John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

John Adams: In The Center Of American Music

A Totalist Oratorio?

FJO: You’ve referenced Handel‘s Messiah before, I also think of Berlioz‘s L’Enfance du Christ which I wish would be done more often because I think it’s a great piece. The oratorio tradition is something that we’ve really lost in our time, and to some extent, you referred to Klinghoffer as an opera-oratorio which it is to some extent. How can we create an oratorio tradition that is relevant for today? I mean El Niño is clearly trying to do that, and there are multi-media elements in that piece.
JA: Well, relevance is such a tired concept right now. I’m trying not to do things that are relevant. I’m just trying to do things that are very meaningful to me. I resisted the word oratorio for the longest time because it seemed the word was from the dust in the past and summer choral societies and the English Midland singing Elijah or Elgar pieces that went on forever. But there really isn’t a better term to describe what this is; it is an oratorio. It is fundamentally a setting of text, it’s not intended to be a work of music theater, although I shaped it so that it could be treated almost as an opera, and it will be at Châtelet. It’s very important that the great key I took from Handel is that I did not lock a certain person into a certain vocal role. So therefore I’m able to have Mary be both the light-lyric soprano of Dawn Upshaw, but also the heavier more intense mezzo of Lorraine.
FJO: From what I could glean from looking at an un-proofed piano score and listening to 2 CDs of a MIDI generated performance (it’s great that these exist and I do want to talk about how MIDI demos can be an asset in rehearsal and in composition to know what’s going on as you’re working on it), El Niño seems to be a culminating piece from everything I’ve heard, and I’ve been listening to your music for over 20 years. The directness and immediacy of the early work is there, but also the later complexity, works like the Chamber Symphony, the Violin Concerto, there’s stuff going on, there’s 5 against 6, there’s 7 against 5. If you turn the page and you don’t listen to it almost looks like a page of an Elliott Carter string quartet. But it doesn’t sound that way.

An excerpt of the Soprano Solo in "Hail Mary, Gracious" from the Piano Reduction of Act I of JA’ El Niño (2000)
{text from the Wakefield Mystery Play} showing Adams’ use of elaborate polyrhythms
© 2000 Hendon Music Inc. (BMI), a Boosey & Hawkes Company
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.

JA: No it doesn’t! (both laugh)
FJO: But there’s clearly this poly-metrical thing happening and some very sophisticated happening with meter and rhythm. It’s brought back to this earlier, immediate style which is very exciting to me. It’s almost has this quality of the stuff that’s being dubbed as totalist music. You know, the Bang On A Can stuff. Complex polyrhythms that are immediate, so it’s taking that complexity and bringing it back into the language.

The opening measures of JA’ Harmonielehre (1985)
© 1985 Associated Music Publishers, Inc. (BMI)
All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher.
RealAudio Sample

JA: I haven’t thought of that.
FJO: I can’t wait to hear it.
JA: You know, as far as being a summary or a culmination it probably would feel like that only because it’s a big piece. It’s 110-minute of music that I worked on over a two-year period. So probably, no matter what I did, it would have some sort of summary quality to it. But in terms of my musical language, I feel that I’m at a period of integration now, my harmonic palette was very pure in the 80s, and there was the minimalist element that was far more easily perceptible, and then I almost aggressively turned my back on that during the early 90s with pieces like the Chamber Symphony which you mentioned before, and the Violin Concerto, and explored a darker, more complex musical language, and I’m very pleased that I did. I think good pieces resulted from that, and I think I broke away from what I think is becoming a cul-de-sac of musical language. And now I think that I’m sort of taking all those elements and rounding them into a language which is very satisfying to me and defies any stylistic description.
FJO: If I dare say so it’s music that needed the whole 20th century to happen in order for it to happen. There’s definitely the imprint of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ives, Copland, Carter, Reich, but it’s completely you. I mean from the minute I pressed play on the CD player and heard that first movement, I instantly recognized it as your music. That’s really exciting because you may say it’s post-stylistic music but you have a voice, you have an identity, you have a sound and I hear it in the Chamber Symphony, I hear it in Harmonielehre, and all of these pieces…

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