‘I’ve never felt like a vanguard personality. My attitude towards creation is one of incorporating in my compositions everything I’ve learned and experienced of the past. I’ve never received any powerful creative energy from turning my back on the past.’
These are the words of the American composer John Adams extracted from an interview. At a time when so much art, particularly in the visual field, has been reduced to stunts, the quiet confidence of a creator that he can do important things by building rather than destroying is very refreshing. His articulation of his outlook vis-à-vis the past, could stand as a manifesto for the artists from the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first in all media that I most admire, the poet James Fenton for example, or the late Steve Campbell, the Scottish painter.
Not that Adams is in any way a cosy tunesmith. I first encountered his work when I attended a performance of his opera Nixon in China at the Edinburgh Festival. It was wonderful visually and I was intrigued that the libretto was in rhyming couplets with assonant rhymes. But I wasn’t sure that the minimalist music would stand up to repeated hearings. Somehow I had acquired a freebie, taster disk designed to advertise a 2002 Barbican weekend devoted to Adams’ work. The first piece was The Chairman’s Dances. The likelihood was, that I played this piece and having the same doubts that I had had about the opera from which it was extracted, put the disk aside. This was a mistake. If I had listened to more, an excerpt from the violin concerto, the Pavane: She’s So Fine from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, the choral piece from El Nino and Hoe-down (Mad Cow) from Gnarly Buttons, I would have been hooked much earlier. The breakthrough for me came when I heard the great symphonic work Harmonielehre.
With my almost non-existent technical knowledge of music, I find it difficult to describe Adams’ work. There is obviously development through repetition in the manner of Sibelius, remnants of the typical minimalist pulse, rich Wagnerian chords, fascinating orchestration details that emerge with repeated listening and beautiful lyrical passages. In chamber pieces like the middle movement of Gnarly Buttons, there is also humour, and he has written several moving pieces for voice and voices like The Wound-Dresser, a setting of a poem by Walt Whitman about his experiences during the civil war, and On the Transmigration of Souls, which he was commissioned to write to commemorate the victims of 9/11. I have not collected recordings of a contemporary composer’s work so enthusiastically since I sought out all Stravinsky’s major pieces shortly after leaving art college. Who would have thought that a composer much influenced by Sibelius would be pushing western music in new directions? Well, Constant Lambert did, actually, even if his biographer thought it was a ridiculous suggestion.