Friday, February 15, 2013

John Adams: An American Treasure

John Adams (the exalted composer, not the haughty second president) was born on this day in 1947.

Adams is the composer of Nixon in China (1987), a work that has been called the greatest American opera since George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. He is also the composer of Dr. Atomic (2005), an opera about Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and the historic program to build the first atomic bomb.

In 2003, Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for On the Transmigration of Souls, a piece for orchestra, chorus, children's choir, and prerecorded tape that was composed as a tribute to the victims of September 11.

In 2009, he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.

Most critics seem to use the word “minimalist” to describe Adams' compositional technique, and he is often grouped with two other minimalist composers: Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

If minimalist music is defined by its few musical ideas and exceedingly repetitive forward motion, I suppose Adams' music could, in many cases, be labeled “minimalist.” However, his music contains much more. According to such writers as H. Wiley Hitchcock and Michael Walsh, Adams bridged the gap between minimalism and more traditional styles of music.
"Adams’ music represents less of a conscious break with the past than either Reich’s or Glass’s; instead [he] draws inspiration from composers like Beethoven, Mahler, Sibelius and Stravinsky. His works have a lushness and emotional depth largely absent in the ascetic though fundamentally cheerful sounds of Reich or the giddy, explosive rhythms of Glass.... Adams has forged a big, strong style, expressed in complex forms that employ a more extensive use of dissonance than other minimalists." – Michael Walsh, “The Heart is Back in the Game,” Time, September 20, 1982 (as quoted by H. Wiley Hitchcock in Music in the United States, p. 338)

Forgive me for the diversion, but while I'm in the midst of a blog titled "John Adams," I'd like to provide a great quote by the John Adams who was not a composer, but instead was the haughty Second President of the United States.
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." – John Adams, letter to Abigail Adams, 1780
(I think I like both of these American fellows named John Adams.)


Back on the subject of John Adams, the composer: In creating a community education class titled “American Classical Music,” I spent much time listening to Adams’ music. Although I enjoyed everything I heard, I especially liked Short Ride in a Fast Machine, an energetic piece of music that features a hypnotic amplified woodblock. I have embedded that piece below, as well as videos of Nixon in China and On the Transmigration of Souls.

I hope you'll agree with me that John Adams is a national treasure.

John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine 
(Jeffrey Means conducting the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble)

John Adams, Nixon in China from a 1987 performance in Houston.

John Adams, On the Transmigration of Souls 
(Edo de Waart conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw)

(BTW: Michael Walsh, whom I quoted above, is the author of a book titled Who's Afraid of Classical Music?, a good book for anyone looking for an introduction to classical music.)

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