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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky - Song Play in Two Acts (1995)
June Jordan (libretto) (1936-2002)
Martina Mühlpointner (Consuelo)
Kimako Xavier Trotman (Dewain)
Markus Alexander Neisser (Rick)
Jeannette Friedrich (Leila)
Darius de Haas (David)
Lilith Gardell (Tiffany)
Jonas Holst (Mike)
Young Opera Company Freiburg
The Band of Holst-Sinfonietta/Klaus Simon
Rec. 28th January to 1st February 2004, Tonstudio Oase, Freiburg, and 21st April 2004, Tonstudio R, Vienna, Austria.
NAXOS 8.669003-04[72:37 + 43:44]

There are one or two contradictions here, about which prospective purchasers should be warned. This is part of the Naxos ‘American Opera Classics’ series, but almost the first thing one reads in the booklet is that I was looking… ‘is not an opera.’ The notes on the back of the jewel case do provide some insights into the piece (‘ranges in style from gospel and jazz to pop and rock’), but fans of ‘Nixon in China’ and ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ should note – this is nothing like either.

I have found myself in trouble with Adams before now. Without a TV guide and by chance switching on halfway through a TV broadcast of ‘Nixon in China’, I found myself wondering who on earth felt they could get away with such a transparent and overblown imitation of Philip Glass. Spinning my old ECM LP of ‘Harmonium’ (De Waart), I can’t escape hearing a typical Louis Andriessen cell in the climax, and so it goes on. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great respect for Adams, and enjoy much of his music tremendously. He is slickly creative and a brilliant craftsman, but some day I’d just love it if he was ‘found out’ by someone doing some proper comparative analyses.

Having laid a few cards on the table, I have to take ‘I was looking…’ on its own terms, and avoid suggesting that it’s an excuse for Adams to have fun extending his chameleon palette. The production makes no bones about its brash Broadway style, and the programme notes helpfully provide stylistic pointers in italics at the end of a short synopsis for each number. Its compact ‘pit band’ instrumentation is thickened and given colour with unashamed use of synthesisers, and the use of pre-programmed midi drums occasionally give the tracks a tacky ‘home studio’ feel. The whole thing is based around seven characters who are all embroiled in poverty-stricken and sleazy romantic relationships of one kind or another, the whole thing being resolved by an earthquake (tr.2 CD 2 – nice woofer-tester rumbling, but sounds more like a landslide). There is some kind of a plot here, but, other than a few nods toward social comment the storyline is basically asinine, and unlikely to be re-told in fervent undertones in pubs up and down the country. Adams himself pointed out the connection to ‘The Threepenny Opera’, and his intention to present real and ordinary people in common, or bizarrely improbable situations is clear.

The American flag which is the proud logo for this series is slightly undermined by the clearly German/Austrian origins of this recording. There is a cute misprint which sums this up: ‘Song characterised by funk und minimal music.’ The singers do fairly well with the ‘Fame’ idiom intended here, but there are a few fun examples of mid-European stumbling with libretto: Jeannette Friedrich (Leila) turns ‘questions’ into ‘kfestions’ (CD1 tr.3), and Lilith Gardell’s (Tiffany) articulation of ‘how far can I go’ (tr. 7) makes it sound quite rude - especially since someone was singing about condoms one or two numbers before. The text is clear and easy to follow however, and the lack of a libretto in the booklet creates no problems.

This work will appear in the classical catalogue on the strength of its composers name alone. For those who enjoy jazzy, generally upbeat and funky musical, this will probably offer a great deal to enjoy – I fear most ‘buffs’ will recoil in horror from the start. I must admit, as a juke-box of swingin’ entertainment with a touch of the minimals it wasn’t quite the nightmare I expected. I did find myself longing for a proper sing-along classic à la Bernstein (there’s à la just about everyone else in this work), but no single number leapt out as having that special ‘hit’ quality. ‘Song about the Sweet Majority Population of the World’ at the end of Act I is a case in point. It has a promising start (a sort of soft ‘Workin’ in a Coal Mine’), which never goes anywhere – it just goes up and down, meanders a little, and stops – all intro, no big tune. I like it, but I won’t be able to whistle it in the street on my way to the gig this evening. The limitations of the instrumentation - or the performance - are thrown up by the lack of contrast when a ‘Rock’ style is attempted in ‘Three Weeks and Still I’m Outta my Mind’ (beginning of Act II). Here there is a lack of either sexy ‘Grease’ style interaction by the singers or heft and weight behind the somewhat drippy non-Bon Jovi guitar sound and the arrangement in general. There is a claim made for ‘Earthquake Music’, ‘Aleatoric improvisation à la Witold Lutosławski in rock style’ to which I was looking forward, but alas alack, I fear poor Luto would have to sue for misrepresentation – it certainly takes improvisation no further than Zappa did. A final reprise of ‘I was looking at the ceiling...’ wraps everything up, but while there is a twinge of recollection at having heard the theme somewhere before, it only really serves to underline the lack of genuine impact everywhere or anywhere else.

Bless Naxos for introducing this opus into their catalogue. It deserves a position somewhere, but will be something of a sleeper on the ‘Opera Section’ shelves in your local shop, ready to leap out and give you a fright when you get home. Try before you buy!

Dominy Clements



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