I well remember first hearing the score for The Draughtsman’s Contract and thinking it was some 18th century music I hadn’t come across before. It then went on an on until I was bored and it struck me that it could not be from that time. Later I found out that it was a contemporary piece by Michael Nyman and was an example of the new minimalist genre; I wasn’t impressed and took against it until I discovered John Adams.
The booklet notes also say that Harmonielehre is in this genre but for me while John Adams uses elements of the minimalist style with its repetition of ‘hypnotic ostinato-based textures’ he never allows them to overstay their welcome which is a mistake several other ‘minimalist composers’ make. The result for me is music that is always truly engaging and hugely exciting. Even on those occasions when his patterns are repeated over and over it is completely relevant to the context as in the totally compellingThe Chairman Dances: A Foxtrot For Orchestra, from his opera Nixon In China. For me Adams encapsulates all that is the very best about American music, something that is to be found in so much of it from Copland and Bernstein to Alan Hovhaness, Roy Harris and Michael Torke. It’s that liberating and expansive feeling of wide open spaces, a feeling I find far less of in music from non-American composers with obvious exceptions such as Sibelius.
Harmonielehre was written in 1984-85 and is a symphony in all but name. What strikes you is the huge canvas it presents with walls of sound that engulf you and take you on what the booklet notes describe as ‘panoramic journey through orchestral territories at once comfortingly familiar and strangely disorientating’. The booklet goes on to explain some of the background to how the work came to be written including Adams’ emotional reaction to Schoenberg. Some echoes of his music are to be gleaned in it despite Adams’ general rejection of Schoenberg’s excursions into atonality. I shall not repeat all that but it is worth reading to help grasp the motivation behind the music. The work opens with the now familiar repeated note pattern that immediately identifies the minimalist stable. Here it continues longer than necessary to launch itself and even within the genre Adams’ individual voice and his choice of note patterns identifies him very definitely as the composer. Certain of these patterns seem to be recurring themes in all his music that I’ve heard. However, it is his sheer power and energy that forms the most impressive element. It leaves you feeling energised too.
Short Ride In A Fast Machine from a year later is surely the most extreme example of what can be done with minimalism ‘without tears’. It uses the repeated note pattern in the most pertinent way to represent the machine in the title. As the booklet points out his use of this ‘cell’ describes the sensation of a drive in a highly charged sports car; one that the passenger regrets getting into. Equally, the listener will certainly have no regrets on hearing the piece. It did much to secure Adams’ international reputation and is one of the shortest but most impressive pieces that exist for large orchestra. I could never tire of hearing it. The booklet is absolutely spot-on when it says that the piece proved ‘that there was far more to so-called ‘minimalism’ than mind-numbing repetitiveness’.
John Adams has created seven operas and has never shied away from dealing with controversial topics. These include Nixon’s visit to China, the first ever by an American President, terrorism in The Death of Klinghoffer and the creation of the first atomic bomb in Dr Atomic. In Dr Atomic Symphony, which dates from two years after the opera, the same subject is handled in an orchestral way. It describes the days leading up to the test carried out at the Alamogordo test site during a potentially highly dangerous electrical storm. The ‘Dr’ in the title refers to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) who was in charge of the ‘Manhattan Project’. The second movement deals specifically with him and his wife struggling to come to terms with the whole question of love, war and peace in relation to his huge responsibility for the outcome of his work. This anxiety, perhaps even bordering on self-doubt, can be understood when one remembers that Einstein famously said that had he known what the splitting of the atom would lead to he’d have chosen to be a locksmith rather than a physicist. Adams successfully represents these feelings in part two of the symphony subtitled Panic. As with Harmonielehre and Short Ride In A Fast Machine it is the pure rhythmic energy that is the most impressive feature. No section of the orchestra could feel left out with the timpanist being particularly busy.
The music is played with huge élan by the RSNO. I should just mention that the orchestra’s principals for this recording were Adrian Wilson (oboe), Huw Morgan (trumpet), John Whitener (tuba) and its leaders were Maya Iwabuchi* and James Clark†. The results are highly charged and exciting performances of three works that place Adams at the very forefront of American contemporary classical music and deservedly so.