose’ began to foment as a doctoral student studying composition at Harvard; they come to a head when he abandons his studies and leaves for San Francisco to teach composition at the Conservatory there from 1972.

‘Composing an American Life’, the book’s subtitle, certainly rings true. Adams, born 1947, grew up in East Concord, New Hampshire in a musical family: his mother a professional jazz singer, and father a clarinettist, who gave Adams his first lessons on the instrument. East Concord is a town whose namesake in Massachusetts channels a special connection to the musical and intellectual traditions we hear in Adams’ output. The name evokes the music of Charles Ives, whose ‘Concord’ Sonata for piano attempts a musical homage to the thought and writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau amongst others. Such figures are emblematic of an openness and pragmatism that is characteristically American, and has huge bearing on Adams’ approach to composition. So does Ives himself, whose wildly experimental and eclectic music plays with polytonality and collage, crossing the provincial brass band with Gustav Mahler’s sweeping lyricism and dense orchestral textures.

No doubt the sui generis character of Ives’ career, isolated from the driving currents of European 20th-century experimentalism, appeals to Adams’ picture of himself as rebellious child of the sixties, rejecting political and musical orthodoxies, whether conservative or radical in guise. (Though one does imagine Adams is rather glad that unlike Ives he does not toil in quirky obscurity; he received an ovation from a sell-out hall at a London performance of Doctor Atomic in April this year, where he himself conducted the score.)

Adams’ narrative of his university years, studying at Harvard, plays on familiar images of a particular counter-cultural experience of the American 1960s. The familiarity of this story – acid trips, the anti-war movement, the novels of William Burroughs – is, it must be admitted, less than riveting, though Adams is unquestionably sincere in affirming the feelings of dissent and excitement the times evoked. We read, too, of the rise of minimalism and Adams’ damascene conversion on hearing the music of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, all three now the rather laid back doyens of contemporary classical music. His own experiments with tape and electronic music followed, which were also shaped by the avuncular eccentricity of another key influence, John Cage, whose use of chance and contingency in his compositions were suggestive of a particular kind of artistic and philosophical freedom.

Adams’ book is at its most compelling in interludes where his musical intelligence shines through, reflecting more broadly on the relationship of the rather esoteric world of contemporary classical to wider political, social, and moral questions. This autobiography is concerned with political and musical authority in equal measure. Indeed their confluence is one way of thinking about the ‘junction’ of Adams’ title.

Most obviously this tendency is manifest in the subject matter of his three major operas, Nixon, Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic. Adams cites Edward Said’s writing on the Palestinian cause as inspiration when composing the initial sketches for Klinghoffer, and the late Palestinian critic’s thinking on both music and politics is instructive in considering Adams. For Said, counterpoint, the interplay of different musical lines in the kinds of fugues composed by JS Bach, represented a model of reconciliation and difference, confirmation and disconfirmation: artworks, ideas, and political traditions should be treated, as he puts it, contrapuntally, drawing out their internal tensions, and moments of consonance and dissonance. The suggestive possibilities Said sees in the contrapuntal for the competing and clashing interests of contemporary political life chimes with Adams’ own approach to subject matter and compositional process. In terms of the former, we might consider the structure of Klinghoffer, which juxtaposes choruses of Palestinians and Jews, Day and Night, Ocean and Desert, within its interlocking of aria and chorus, echoing the structure of Bach’s Passions.

With regard to the latter, this contrapuntal impulse bears on the way Adams likes to envisage himself, both as firebrand and traditionalist, as well as in the equal reverence he has for Duke Ellington and Beatles alongside Mahler and Stravinsky. The blazing primary colours of his reputation-defining orchestral works were intended as deliberate provocation to the diehard modernists styling themselves after Boulez or Stockhausen. The final movement of his Grand Pianola Music closes with an enormous tonic-dominant resolution worthy of Beethoven at his most rambunctious. This chord progression is the most recognisable signature of traditional harmony, creating a sense of anticipation and arrival at the so-called ‘home’ key. It implies exactly the kind of direction-driven resolution that Boulez and the Second Viennese hoped to dispense with, as it implies hierarchy and order. For this reason Adams dubs Grand Pianola Music ‘my truant child, the one that antagonises those listeners overburdened with good taste,’ as it return to traditional harmonic progressions and resolutions was a thumbing of the nose at the avant-garde. It was booed when performed in New York at the Avery Fisher Hall.

Adams describes the serialist consensus of the postwar avant-garde as the ‘social contract’ of what was then contemporary classical music. This Rousseauian inflection, with its intimations of abstraction and universality, shows Adams’ discomfort with totalising musical orthodoxies and purity of method. Such an attitude is reflective of his relationship to his minimalist influences too: Adams felt compelled to move beyond the early process-driven ‘phase’ experiments of Reich and Glass. And indeed for Adams the music of John Cage, for all its openness and spontaneity, resulted in what Adams vividly describes as very boring concerts (‘boredom,’ he notes wryly, ‘was a major element in many of these events, part of the rigours of the aesthetic.’) His own embrace of the traditional elements of Romantic harmony is as much about affording his music dramatic shape, weight, and a sense of movement, as it is about creating appealing colours and textures.

His Harmonielehre, whose title alludes to Arnold Schoenberg’s canonical conservatoire textbook on harmony, deals in lush post-Romantic sonorities, channeling the sweeping and cavernous gestures of Wagner’s operas. Schoenberg is a composer with whose legacy Adams is engaged in agonistic struggle, and his allusion to the former’s harmony textbook evokes this ambivalent understanding of the respective roles of tradition and radicalism in making music. He mischievously describes Harmonielehre as ‘enlightened thievery’. Schoenberg’s innovations in compositional technique were born from his deep understanding of the harmonic soundscapes of Brahms; yet Schoenberg, like Adams, was pulled back and forth between jagged experimentalism and traditional tonal harmony throughout his career.

Indeed, Adams’ Chamber Symphony (1992) exemplifies this concatenation of musical influences, suggestive of the febrile repetitions and transparent textures of Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, as well as nodding towards Arnold Schoenberg’s two works of the same name (1906 and 1939). But the inspiration for the piece, we read, was also the cartoon music soundtracking the episodes of Ren and Stimpy watched by his young children. The title of the first movement, ‘Mongrel Airs’, ‘happily acknowledged the work’s confused genotype’, and might indeed be a reasonable figure for all of Adams’ work, where conflict, dissent, and the non-reconciliation of part with whole and tradition with innovation are cultivated.

His instrumental writing dramatises this, and affords counterparts to the kinds of political themes he makes explicit in his operas (we might think of Oppenheimer’s sidelining of his colleagues concerns about the moral implications of the bomb in an early scene from Doctor Atomic). Reflecting on his Violin Concerto (1993), completed shortly after the Chamber Symphony, Adams notes of the form of as a whole, ‘more often than not the solo violin struggles to be heard above the mass.’ Adams’ music delights in this kind of tension: how apt that a passage in the final movement of that concerto demands the woodwind play a five-figure pattern against the prevailing metre of four, squeezing five notes into a space that would traditionally only allow for four pulses.

What makes Adams’ music specifically American is not simply its gestures to Aaron Copland or indeed to Gershwin’s dalliances with popular music, but his compositional pragmatism. Adams thrives when picking up what is ready-to-hand, or accidentally and unobtrusively available: the titular junction of the book is suggestive of the musical crossroads at which his compositions loiter.

Take, for instance, the musical tableau that introduces Richard Nixon from Adams’ collaboration with Peter Sellars and Alice Goodman, Nixon in China (1983). Nixon’s entrance, in which a huge façade of Air Force One sweeps across the stage, is accompanied by music of empty pomp and grandiloquence, evocative of the final scene of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, where Wotan triumphantly leads the gods into Valhalla. Yet the orchestral textures suggest the brash, big-band sound of Nixon’s imagined middle America, with all its folksy confidence. Overlaying these modes amplifies Nixon’s delusions of grandeur and nobility of purpose, which the opera goes on to unpack. This creeping and sour musical irony turns the initial energy of the Nixon’s ‘News’ aria which follows – some of Adams’ most thrilling music – from being bracing and hopeful to grasping and paranoid (‘. . . the rats being to chew the sheets . . . there is murmuring down below. . .’). Such moments of musical tessellation afford his operas special dramatic heft.

Adams relishes chance and contingency; much is made of his interest in, and encounters with, the eccentric grandfather of the American avant garde, John Cage. Though Adams’ sound world, riper and fuller than the jangling peculiarities of Cage’s prepared piano and experiments with the I-ching, the latter’s skepticism towards political, technical, or stylistic rigidity is imbued throughout Adams’ compositions and method. But Adams is also alive to seductions of order, regularity, and completion: in his Fearful Symmetries, a 1988 orchestral work much loved by choreographers, he felt during composition that ideas came to him ‘in almost maddeningly symmetrical packages of four-, eight-, and sixteen-bar harmonic units . . . rather than try to deconstruct the obviousness of these harmonic structure . . . I amplified their predictability and in doing so ended up composing an insistent pulse-driven juggernaut of a piece. . .’ There is a hint of anxiety here about the manic character of his music in that instance, and a wariness that musical certainty and rhythmic excitement might steamroller more complex emotional possibilities. Nonetheless, it is this friction between order and flexibility, and competing musical traditions, that gives Adams’ work its idiosyncratic gleam.