Back when I was a young music student and I first heard of John Adams, I thought, the second president of the United States was a composer!? But of course, I hadn’t yet heard of John Adams (b. 1946), nor had I the pleasure of hearing the music of this artist, who is one of the most influential and well-known living composers. John Adams was born and raised in New England. He played music from a young age, and started writing original music when he was just 10 years old. He attended Harvard, and while in Boston, soaked up the musical offerings of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After his time at Harvard ended (two degrees conferred), Adams moved to San Francisco to teach at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. In 1982, he was named composer-in-residence of the San Francisco Symphony, and founded and curated their “New and Unusual Music” series. He is currently the Creative Chair of the LA Phil, and curates its Minimalist Jukebox festival.
John Adams is often classified as a minimalist composer, and perhaps it’s important to define precisely what this term “minimalism” means. In the realm of 20th century music, “minimalism” refers to music that often features short phrases repeated a large number of times or that may gradually go through a process of change or transformation. There is routinely a steady pulse in pieces like these, and there is not necessarily a harmonic goal, so the music becomes more about the process rather than traditional harmonic language, or narrative or representative stories. There are five American composers generally associated with the early days of minimalism: John Adams, LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.
Some early minimalist pieces were produced on tape loops, and explored the resulting sounds when two loops of the same phrase were slowly drawn out of phase with each other. Later, this idea of phasing was explored with live instruments, to great effect. One of the pieces on LACO’s upcoming concert is John Adams’ Shaker Loops from 1978. The “loop” of the title was inspired by these tape loop compositions, although there are no tape loops used in the piece. Shaker Loops started out as a string quartet called “Wavemaker,” which was an exploration of two ideas: 1) minimalist procedures and 2) the ripples made when the surface of water is broken or disturbed. The “Shaker” of the title might suggest the religious sect (so named because their worship included shaking and dancing), but it actually grew out of the idea of string tremolo, a technique that requires the player to quickly repeat a note by moving the bow back and forth in a continuous motion. According to the composer, when he was writing this piece, he was thinking of “long sequences of oscillating melodic cells that created a rippling, shimmering complex of patterns like the surface of a slightly agitated pond or lake.”
The first iteration of this piece in “Wavemaker” didn’t work in the way Adams had hoped, so he expanded the work for seven string instruments. The version LACO is playing is actually a third version, which was arranged for string orchestra. The added instruments allow for more possibilities in terms of texture. There four movements of the piece, “Shaking and Trembling,” “Hymning Slews” “Loops and Verses,” and “A Final Shaking.” Like other minimalist pieces in which the short ideas transform gradually, over time, the musical ideas in each movement display gradual changes in focus. Sometimes, the waves seem to crash into each other, while in other parts the sounds mesh into one. It’s a fascinating piece to both watch and hear, and the synchronization of the ensemble’s collaboration is absolutely key to the success of the piece. I’ve not yet heard this piece in live performance, so I’m very excited to experience the energy of this piece on stage.
My first experience with the music of John Adams was Nixon in China, a ground-breaking opera he composed in 1985-1987. It premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in October of 1987. It was a joint commission by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Houston Grand Opera, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Alice Goodman penned the libretto, which covers the arrival of Pat and Richard Nixon in China and continues through the subsequent meetings and events of this historic visit. I was struck by the power of minimalist music when used by a large orchestra, and it’s still one of my favorite operas. It wasn’t universally praised when it premiered, but in the nearly 30 years since it was composed, it has been recognized as a very important work in twentieth century opera, and it has endured in a way its early detractors never thought possible.
John Adams won the Pulitzer in 2003 for a work called On the Transmigration of Souls, a work commemorating the lives lost on 9/11. As a native New Yorker, I felt that the choice of Adams as the voice of such a work seemed a natural. It’s a moving and touching piece meshing orchestra, adult choir, children’s choir, and tape. Adams still composes and curates and conducts. In 2008 he published a memoir called Hallelujah Junction. He came to the Los Angeles Public Library to give a talk, which I attended. When he took questions, I asked him this: “Do you compose every day?” To which he answered, “Yes, I try to, even if it’s just a little bit.” This is a good lesson I think about a lot, especially at the beginning of a year. How can I make this year more productive than the last? I think of John Adams and his answer: whatever you do, try to do a little bit each day.