The Musical Decline of John Adams
Thanks to John Adams, I am no longer a snob. When I was studying composition in graduate school, I was possessed by a young man’s certainty about his own knowledge and taste. Still, I was exposed to enough contradictory opinions and ideas that I began to— fortunately—entertain doubts. What if I didn’t know everything?
One day I decided that I would go to the music library regularly, pull a random album off the shelves, and listen to the whole thing, no matter what preconceptions I had. The first LP I listened to was the Nonesuch recording of John Adams’s “Harmonielehre.” By about the fourth hammering E-minor chord, I realized to my joy how limited my horizons were. Not only was it a spectacular piece of musical art, but I felt it immediately and deeply in my body. It completely shattered my brittle and misguided notion that art music was meant for the intellect alone.
What a bizarre and frustrating shame it’s been, then, that as my ears continue to open up as I grow older, so has Adams’s output become increasingly inessential. If his music up through the early 21st century was generous, his work since then has become the equivalent of a crank yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.
This is a shame, since Adams has been essential to the return of both tonality and a romantic-era notion of expression in contemporary classical music. Due to his age and the qualities of his earliest works, he’s often grouped with Steve Reich and Philip Glass as one in a triumvirate of minimalism. Adams was never a full-fledged process composer, though. Repetition was an essential component in his technique, but it was a means, not an end. What Adams hinted at it in “Shaker Loops” and brought to full fruition with “Harmonielehre” was a way to use the sheer alluring beauty of process music to achieve the emotional resonance of formal resolution.
This was a path out of the looming cul-de-sac of minimalism, and a way to keep the Western classical tradition moving forward in contemporary times. It came to him as an epiphany. As he relates in his fascinating 2008 memoir, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, he was driving in the California mountains, listening to, of all things, the first act of “Götterdämmerung,” when he realized that Wagner’s type of expression, presenting the composer’s personal thoughts, feelings, and values to the listener as something beautiful and moving to experience, resonated with him as well.
From that realization, Adams made masterpieces that have expanded what is possible in the Western classical tradition and drawn in new audiences for modern and American music. His music was of the moment, while perpetuating the particular values and satisfactions of Mahler and Sibelius.
This has made him the current Great American Composer, a worthy heir to Copland in both his presence and stature as an artist in the overall American culture. His greatest work has a visceral force that communicates a sense of powerful, dramatic, and human expression to the listener. At one personally memorable San Francisco Symphony concert from 1995, a patron sitting behind me complained about “Harmonielehre” being the featured post-intermission work (preceded by a Rossini overture and a Haydn Cello Concerto). “Why did they put the modern piece on the second half of the program when everyone will leave?” he said, and, astonishingly, because the San Francisco Opera had already presented notable stagings of “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” “I know who Charles Ives is but I don’t even know who this John Adams is.” After the multiple, raucous standing ovations for the composer, the same man nearly shouted, “That was the greatest concert I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Adams still gets standing ovations, and “Harmonielehre” is a staple of the symphonic literature, but his relevancy has tapered off over the last 15 years. How did this happen? When did this happen? The answers could only be in Adams’ heart and mind, if he indeed can step back to see the current state of his art.
At the 2015 New York debut of “Scheherazade.2,” a large-scale violin concerto he calls a “Symphony for violin and orchestra,” Adams stood on the David Geffen Hall stage and told the audience that the piece, through soloist Leila Josefowicz, would describe a dark narrative in which a young woman resists and escapes the patriarchal social hierarchy of her traditional village. Adams reinforced that the social subjugation of women was wrong. I wondered if that message had escaped anyone’s comprehension, and I also wondered why, as classical music institutions are beating their heads against the wall and shelling out money to worthless consultants and marketing professionals, trying desperately to bring in younger, regular audiences, Adams would indulge in what felt like condescension to his listeners.
While Reich and Glass are finding more organic forms, respectively expanding harmonic palettes and adding ornamentation and chromaticism, Adams seems to have stopped and settled down. (He’s “not as curious” as his son, he told VAN in 2016.) Much of his recent work sounds like, well, his previous music. In and of itself that’s fine: when he applies his rhythmic language and sense of form to new ensembles, his music is refreshed (his string quartets are a vibrant example). 2003’s “The Dharma at Big Sur” stands out because of his collaboration with the electric violinist Tracy Silverman—Silverman was the new voice.
The first movement of “Scheherazade.2,” “Tale of the Wise Young Woman-Pursuit by the True Believers,” begins with an assurance that lulls the listener into thinking something special is on the horizon. That is replaced by car chase music that would be clichéd if it were not so bad: there’s a here comes a scary moment chord, then a kind of battle between soloist and orchestra via upward thrusting scales, with rhythms that sound like beginners learning fight choreography for a suburban production of Hamlet. The whole of the piece is like this, fluid, compelling stretches countered by music that is the equivalent of Adams’s mansplaining. If he were a writer, he would be telling, not showing.
His continuing collaboration with Peter Sellars have ceased to bear artistic fruit. Adams’ pieces made with Sellars as librettist have been, after the exceptional “El Niño,” a failure.
“The Gospel According to the Other Mary” shares an aesthetic monotony with “Doctor Atomic.” Both works begin in crisis, which leaves Adams trying to find a way to recover the effect of that sensation when he needs it later on. Having renounced subtlety as a tool in the opening measures, the music continues in a way that is either obvious—conflict, whether external or internal, is always high and loud, crowding out the nuance and depth heard in “El Nino”—or confused, with distracting, fussy accompaniments under important vocal sections like “In My Own Quietly Explosive Here” and “Don’t Touch My Left Arm.” In the end, what should be intensely moving—the Crucifixion—comes off as an excerpt from one of the lesser Hammer horror movies, and has an effect that is only shallowly Christian.
If “El Niño” trusts the listener to hear and respond sensitively, “The Gospel” tells the listener what to think. “In the morning of the Resurrection, it’s the women who are the first to see the angels and to report the Resurrection,” Sellars told Deutsche Welle in 2017. “So I think the Bible also gives them a very special place. You just don’t hear what they have to say. We’ve changed that!” That’s not music, it’s a lecture—not to mention a little tone deaf, considering the lead creators on the work were both white men. But since Adams has been designated a Great American Composer, I expect new works in this vein to keep coming.
I miss humility, self-deprecation and humor in Adams’s recent pieces. But humor has never been a tool in the composer’s kit. There were already hints of this in the mechanical, autocratic Chamber Symphony. In that work, Adams attempted to shoehorn his own idea of cartoon music into the rigid form and structure of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 1. The composer’s own notes mention that he overheard the sound from cartoons his son was watching in another room, which makes sense, because the Chamber Symphony sounds like music an older relative would write after having cartoons described to him. It is zany in the way a stiff parent might toss arounds words like “lit” to show how in touch they are with the “kids.” It is funny in the way one imagines Charles Kingsfield in “The Paper Chase” might be.
Perhaps the most disappointing of the late works is “Absolute Jest.” The New York premiere by the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas was interminable, a seemingly nonstop stream of notes interrupted by occasional bits of Beethoven’s String Quartets Op. 131 and Op. 135. These were dropped in haphazardly, along with fragments from Stravinsky—samples made with pen and staff paper, which defeats the purpose. Beethoven was reduced by Adams’s pedestrian, heavily recycled framework; the piece seemed the work of a composer too busy to have a personal thought, or to care about his audience. (A far cry from the “he cares” credo Adams discovered on that fateful drive.)
The original version was noticeably derivative. A later performance by the New York Philharmonic of the revised version had “John Adams and Beethoven” credited in the program, which was at least honest, though it did nothing to improve the music. “Absolute Jest” takes Adams’s great gift to contemporary classical music, the return of the technical and expressive power of harmonic resolution in a totally modern context, and squanders it. The tension that is the necessary prelude to resolution comes from Beethoven, cribbed from the opening of Symphony No. 9 and the rhythms of that symphony’s Molto Vivace and the Vivace of the String Quartet, Op. 135. It is Beethoven’s explosive dotted rhythms and syncopations that move “Absolute Jest” forward; whenever Adams takes up the rhythmic reins, as in half-way through the Beginning movement, all the physical and emotional energy fizzles out. The one worthwhile thing about “Absolute Jest” is that Adams’ turgid, self-absorbed conception and writing sets the absolute joy of Beethoven in stupendous relief.
Adams, at his best, was the great American composer of the second half of the 20th century. He could, like Stravinsky, satisfy the professional with his craft, while honestly appealing to a larger public. There are two key elements that make his body of work from “Shaker Loops” to “Hallelujah Junction” so important.
The first is the librettist Alice Goodman. That “Doctor Atomic,” Adams’s opera to a Peter Sellars libretto, is so bad—static, wearying assertions of stressful determination around the one good passage of music, the aria “Batter my heart”—sets into relief not only how great his first two operas are, but also how Goodman’s librettos provide so much of their real humanity and drama. Those qualities, and the essential sing-ability of the words, come straight from Goodman (what makes “Batter my heart” one of the great contemporary opera arias is the poetry of John Donne).
The other fundamental quality of Adams’ best work is its essential meaninglessness. When he made music with no more content than his own dream images, the music was often great; as he increasingly uses music as a vehicle to tell everyone what he thinks about things, the music suffers. My now dutiful exposure to his new work brings me back again and again to “Grand Pianola Music.” Across the past two seasons in New York, I’ve witnessed two performances—one by Juilliard’s new music ensemble AXIOM, the other by the International Contemporary Ensemble at this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival—that have convinced me this is his finest work. It’s nothing but form, timbre, structures, harmonies, and gestures that create drama and fulfillment in sound. It’s as if all Adams wanted to do was make something beautiful. That would be enough. ¶