‘What I’m looking for is to be surprised, because surprise wakes me up to the world, surprise makes me see something or feel something in a way I never before expected.’ This counsel for a prospective composer was among the salient pieces of advice John Adams delivered in a commencement speech nearly two years ago. Addressing the eager young graduates of the Juilliard School of Music, he made a passionate plea for them to retain their hunger for new discovery – and not to lose sight of their importance ‘in this attention deficit disorder country of ours.’
The composer’s words of wisdom aren’t empty platitudes; they also serve as the compass by which he’s directed his own path. Not long before the speech, Adams himself had embarked on one of the most involved compositional challenges of his career to date with The Gospel According to the Other Mary. This ‘Passion oratorio’, first heard in a concert version last May by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale, has just received its world premiere at LA’s Disney Hall in the staging by Adams’s long-time collaborator Peter Sellars, who also crafted the libretto. They now bring the work to London, Lucerne and Paris before a stop in New York on their way back home.
‘I don’t want to fall back on a solution I found in the past and brand myself,’ says Adams. ‘I want each piece to be new, to be a statement of who I am and where I am in my life.’ The price, though, can be high. He refers to the demons of doubt that often visit him when beginning a new composition – rather like the stage fright that shackles even the most experienced actor. ‘You have an idea, and it turns out to be extremely vague. The closer you get to it, the harder it is to find a form for it.’
There’s nothing unusual in Adams taking risks as an artist. He defined himself by cutting against the grain of expected patterns from the beginning of his career, when he gave up the safety of academia in New England. Ignoring the path prescribed for a ‘serious’ composer in favour of an anarchic period of experimentation in California, Adams went on to confound musical taxonomists who wanted to affix a convenient stylistic classification. The techniques of minimalism became just one among myriad available procedures and influences of a personal ‘earbox’.
Not that a faceless eclecticism resulted. Adams’s compositions typically replace the familiar musical forms associated with classical tonality with singular, unpredictable architectonic features that evoke landscapes in motion – whether of the rolling grandeur of the Pacific coast in The Dharma at Big Sur, the apocalyptic desert wastes of Doctor Atomic, or the New England settings of his childhood in My Father Knew Charles Ives and the clarinet concerto known as Gnarly Buttons.
Director Peter Sellars, his junior by a decade, was meanwhile among the earliest to fathom the immense dramatic and choreographic potential inherent in the musical language Adams was evolving. Nixon in China, Sellars’s brainchild of the mid-1980s, not only launched the stage career of Adams but proved to be a game-changer for contemporary opera in general. ‘In Nixon in China,’ remarks the conductor Marin Alsop. ‘Adams reinvented the original art form of opera, preserving its spirit and essence and giving it relevance for people today.’ Upon Nixon’s 1987 premiere, though, it must have seemed unimaginable that, less than a quarter century later, two of the composer’s operas would have received the imprimatur of official stagings at the Met (Doctor Atomic, followed by Nixon). A taste of the grilling Adams routinely received on both sides of the Atlantic still lingers in the original New York Times put-down of Nixon in China: ‘Mr Adams does for the arpeggio what McDonald’s did for the hamburger, grinding out one simple idea unto eternity.’
The risks which Adams’s most recent works represent press his language to new extremes – and they make new demands even of those who are already at home with the composer’s earlier frequently heard scores. When Absolute Jest was unveiled last year, for example, the first reaction of a number of critics was to treat it as a bit of postmodern indulgence, a hyperactive, madcap riff on motifs from late-period Beethoven quartets, all meant in little more than… jest.
Yet Adams had ventured to write a substantial instrumental work that is daring on several levels at once. After essaying his first full-scale string quartet in 2008 – stimulated by ‘the exceptional blend of rhythmic drive and high-drama lyricism’ he found in the St Lawrence String Quartet – he inevitably became interested in incorporating the solo quartet’s intricate web of sound as a new element of his larger vocabulary. A commission for the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial season offered the opportunity to write a concerto for string quartet. The textural and acoustic challenges alone proved to be immense. Adams substantially revised the score in recent months to achieve greater clarity of weight and tempo.
At the same time, Absolute Jest’s recycling of motifs from Beethoven’s most ‘private’ and visionary music was hardly meant in the spirit of a ‘name that tune’ quiz show. This is music that revels in the euphoria of musical transformation and interconnection: counterpoint as vivid drama. ‘The act of composing the work,’ notes Adams, ‘was the most extended experience in pure ‘‘invention’’ that I’ve ever undertaken.’ He adds that the ‘jest’ of the title for him also connotes the Latin word gesta, used for deeds and exploits: ‘an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.’
Many of Adams’s compositions bear ‘family resemblances’ and suggest an ongoing counterpoint with each other – as well as with preceding composers, like Beethoven, whose music Adams has internalized in a way unique to him. Currently, for example, he is working on his first concerto for saxophone, a piece written for American virtuoso Timothy McAllister, who introduced the substantial solo part that is part of another LA Philharmonic-related work, City Noir (2009). The new concerto looks past the saxophone sounds of that piece to Adams’s earliest musical memories. ‘My dad played the saxophone a bit,’ he says, ‘so it was one of the first instruments I ever heard. The piece is not ‘jazzy’ per se, although it bears distinctly identifiable markings of my having listened to a great deal of jazz during the sixties and seventies.’ Adams himself will conduct the premiere this August with the Sydney Symphony.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary also has strong ties to Adams’s larger oeuvre. It originated as a counterpart to El Niño, the Nativity oratorio Adams and Sellars created as a largely optimistic response to the millennium. Sellars’s librettos for both works involve intriguing collages of biblical and secular texts, archetypal narratives interwoven with modern poetry in which erotic, spiritual, and utopian longings resonate. The violence and quest for meaning embodied in the Passion story transpire in what Sellars calls ‘the eternal present,’ with continual reference to our own society. And aspects of The Other Mary echo the intersection of the archaic past with a terrifyingly contemporary reality in the opera The Death of Klinghoffer, which similarly draws on imagery of the Passion narrative.
Despite some general structural similarities, The Other Mary posed daunting new musical problems for Adams. He found inspiration while writing El Niño in the radiant simplicity of Giotto and the early Renaissance. In contrast, his visual correlative for the despair and death that is at its most concentrated in the Golgotha scene at the centre of The Other Mary was the starkly graphic detail of medieval Crucifixion paintings, as well as the aggressive iconoclasm of Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. Adams recalls how setting this scene to music entailed a disturbing period of self-doubt. ‘You have to have humility to approach this subject, with full awareness of the weakness of your own person and your own craft.’ Related to this is the dramatic jump-cutting between the biblical texts and modern poetry. ‘I had to find a way to move musically between these two worlds, from the archaic to a very modern language and psychology.’
Yet Adams’s score attains an unusual degree of underlying unity – more so than in any of his previous works. Symphonically rich orchestral commentary helps navigate the listener along the implied connections between The Other Mary’s planes of action and shifting points of view. Specific colorations meanwhile enhance the emotional aura in unpredictable ways, with a prominent use of the cimbalom to evoke an ‘alien’, distant sound contrasting with the lyrical presence of long solos for oboe and clarinet. On the largest scale, the oratorio, which begins in an attitude of relentless ferocity, attempts to trace a way from utter darkness past the point at which Bach’s Passions end, culminating with the resurgence of hope.
Thomas May is a writer, educator, and translator whose essays appear regularly in the publications of such leading institutions as the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His books include 'Decoding Wagner' and 'The John Adams Reader'.