Author Topic: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)  (Read 36202 times)

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Greta

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Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« on: November 13, 2007, 02:13:07 PM »
I think we didn't have a thread like this before? One of my absolute favorite contemporary American composers:

John Coolidge Adams
(1947-)



Biography

John Adams was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1947 and graduated from Harvard University in 1971. He moved to California where he taught and conducted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for ten years. His innovative concerts led to his appointment firstly as contemporary music advisor to the San Francisco Symphony, and then as the orchestra's composer-in-residence between 1979 and 1985, the period in which his reputation became established with the success of such works as "Harmonium" and "Harmonielehre". Recordings on the New Albion and ECM labels were followed by a contract with Nonesuch Records in 1986.

Of John Adams' compositions, the best known and most widely discussed is his opera "Nixon in China", given its premiere by Houston Grand Opera in 1987 and winner of the 1989 Grammy for Best Contemporary Composition. With "Nixon in China", the composer, along with director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman and choreographer Mark Morris, brought contemporary history vividly into the opera house, pioneering an entire genre of post-modern music theater. The original staging of the work by Sellars has subsequently been seen in New York, Washington, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Paris, Adelaide and Frankfurt. New productions of the opera have been presented in Helsinki (in Finnish) and Beilefeld (in German).

Adams' second opera, "The Death of Klinghoffer", again a collaboration with Sellars, Goodman and Morris, had its premiere at the Brussels Opera in 1991. Described by Newsweek critic Katrine Ames as "a work that fires the heart," it has also been seen in Lyon, Vienna, New York and San Francisco.

Initially known as a Minimalist, Adams has in his mature work harnessed the rhythmic energy of Minimalism to the harmonies and orchestral colors of late-Romanticism. Concurrently he has introduced references to a wide range of 20th century idioms - both 'popular' and 'serious' - in works such as his two operas and the wittily eclectic orchestral piece "Fearful Symmetries", which touches on Stravinsky, Honegger, and big-band swing music.

Other orchestral works by Adams include the two often-heard fanfares "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" and "Tromba Lontana"; his acclaimed Walt Whitman setting "The Wound Dresser"; "Eros Piano", a sensuous composition for piano and chamber orchestra; and "El Dorado", a commission from the San Francisco Symphony that addresses the effects of greed on our environment and society.

Adams' most recent chamber piece is "Chamber Symphony", which merges the virtuostic expressionism of Schoenberg with the manic world of cartoon soundtrack music. Since its premiere in January 1993, "Chamber Symphony", scored for fifteen instruments, has met with extraordinary success: more than 25 ensembles have performed or scheduled the work. In addition, "Chamber Symphony" won Adams the 1994 Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Best Chamber Composition. Other honors include the California Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts, and the Cyril Magnin Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts.

January 1994 marked the debut of Adams' "Violin Concerto", written in an unusual three-way commission between the Minnesota Orchestra, the London Symphony and the New York City Ballet. The latter organization presented the score with choreography by Peter Martins during the 1994-95 season. His newest stage work is a collaboration with Peter Sellars and librettist June Jordan; entitled "I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky", it is described by its creators as a 'song play', scored for seven singers and an onstage band of eight instrumentalists.

In 1991, a survey of major orchestras conducted by the American Symphony Orchestra League found John Adams to be the most frequently-performed living American composer.


(from New Albion Records)

John Adams' Official Website: http://www.earbox.com

Extensive Profile Article from NewMusicbox: http://www.newmusicbox.org/article.nmbx?id=1050

I really love Adams' work, bold, zany, savvy, beautiful, they are pieces I somehow keep coming back to. The very first Adams work I ever heard was Short Ride in a Fast Machine (the wind version) and it instantly grabbed me. Soon after, we were introduced to his Nixon in China in 1st year music history, and I loved it. We even watched some of the opera, I thought it was genius. Then, Sept. 11, and his On the Transmigration of Souls, when I heard that I was profoundly moved, the way he made it a memory "space" I felt was very fitting.

Harmonielehre
was the piece that cemented him as one of my favorite living composers, I still think it stands as one of his masterpieces. A combination of minimalist techniques and lush, lyrical post-romanticism, it's a gorgeous work with a lot to say. I love to read John Adams' program notes, and writings on his website, there is a fascinating and learned mind behind those large glasses, and he has some perceptive and provocative things to say on artistic philosophy.

Anyone else fans, and what are some of your favorite works?

longears

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #1 on: November 14, 2007, 05:43:45 AM »
Probably my favorite contemporary composer, period.  I'm particularly fond of both his violin concertos, the oratorio El Niño, Shaker Loops, Naive and Sentimental Music, Road Movies, The Chairman Dances, and the Chamber Symphony.  Savvy, indeed, both witty and clever, and a painter of aching beauty.

Kullervo

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #2 on: November 14, 2007, 05:52:16 AM »
I've read that Adams is influenced by Sibelius. Since both of you are very familiar with Sibelius, which of Adams's works do you think most clearly showcases this affinity?

longears

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #3 on: November 14, 2007, 06:12:54 AM »
I'll have to give it some thought over the next few days weeks months.

I do think there's something to it.  When I was learning to appreciate Sibelius, one aspect of his work that floored me was the insistent rhythmic underpinnings like deep currents above which float a sea of ever-shifting motivic elements breaking up and recombining in surprising yet retrospectively inevitable shapes.  I had been a fan of Reich and Riley since the early '70s, then Glass and later Adams.  One day a few years ago, when listening to Sibelius's 5th, I had one of those "Aha!" moments when I suddenly realized that he was THE proto-minimalist, that his radical approach to restructuring the symphony had more in common with late 20th Century "Moderns" than with the late 19th Century "Romantics" with whom he was usually classified.  It completely transformed the way I had been listening to Sibelius and prompted my belief that, when history catches up to the 20th Century--say in another 50 or so years--he will be recognized as one of the most enduringly influential figures of his time (and he lived a long time!).

Your query prompts an idea for an experiment:  perhaps this evening I can try listening to, say, Tapiola or The Oceanides and then put on The Chairman Dances back-to-back.

Greta

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #4 on: November 14, 2007, 07:58:48 AM »
Yes, yes. I have been thinking this for quite a while. Sibelius, to me, feels like the natural forerunner of minimalism. I think he was way, WAY ahead of his time.

In many of Sibelius' works, just look at his scores, his uniquely detailed string writing, shifting every so slightly in repeated lines, creating this feeling of a musical "stream", with motifs appearing and washing by - this I think plays a big role in some of my favorite minimalist works, especially some of John Adams.

I look at something like the score for Harmonielehre, and texturally see clear links...the lyrical lines passed from group to group, in the midst of a bed of repeated motivic cells, often in competing meter. I also think Adams has a conciseness that reminds me of Sibelius, some of his works are longer, much longer than Sibelius, but he says what needs to be said - or implies it in meaning, another central Sibelian trait.

Speaking of minimalism, I would go a step further... Sibelius was definitely influenced by Bruckner, the mystery, the spirituality, the motivic statements Bruckner generates his music from...the bed of gradually shifting figures that form his harmonic base, also the great weight. The 9th Symphony is where this first occurred to me, that perhaps Bruckner could even be, in some ways, the ultimate ground where the seed of minimalism was planted.

I have a lot of favorite Adams works, besides Harmonielehre, Naive and Sentimental Music (which has a fascinating premise behind it), his My Father Knew Charles Ives is also quite special, as well as The Wound-Dresser. And the more fun stuff such as Fearful Symmetries, Lollapalooza, and much fondness for John's Book of Alleged Dances and the Chamber Symphony which is hilarious. Great clarinet concerto too, called Gnarly Buttons. :)

johnQpublic

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #5 on: November 14, 2007, 08:38:42 AM »
I like Adams a lot too. I've praised him for his ability to evolve/morph as he's matured.

About the only piece mentioned so far that I don'r care much for is the Violin Concerto. I find the solo part to be melodically-deficient and rambling in nature. The orchestral parts are better!

The one piece of his I urge everyone to avoid completely is the idiotic "I Was Staring At The Ceiling....." Talk about a mis-calulation. I'd call it Adam's "Wellington Victory" except I like the Beethoven work better.  :D

lukeottevanger

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #6 on: November 14, 2007, 09:53:31 AM »
The Sibelius comparison is apt - and it's a point I've often made before. Clearest in his music of the early 80s, perhaps, above all Harmonielehre and Harmonium, my own favourite Adams piece (not his best, perhaps, but his purest, most guilelessly overwhelming piece IMO). The Sibelian influence is evident in the long held 'pedal' textures, slowly evolving and transforming like a landscape; also in the use of slowed-down harmony, producing at the chord change a spectacular effect which Adams refers to as a harmonic 'gate' (hence Phrygian Gate, China Gates, but most sensuously evident in Harmonium). A comparison of (something like) the first movement of Harmonielehre with Tapiola (Sibelius's most Adams-like piece?  ;D ) is quite revealing. I don't think it's too far-fetched to see a similarity to Bruckner in this too - he too uses slowed down harmonic rhythms and extended textures to achieve these massive, overwhelming effects - though I wouldn't suggest that it is conscious or even a real influence. Adams is a magpie, of course - it seems to me, for instance that much of the seemingly idiosyncratic soundworld of The Chairman Dances is really a bit of a steal from a page or two of Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements; a different matter is the clever use of not-quite-quotation (Mahler 10 in Harmonielehre; Schoenberg Chamber Symphony 1 in Adams' own Chamber Symph) which I think is fairly limited to him.

As a teenager he was one of my favourite composers. I have never air-conducted in my life....except to the orgiastic first and (especially) last movements of Harmonium (whose score, as a teenager who didn't know that there were easier ways of getting it, I ordered from the US to me in the UK)! So I've amassed a pretty big Adams collection, including a rarity which even he had forgotten about - a recording on Brian Eno's Obscure label of his American Standards. The first movement of this is essentially Christian Zeal and Activity, underscored with tape of a Fundamentalist Christian radio station. The last movement is a frankly bizarre hommage to Sousa. But the middle movement is the real rarity - a piece frankly based around Ellington's Sophisticated Lady which Adams, in an an interview I have read, said was never performed or recorded because it infringed copyright.....and yet i have a recording!

Anyway - from the 20 or so CDs I have, my favourite works, FWIW, are:

Harmonium
Harmonielehre
The Wound Dresser - an unabashed tear-jerker, but a fine one
El Nino
Naive and Sentimental Music
The Dharma at Big Sur

edit - yes, and the Chamber Symphony - don't know how I forgot that one
« Last Edit: November 14, 2007, 01:29:00 PM by lukeottevanger »

Kullervo

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #7 on: November 14, 2007, 07:47:06 PM »
Thanks for the thoughtful responses. You've convinced me to finally take the dive with Adams. :)

Hector

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #8 on: November 15, 2007, 04:37:41 AM »
Influenced by Sibelius?

I'd have never have thought, but, why not, so many post-War composers have been?

'Grand Pianola Music.'

I once heard, or read, how this cheesy tune kept trieing to insinuate itself  and, of course, takes over to end this piece.

I was quite keen on him a few years back but not so much, now.

lukeottevanger

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #9 on: November 15, 2007, 05:23:25 AM »
Influenced by Sibelius?

I'd have never have thought, but, why not, so many post-War composers have been?

Yes, I'd modify that slightly - and I'm guilty of it too, in my above post: I'm not sure we can say 'influenced', as I think the implications of this statement are slightly misleading. I think it more to the point to suggest that there are very strong similarities, but that Adams's music reached this similarity by developing along different lines.

To elaborate: one aspect of Sibelius's music, seen clearly in larger, more slowly evolving movements from En Saga through to Tapiola, draws on certain aspects of earlier romantic music, in which harmonic rhythm is slowed down, so that each harmonic change takes on extra significance and texture moves closer to the forefront of our listening. Important points upon the way include long passages of Beethoven's Pastoral (first movement); parts of Schubert's 9 (with its 'heavenly length'), Wagner's Rheingold Prelude and many passages in Bruckner. To an extent, Sibelius represents the end of the line of this kind of thing, which as I say is Romantic in origin, even though it is sometimes pointed to as a sort of proto-minimalism. Adams, on the other hand, comes (of course) out of Reich et al - especially something like Reich's Desert Music, which is perhaps the most similar to early-80s Adams. In Reich these minimalist textures are a very pure, anti-Romantic feature. Adams, however, very much a Romantic at heart, and not really sharing the hardcore minimalist aesthetic to any great degree, softens their edges, removes some of the process-driven rigour (though enough remains, especially before, say, the Chamber Symphony, for the minimalist tag to still be applicable to some degree). So he arrives at a place somewhere near that reached by Sibelius, but having traveled a different route to get there.

longears

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #10 on: November 15, 2007, 05:42:02 AM »
From an Alex Ross interview with John Adams:
Quote
When he was thirteen, the orchestra presented his Suite for String Orchestra, and he became the talk of the village. At this time, he was listening to little twentieth-century music, although he did fall under the spell of Sibelius. "I was used to seeing snow and pine trees in New Hampshire," he explained. "When I went into the record store, I bought albums with snow and pine trees on them. They were all Sibelius." Adams has taken on many other influences with the passing years, but he remains loyal to this early one; echoes of Sibelius’s slowly evolving musical landscapes can be heard in all his major orchestral works.

David Schiff, in an Atlantic Monthly article:
Quote
In his great 1984 symphony Harmonielehre, Adams channels Sibelius (Fourth Symphony, 1911) and Mahler (Tenth Symphony, also 1911) in the slow movement, whose title, "The Anfortas Wound," brings the ghost of Wagner to the table. Midway through my first hearing of his recent Naive and Sentimental Music, also a monumental symphony, I became aware that, without allusions or quotations, Adams was following the flight plan of Sibelius's Fifth.

Steve Lomas, in a Proms review of Naive and Sentimental Music:
Quote
(Has any composer been more influential on current musical thinking than Stravinsky?) A metrical modulation triggers the home strait - an outrageously exciting passage culminating in a gigantic pealing of rising scales which cuts off abruptly on a unison trombone crescendo. Adams cites Sibelius as an influence on his work and it was as present here in the straining upward vector of this final music as it was in the long sustained paragraphs of the earlier movements. In fact, of late, ’Sibelius’ seems to be emerging as the answer to the parenthetical question above.

Come to think of it, what's A Short Ride in a Fast Machine but Night Ride and Sunrise in hyperdrive?

Mark G. Simon

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #11 on: November 15, 2007, 05:43:41 AM »
In his liner notes to the first recording of Harmonielehre he mentions Sibelius as an influence.

Actually, what he says is:

I work hard to achieve that sense of emotional change when a modulation occurs. There are certain composers of the past who mean a great deal to me because of their ability to do that so well -- Beethoven, of course, and Sibelius in his fifth and seventh symphonies, for example.

lukeottevanger

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #12 on: November 15, 2007, 06:03:22 AM »
OK, my post (which I know is pretty badly phrased) stands slightly corrected - I have some of these interviews and liner notes myself. OTOH, Longears gives a selection of reviews and commentaries which make the Adams-Sibelius connection, but nothing where Adams says 'my minimalist technique springs from Sibelius' (or something somewhat more circumspect!) Mark's quotation re. the Sibelian aspects of Harmonielehre is to the point, and is in tune with what I have already said here and in the past about this issue and this work in particular - I would point to my first post above and most of my previous posts on Adams on old boards, where I have over and again made this Sibelius-Adams connection, and particularly in regard to the 'emotional change when a modulation occurs' quoted by Mark, which Adams calls harmonic gating and which applies above all to those two works, Harmonium and Harmonielehre.

But my (badly-put) point here is really this: that Sibelius's 'minimalism' is Romantic at source (Beethoven-Schubert-Bruckner-Wagner), whereas Adams, for all his childhood love of Sibelius etc, as a young composer originated in the anti-Romantic minimalist aesthetic and only gradually refound his deeper-felt Romantic leanings (as he gets older, his pieces grow ever more subjective and increasingly explore his own childhood musical). At that point, the circle closes - Adams's early purely minimalist pulsings and phasings (e.g. Phrygian Gates) begin to become more seductive (e.g. Shaker Loops) and gradually merge with Romanticism (e.g. Harmonium leading to Harmonielehre - which is when he starts talking about Sibelius). That's why early Adams relatively similar to Reich, but post 1980 he sounds nothing like him.

So [deep breath!], though Sibelius is consciously in Adams' mind (and I never really meant to imply otherwise, though I know I did, because how could he not be there?) Adams original minimalist technique, which still lies at the technical, objective base of his music, emphatically doesn't come from Sibelius. It is only as he grew more mature, subjective and personal in style, more romantic and less minimalist, that the similarity to Sibelius becomes evident, and that he starts to cite Sibelius as a childhood influence. This is absolutely fascinating on the subjective level of the works concerned, but is slightly misleading on the objective level of the source of Adams' musical technique

Is this any clearer? I doubt it.....  ;D
« Last Edit: November 15, 2007, 06:10:35 AM by lukeottevanger »

lukeottevanger

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #13 on: November 15, 2007, 06:20:57 AM »
To finish - I'm pretty sure, actually, that Adams as he is now is influenced by Sibelius, because he has grown into a composer working along very similar lines, really a Romantic figure in whom any minimalism that is left is deep-buried and purely technical in nature; the minimalist aesthetic, I would guess, is of little importance to him now. But my previous posts were concerned with where what now seem like clearly Sibelian traits in Adams' style originated, which was somewhere different.

longears

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #14 on: November 15, 2007, 06:39:24 AM »
Sorry for the mistaken impression, Luke.  I wasn't trying to correct you--heck, you sure don't need correction, least of all from a comparative ignoramus like me.  I was trying to flesh out a response to Corey's question about an affinity between Sibelius and works which demonstrate it.

To be influenced by Sibelius is hardly to be a poor imitation-which Adams certainly isn't.  Interesting for me to ponder that, aside from the musical similarities--the polyrhythmic underpinnings and colorful shape-shifting motifs growing organically into sublime flowering climaxes then fading on the tide--both also grew out of their roots in the dominant musical language of their day to craft unique forms of musical expression tied to traditional ideas of tonality and beauty.

lukeottevanger

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #15 on: November 15, 2007, 06:47:00 AM »
  Interesting for me to ponder that, aside from the musical similarities--the polyrhythmic underpinnings and colorful shape-shifting motifs growing organically into sublime flowering climaxes then fading on the tide--both also grew out of their roots in the dominant musical language of their day to craft unique forms of musical expression tied to traditional ideas of tonality and beauty.

 :)

I like this very much (my italics just to show the bit which I particularly liked!) - you say something similar to what I was trying to say, only much more concisely!! Yes, both composers progressed from different starting points to somewhere strikingly similar; in the process, at some point, Adams also moved closer to Sibelius aesthetically.

lukeottevanger

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #16 on: November 15, 2007, 06:47:58 AM »
BTw, comparative or otherwise, ignoramus you certainly ain't!

Greta

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #17 on: May 29, 2008, 02:29:30 PM »
Who has heard/seen Doctor Atomic yet?  :) There is a good video of the Amsterdam production at Operashare, and a few radio recordings floating around. Anyone know if there is a libretto somewhere that can be viewed?

I'm not sure what to make of this yet, I think it's a mixed bag like some of Adams' other operas...the staging is imaginative, and the subject compelling, but there are moments where things seem to drag. There is certainly a lot of great music in there though, a couple of gorgeous arias and an impressive chorus (the Bhagavad Vita), and some heavy-hitting orchestral writing a la Harmonielehre.

What do you guys think? I need to find a recording of the "Doctor Atomic Symphony" too, now I am curious to hear it.

Offline Guido

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #18 on: December 18, 2008, 04:05:08 AM »
Anybody managing to see the new string quartet in January?

http://www.earbox.com/W-string-quartet.html

Geologist.

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away

Offline Benji

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Re: Adams' Apple-Cart (John Coolidge, that is!)
« Reply #19 on: February 12, 2009, 02:22:15 PM »
[Copied over from the WAYLT thread in case anyone doesn't follow that torrent of a thread]

Ok my friends - for your listening pleasure:

The world premiere of John Adams' The Dharma at Big Sur for electric violin and orchestra. Tracy Silverman, electric violin. Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra - Esa-Pekka Salonen. Walt Disney Concert Hall, 24th October 2003.

The Dharma at Big Sur.mp3

Again, only a recording of a low bitrate webcast so not the best sound quality by any means.
« Last Edit: February 12, 2009, 02:27:44 PM by Mog: 100% replicant »