John Adams

How Composers Learn, Part 2

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

They read, and they write, and not music. They read books about all sorts of things other than music. They gather material, experience, knowledge, ideas. They react to these things. And they write.

Composers are, generally, excellent prose writers. This isn’t a surprise when one considers that the way to learn to write well is to read and write – read good writing, and write and rewrite your own. Composers already work towards clarity and precision in a difficult and abstract language, so writing in their own vernacular usually comes fluidly. The goal in both music and prose is clarity and precision of expression, exactitude. Composers get a lot of practice at that, moving slowly from incoherence to coherence, which is both a short-term and a long-term project. The latter covers a career, and former projects such as this, where I write in main part to bring out and stitch together some coherent voices from the riot going on in my mind.

And that’s the fundamental issue; how are ideas made to cohere, particularly complex ideas, because music, even at its seeming simplest, is a language of complexity. And nothing is more complex, not a novel, not computer code, not a credit default swap, than an opera. So John Adams has produced a great opera and a great book.

The striving for coherence also means exploring the way get from here to there, no matter how short the journey may be. For myself, and this post, the journey begins during the live HD broadcast of Dr. Atomic, last Saturday. After seeing the premiere in San Francisco, a dress rehearsal last month and now this broadcast, I am confident of my knowledge and memory of the work (this was also the first Met HD broadcast I’ve seen, and it was a great experience – excellent sound, interesting and intimate backstage views, documentary material added for the movie theater audiences. While I don’t know how well a spectacle like Aida would come across, the ability to experience Dr. Atomic close-up gave emphasis to how fine the production was, and also the overall excellence of the cast).

I was impressed with many things during this performance, beyond the almost overwhelming emotional impact the opera has. There is something powerfully exciting in being a living witness to a work that will last in the literature, and to seeing true, long-term greatness develop in an artist. Adams has gone from being an interesting associate of the American Minimalist style, to a developing Neo-Romantic composer, to a fine American contemporary composer, to a truly great national and international artist who has subtly but effectively pioneered ways to make music fresh in the 21st century. How this all happens is a mystery in some ways, but clear too. While his memoir cannot describe how his craft improves through work, it can describe how his ideas and style change, both serendipitously and willfully. He is asking important, coherent questions about the American experience, as he alluded to in a backstage interview with Susan Graham; he sees the important questions of today as being about politics, terrorism and science. I don’t think he’s wrong.

Like learning to write by reading great writers, Adams has also learned to make a new style by synthesizing those of other composers. It’s not copying or stealing, it’s more like reverse-engineering, taking something apart to see how it works and putting it back together to see if you can make your own version. This is one of the features of Dr. Atomic, which creates the musical drama through standard means – particular phrases that are matched to characters and dramatic moments – and by conveying different styles for different dramatic purposes, very much in the Romantic operatic style and especially taking after the methods of Berg. All this synthesis mates the means of other composers with Adams himself to produce something new; the bustle of activity around the Trinity project comes by way of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements, intimate moments between Oppenheimer and Kitty are in the manner of Ravel’s Daphnis et Cloe, while a great deal of the slow rise in tension in the second act comes from lessons Adams has learned from his own music, especially Shaker Loops and his underrated El Dorado.

If composers learn by reading and writing, and writing conveys a sense of thought and knowledge, what to make of the contrast with people who are, astonishingly, paid to write? What to make of this:

I like Sarah Palin, and I’ve heartily enjoyed her arrival on the national stage. As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma. So she doesn’t speak the King’s English — big whoop! There is a powerful clarity of consciousness in her eyes. She uses language with the jumps, breaks and rippling momentum of a be-bop saxophonist.

I make it out as someone who knows nothing about music, and can’t think or write coherently. So, no surprise that it’s by Camille Paglia. I read Sexual Personae oh those many years ago, and was struck immediately then, as now, by how she knows nothing at all about music. I don’t mean facts and figures, I mean she can’t listen, she can’t hear it. In that book, she belabored her point by claiming that jazz musicians didn’t dig Debussy because it’s too feminine, which means she’s never heard La Mer or Maiden Voyage. And now this latest drivel. I would say there is a fundamental difference between Sarah Palin and Charlie Parker, and it has to do with intelligence. Parker’s “jumps, breaks and rippling momentum” are impeccably clear and coherent, even at the superhuman speed of his thoughts, even when he was fucked up, which was frequently. My partisan dogma is that I work with language, and like to see it used coherently to convey meaning. Sarah Palin speaks in gibberish, almost randomly tossing out words. She literally makes no sense – I have no idea what she thinks because she cannot say anything that has meaning, so she practically is not thinking anything at all. But that’s okay with political writers like Paglia, or Palin’s sponsor Bill Kristol, another example of how lack of ideas and convictions leads to incoherence. I usually cannot understand what he is trying to say, although it frequently appears to be completely wrong. How’s that new century going, Bill? Strange how this incoherence leads to professional gigs, especially now that I’m unemployed again, and still trying to write whatever I write – essays, music, code – better and better. But then I come from the arts where, like science, bad ideas are left to die, while in politics, we are cursed with them seemingly forever.

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The Latest

Paucity of posts does not mean lack of content. Solo parenting for a month meant I only got out to one concert, but it was notable, and I still produced a good amount of work, here’s where to find it:

  • At the New York Classical Review, read my preview of The Death of Klinghoffer and my review of opening night
  • I published the first of what I hope to be more articles at New Music Box: “The Know-Nothings of Jazz” is a look at just how it is that any reputable place would publish the kind of unbelievably ignorant drivel about jazz that we’ve been subjected to this past summer
  • The October issue of The Brooklyn Rail is out, and our podcast is up, and it may be our very best: great conversations and music with Michael Vincent Waller, Ken Thomson, Carlos Hernandez of Ava Luna, and Steve Dalachinksy


I say “yes” to these sentiments from my colleague Christian Carey over at Sequenza21. He's responding to a strange article in the New York Times about John Adams' new saxophone concerto. But the piece actually turned out to be a chance for Adams to moan about an unnamed but obvious successful young composer and for Will Robin to, strangely, marvel at this exotic instrument, the saxophone.

I wonder what has Adams so piqued? Why begrudge someone else's success? What he says is not criticism, it's just complaint, and considering how lazy his recent pieces Absolute Jest and The Gospel According to the Other Mary are, it's unjustified. As for Robin, he seems to be suffering from an academic environment that just doesn't see the history it hasn't enshrined – the saxophone has been around classical music since it was invented, and it's prevalent in contemporary music, and if the criteria is concerto form, then “Facades,” anyone?

And, as a saxophonist, I want to point out that the horn is, in Steve Lacy's words, an “interval machine,” so writing music that calls for rapid leaps across the instrument's range is absolutely idiomatic. Any good orchestration book will tell you this, but so will taking to a player, or listening to some records. Perhaps the music library is thin on Lacy, or the music of Meyer Kupferman.


The Dude Ambles By

John Adams, *City Noir,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustav Mahler, *Symphony No. 9,* Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Gustavo Dudamel & the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall:

  • March 27, 2013; John Adams, The Gostpel According to the Other Mary
  • March 28, 2013; Claude Vivier, Zipangu, Claude Debussy, La Mer, Igor Stravinsky, The Firebird

It’s not that I believed the hype about Gustavo Dudamel, it’s that I figured that anyone who had gone so far, so fast, had some real promise, some unpolished talent that the LA Philharmonic saw and wanted to have for themselves as it grew, like what the Washington Nationals see in Bryce Harper. Harper was spectacular at times during his rookie season, and less than ordinary at other times, but the former meant that there might be more often in the future. I assumed that was the case with Dudamel, and now that I’ve heard him on a handful of recordings and seen him lead the LA Phil at Lincoln Center in an intriguing program of Stravinsky, Debussy, CLaude Vivier and John Adams, I realize that, as the saying goes, I’ve made an ass of myself.

VLA 10049 byMathewImaging 12965Dudamel’s new Mahler 9 recording is superficial and schematic. He handles the musical traffic skillfully and the LA Phil is playing at a high technical level, but those qualities amount to watching a machine run, the music-making doesn’t seem to have any particular ideas or to be done for a particular reason, other than habit. The opening bars are perfunctory, there is no musical statement made with the stumbling rhythm, no tension, and so the two-note descending string line, which is a musical manifestation of the exhalation of acceptance that begins life’s final journey, is totally flat — it’s one of the key moments of the symphony! After that, there’s no feeling that one phrase leads to another, that the point of Mahler’s writing out the notes was to get the musicians to go from the beginning to the end. Everything is episodic, with one phrase and section clipped to the next. Mahler organized the work, but Dudamel seems to find it arbitrary. I have no idea what he thinks about the music, intellectually or emotionally, because he doesn’t lead it as if he was thinking of anything.

This was a strength with *The Firebird* because it’s an episodic piece, the short sections juxtaposed for dramatic and narrative purpose, and so his ability to handle textures, dynamics and rhythms is important. The audience broke into spontaneous and deserved applause after a breathtaking “Infernal Dance.” *The Firebird* almost plays itself, though. *La Mer* doesn’t, and this was the first performance of this beautiful, profound, involving masterpiece I had ever heard that was so … indifferent. Conductors like Charles Dutoit, Michael Tilson Thomas and David Robertson give you their understanding of the music’s colors, drama and important structural innovations, but Dudamel offered no ideas. It was pleasant enough in a boring way and completely forgettable and meaningless.

For the afficianando, the draw of this program was Claude Vivier’s *Zipangu*. Vivier’s music seems to be undergoing a slow and very welcome rediscovery, in no small part due to the promotion of his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. He was a pioneer of the spectral movement and easily the most accessible and powerful proponent of the style, fixing magical sonorities to gracefully strong structures. Vivier wasn’t just exploring the possibilites of microtones and diaphanous harmonies, but expressing ideas through them. Dudamel marked each moment of the piece with an excessively vertical attention, getting the notes write and missing the point that they existed in the context of others. The latter pieces confirmed to me the impression this opening work left, which is that he is didactically focussed on making sure each moment is technically right and has no idea why each moment matters.

It’s a sad change from the Salonen years. Under him, the LA Philharmonic was frequently a rough ensemble, but they played with ideas and a tremendous commitment. There was a performance of the Beethoven Symphony No. 7 that almost set my hair on fire, and while that may not be every person’s idea of how the music should go, it was an idea, it was something! The excessive palaver of the Dudamel style turns art into baubles for the bourgeoisie to collect as signifiers of their cultural prestige. It’s awful.

His lack of personal art leaves me at a loss to judge the qualities of John Adams’ *The Gospel According to the Other Mary*. It’s an Easter companion to his brilliant Christmas oratorio, *El Nino*, and not nearly as accomplished. The libretto, put together with Peter Sellars, is ungainly and drives the structure, which has a first half malformed by an endless scene involving Lazarus’ death and resurrection. Once that passes, everything starts to move. But nothing much moves for the character of Mary Magdalene, who steadily laments and regrets throughout, and at times the music goes for effect rather than meaning, eviscerating Adams’ strength as a composer. Taken together with his awful copy and paste pastiche of Beethoven, *Absolute Jest*, I think he is cursed with being too busy as a composer, and is taking shortcuts. But perhaps there is more to the music than Dudamel can give it, which I feel is also true for *City Noir*, which does everything that Adams does well: it’s smart, irreverent, sincere and even a little hip, but the one performance available is unfulfilling.

Dudamel has a jejune touch, and it effects the music he leads. Considering the clamor that greets him when he steps out onto stage, the yelling and cheering, and that he’s got a long contract, that seems to be what audiences and trustees want. It’s classical music as upper-class lifestyle accessory, and that’s nothing new of course. Nonetheless, I hate it.

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Maverick Media

American Mavericks is in full swing here in New York City. I have some mixed feelings about Monday’s San Francisco Symphony concert — I’m not sure what John Adams was thinking when he made Absolute Jest, and it’s hard to square Jessye Norman’s substantial career with a performance of John Cage’s Song Books — the audiences have come out, and the orchestra continues to impress me as the finest in the country. The precision, blend and weight of their sound in Ameriques was astonishing. The Tuesday program was one of the great events of the year, with Carl Ruggle’s Sun-Treader, Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra and Henry Brant’s orchestration of Ives’ Concord Sonata. From weighty, dissonant Neo-Romanticism to spacious, still, delicate pointillism and the polyphonic riot of Ives, played with such musical expression — there’s no other orchestra that can do this. Top flight groups like this play the classics beautifully, but Tilson Thomas, his imagination, curiosity and his knowledge and understanding of the range of musical concepts means that a program like this not only works, but astonishes. Sun-Treader is a great work, and has been recorded exactly two times, both under this conductor’s baton. This group also made a tremendous recording the of Ives last year, and I have never heard a finer performance of the Feldman piece, with Emmanuel Ax at the keyboard, hauntingly shadowed by Robin Sutherland. When an orchestra can play the quietest sounds with a exactitude of attack and pitch and fullness of sound like this, the silent spaces in between grow broader, deeper, more profound. Rare playing and a truly rare program, all of us in the hall may never hear these pieces again in concert.

San Francisco is one of the pioneers in matching their content (their programming and playing) with digital media (their own record label, the Keeping Score program), and this festival has lots of extras for those who can attend and even for those who can’t. Go to Q2 for archived audio, check out the above documentary or one about MTT’s grandparents, who were leaders in Yiddish theater, and, if you’re patient, wait a few months, because the orchestral concerts are being recorded for release on the SFS Media label, meaning brilliant, beautiful discs of Adams, Ruggles, Cowell and more.

San Francisco Symphony, Adams: Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine

In 1996, I went to a San Francisco Symphony concert with a good friend. The program was generally typical of orchestra concerts around the world; an overture, a concerto, intermission, a symphony. In the details, however, lay the brilliance of Michael Tilson Thomas’ musicianship, attitude and salesmanship (a vtial talent for a music director): Rossini’s “Overture to Semiramide;” the Haydn Cello Concerto in D, played by Lynn Harrell; and John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Before the music began I overheard peope in the seats behind us talking about the music, expressing their unfamiliarity with Adams and wondering why the modern piece was placed after intermission, when surely many people would leave so they wouldn’t have to endure a piece younger than they were.

The music on the first half was despatched with verve and charm, and the curious couple behind us decided to stay for the whole show. They had no idea what they were in store for. This was a tremendous performance of a great piece of music, and from the very first, crushing E minor chord, the orchestra played with ferocious intensity. The ovation at the end was one of the most passionate I’ve witnessed, and Adams came out for four standing ovations. Leaving the hall, the same couple talked excitedly about how that was the greatest concert they had ever seen. I don’t doubt it.

Harmonielehre is a standard of the orchestral repertoire, and a masterpiece. The San Francisco Symphony commissioned it, premiered it and made the first recording, and excellent one that has not been equalled by performances led by Simon Rattle and David Robertson. It was surpassed that night, though, and that night has now been surpassed by a new release from the Symphony’s own label, live performances of the symphony and the fanfare “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” recorded in Davies Symphony Hall in December 2010 and September 2011. composition speaks for itself. It’s an important work, one that found a way to combine Minimalist process with Romantic resolution and express itself with immediate, and profound, emotional and intellectual power. It belongs explicitly inside the history of western classical music, with its bits of Mahler and Sibelius, but it’s not stodgy, and even though it’s a generation old it sounds new every time because it updates the past and shows a new way forward, but there’s nothing off-putting or forbidding about it, in the clichéd manner that had the patrons wary about what to expect. One of Adams’ finest qualities is that he wears his intellectual and learning lightly. It’s always in the context of his pieces, but he communicates that substance with such direct and sincere power that anyone and everyone can accept what they’re hearing without feeling alienated or patronized.

The playing and communication of MTT and the orchestra on this recording are of the highest level. I write this in Brooklyn, and from the East Coast perspective, with maybe one visit a year and a slow trickle of recordings on their own label, it’s easy to overlook that this continues to be the finest orchestra in the country. They play with the utmost refinement, flexibility and musicality, and bear the conductor’s personal stamp of color and power. They’ve already produced the finest Mahler cycle on record and a series of astonishingly accomplished CDs in tandem with their excellent Keeping Score series. In the SACD format, their recordings are the finest engineered classical discs I have ever heard; the sound has weight, resonance yet sacrifices no detail, and the placement of the audio field puts the listener at and slightly above the podium, and at volume that is exciting. The music-making on this disc is forceful, sweeping, joyful. Harmonielehre is deep, humane music, matched here by the visceral and empathic playing. This will be one of the finest releases of 2012. Adams’ composition is an essential part of any music library, and now this is the essential recording of it.

October Light Playlist

Wolfgang Mitterer, Music for Checking e-mails

Alvin Lucier, Almost New York; There are some lovely drone/tuning pieces on here from Lucier. “Twonings” sets cello against piano, the stringed instrument at times matching the piano note while at others the cellist plays a sharp or flat microtone, setting up Lucier’s characteristic sonic beating. Having two live musicians playing, rather than one against an oscillator, adds both extra tension and expressive beauty.

Tom Hamilton, Off-Hour Wait State; Ever wait for the subway at 4:00am? A classic, mesmerizing.

Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century; Is it a classic punk rock album, a classic of rock improvisation, or a classic set of 20th century experimental music? Yes to all, and one of The Big City’s Essential recordings.

Stay Awake and September Songs; two of producer Hal Willner’s finest collections, the first interpretations of songs from Disney movies, the second some exceptionally fine ‘covers’ of some of Kurt Weill’s greatest songs, like “Youkali Tango” and “Lost in the Stars.” This in honor of Robert Wilson’s production of The Threepenny Opera, which I’ll be seeing tonight. Stay Awake, with it’s humor, intelligence and beautiful narrative, is another Essential recording.

London Chamber Orchestra, Minimalist; this collection has gone through several releases, and even if you know the music is worthwhile for the exceptional performances.

London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble, From the Steeples to the Mountains

Musical Misremembrance & 9/11

What kind of music should accompany commemorations of 9/11? If that strikes you as a ridiculous question, than you are already sympathetic to my critical aims.

In the abstract, there’s nothing strange about it. Music, when made by more than one person, is originally a social art, a way to bring non-kinfolk together in peace and pleasure. Music has also been used, since before the dawn of recorded civilization, to mark tragic occasions, like deaths. No one blinks an eye over the catalogue of musical Requiem Masses in the classical repertoire, from the liturgical tradition to the explicitly social and political ones from Haydn.

Perhaps this may be the mistake of assuming that I, and we, are special observers, but things are not the same this time around. Ten years ago, a group of fanatics engineered a violent attack on civilians for a political purpose, the definition of terrorism. It succeeded beyond their wildest dreams – they never imagined that the twin towers of the World Trade Center would completely collapse. Much of the rest, though, they did imagine; drawing the United States into a needless, mindless war against a Muslim country in the Middle East, secondarily draining the military, social and economic resources of this country. That was the tactical plan, the strategic goal being, by default, become the political organization the Islamic world would be drawn to, in a Manichean struggle against the West that would result in a restoration of the Medieval Caliphate.

The tactical brilliance was matched only by the strategic looniness, but perhaps in the thinking of bin Laden the two were inseparable. He was a con man, blessed by history to have, in George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell and their truly useful idiots from Christopher Hitchens to Andrew Sullivan, from The New York Times to The New Republic to The National Review, the perfect mark. He also seems to have recognized the nature of the American Political/Media Industrial Complex: twenty-four hour cable news focussing obsessively on repeating the same images, the same endless stream of phrases needed to fill up time when information is wanting; a political propaganda machine that would take the frozen fearfulness of a puerile President and sell it as courage; the pundits, by profession shallow, ignorant generalists, who, in order to deserve their paychecks must studiously show a lack of independent or critical thought, and in their inherent callowness and egotism felt that they were the targets, that they were in personal danger, and so were afraid, and so cleaved to the dauphin, and, unready and afraid together, they held each other in a death grip orgy of fright, reeking of flop-sweats, spinning like a ball of sardines, willing to sacrifice those on the edges to predators.

Of course, the predators never came. Death in the towers, the Pentagon, a field in Pennsylvania was mostly for the middle class and those below, the types of ‘folks’ that no one in the Political/Media Industrial Complex ever thinks of except as a rube to sell some bullshit to. And the things that might disturb their lovely, delicate minds were quickly disappeared down the Memory Hole, starting with any reminder of people who had to face the worst of the terror, and leapt from the towers. When was the last time you saw those images? Ten years ago, likely. And then, anthrax! Who died from that? Nobodies, accidents of fate, people who didn’t deserve it. That anthrax was first an important piece of evidence in the false indictment of Saddam Hussein and then was Something That Must Be Forgotten is a tribute to how the construction of Magical Thinking, the spell that Bush Kept Us Safe, was far more important, both directly to his reelection campaign and indirectly, in that the bargain that too many acquiesced to, the one that sold out that fundamental features that made this country what it was, hinged on the concept that it was acceptable to no longer be America and allow the government to freely spy on all of us because those same government organs would, again, keep us safe. Questioning the competence of the FBI would put that into question, and might lead American to realize that they were already safe, that the country was under no Existential Threat (pundit speak for ‘I’m a quavering coward and want Big Daddy to protect me’). No one must question the Establishment Conventional Wisdom, because no one must show up the Establishment.

What we got instead was exhortations to go shopping, free wars to make Thomas Friedman feel like he was some sort of tough guy, and “God Bless America.” It’s no surprise that the worst of all events would be sentimentalized by the Political/Media Industrial Complex – that’s the main way that important and difficult problems are explained away and then dismissed – but the speed of it, on the same day, was breathtaking. And that it emanated from Congress itself, spontaneously, one voice at a time, made it clear on that day, in that moment, that our leaders would act like children, and that the passionate intensity of the worst would be the way forward. But America had it’s new theme song for the Global War on Terror. Death Metal would have been more appropriate.

And now it’s been ten year, an arbitrary number that has the seemingly magical even-ness to round out the entire poisonous, sentimentalized, violent passage of time since. For ten years, America has been like “Gladiator,” a bill of goods of fake, rote emotional styles and state sponsored viciousness. A country founded on ideas – rather than extended family relations, religion or language – especially the idea of individual liberty as the highest moral aspiration of the state, is now a country defined by blood, religion, language, borders and, worst of all, the desire to ferret out Wrongthink and to debase ourselves by torturing other human beings, people with souls, simply because we have both the power to do so and the atavistic desire for revenge. But it made Thomas Friedman happy.

After ten years of this, what is the right music for the occasion? We are, in a way, commemorating not only those who lost their lives, but the sentimentalized fear that anyone, even in the immediate aftermath, might actually think about what happened. “It’s too soon,” “it’s inappropriate,” “I don’t want to see that,” these are responses of fear. Better to sing “God Bless America,” shop and support our troops and let bin Laden escape at Tora Bora then actually face what happened and do something about it. A good response is always to find some simple answer that wraps it all up, but after 9/11 the ‘best’ response was to … ignore it. Most egregious was the Boston Symphony canceling a performances of choruses from John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer, because of possible sensitivity to the subject matter (keep moving folks, nothing to see here), an excercise in sentimentalized fear that Richard Taruskin characterized as ‘noble,’ claiming that the opposite was ‘sentimental complacency,’ in a neat bit of intellectual jiu-jitsu that made facing a difficult issue wrong and, even worse, impolite. But the ubiquitous Brahms Requiem, the ultimate in classical comfort food, is not much better, telling everyone it’s going to be all right. Comfort, yes indeed, let us comfort each other as people, but to tell each other, as adults, that everything is going to be alright? No, it’s not, and it hasn’t been, and it maybe never will.

Music is everywhere, still, especially in New York City and probably everywhere in the country. What is the right kind of music? There are pieces already made for the occasion, an honorable but difficult task. Adams’ On The Transmigration of Souls is a terrible piece; it’s a poorly written pastiche of his own techniques, coming to no effective musical resolution, it’s expression is obvious and it falsely wraps treacle in the garb of aesthetic soberness and objectivity. Why did Taruskin never pick up his pen against it? It won the Pulitzer, of course, because a piece on 9/11 is supposed to win the Pulitzer. Now we have Steve Reich’s new WTC 9/11, available already before the entire new CD comes out. It is also a bad piece of music, bad in the same way that Adams’ is bad. In contrast to Reich’s City Life, a vibrant, complex work that includes sampled communications from the early World Trade Center bombing, the new work is based around communications for 9/11. It’s easy, and lazy, he seems to have put no effort into crafting an interesting musical accompaniment to his samples and while the Kronos Quartet gamefully tries to impart depth to the square, chugging rhyhtms and the watered-down vinegar of the dissonant harmonies, they have no real material to work with.

Again, what is the right kind of music? My answer is that it is honest music, music that doesn’t simplify the complex, doesn’t manipulate, doesn’t prompt a specific, ‘correct’ emotional and intellectual response. Saturday evening, The New York Philharmonic is doing the city a true service of goodwill by offering a free concert of Mahler, his ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. While I would have chosen the Sixth, I cannot quibble with their desire to present a work full of anguish as well as pleasure. The two works are perhaps opposite numbers, following similar paths but ending in very different places. There is nothing wrong with the living feeling a sense of triumph at having made it through. Musically, perhaps the greatest strenght of the work for this use is that it has a choir, and the sound of massed voices singing is one of the most deeply humane things in music. Trinity Wall Street is also hosting choral music, in five different concerts on Friday, all streaming live on The next afternoon, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus sings in a memorial for the FDNY at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and those not in attendance will be able to witness it via broadcast as well.

At home, listening in private, you will find what is right for you. WQXR will be streaming a listener curated playlist for the day and will be webcasting a Kent Tritle choral performance Friday at 7pm.. Do read Frank Rich’s piece in New York Magazine, and Joan Didion’s essential counterpoint to all the huffing and puffing of group-think and ignorance. There is also a DVD work from guitarist Marco Cappelli, a musical realization of Art Spiegelman’s great “In the Shadow of No Towers“. Spiegelman’s book expresses the horror, anguish and frustration that are the essential responses to 9/11, and he never bothers to try and resolve the unresolvable and the ongoing. There are also stories on other music being made for the commemoration.

But for New Yorkers, those who wish to be out amongst their fellow man, there is Music After, a winning marathon of personal responses and experiences; non-dogmatic, humane, real. America Opera Projects is presenting a free concert, 4pm, at the Irondale Community Center in Brooklyn. And there is also an event at the Metropolitan Museum which strikes me as something that might be the most personally meaningful: in the Temple of Dendur, Wordless Music is presenting a concert (free with Museum admission, and streaming live via this link starting at 3:30pm), featuring William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops. Basinski’s piece is an accidental one, the sound produced from the process of old magnetic tapes literally falling apart on each pass by the play head on a tape recorder. The composer says the project ended on the morning of 9/11. It’s a piece about physical decay, dissipation, the loss of records and memories. Ten years later, that’s what we have left.

UPDATED: Adding links to Rich and Didion.

Nixon In China

During the second intermission of the Saturday night performance of John Adams’ opera Nixon in China at the Met, I remarked to a composer in attendance that this was the first time I had seen the work staged and, even though I knew the music well from recordings and the score, it seemed as if I was hearing it for the first time. Although he was fortunate to have seen this same English National Opera production in that country, he concurred: he had the same experience there. There’s a psychological factor involved, I think, having to do with the excitement of finally seeing a work that you had hoped to someday experience. But that’s really just a small part, and to give proper credit, this first opera from the team of Adams, director Peter Sellars and librettist Alice Goodman, now almost twenty-five years old, is a stunningly great work, one of the masterpieces of the genre.

Perhaps it takes the live performance to show this because the novelty is still there, kept alive by the legacy of what came to be called CNN operas, works developed out of the facts and events of contemporary history. But Nixon in China is not like that at all, and this is clear when all the pieces come together on stage. If the goal of the piece was to document the meeting between a craven, petty failed president and one of the great villains of the twentieth century, then there is no way the opera would have the effect it does. And that effect is utterly mesmerizing and extraordinarily moving.

It works with such power because it’s an opera. That’s a useful tautology. It’s an opera from the ground up, a musical drama that integrates libretto, music and staging from the initial conception. Everything works together, everything is done for a reason. I have seen so many post-Nixon American operas that are directly extracted from events, news, life, and the best I can say is that they are forgettable. They all, from Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking to Jacob Cooper’s Timberbrit, have the same problem: Put the question, why are you an opera, to them, and they have no answer. Either the drama they strive to convey would be more appropriately supported by a different form, or they fail to do anything more than set words to music.

Adams’ music is great, but as good as the music sounds on both the original Nonesuch recording (now reissued) and the great and superior recent live CD from Naxos, the meaning of that music, it’s purpose and effect, is apparent only when combined with what’s happening on stage. The riveting complexity of the second act is an ideal example; in the second scene the Nixons witness a performance of a typical Socialist Realist opera, with a peasant girl whipped by some capitalist lackeys. Pat is horrified and intervenes, thinking that the drama is real. As the action plays out through singing and a sensational ballet by Mark Morris, the music represents both what’s happening in the opera and the performance within the opera. A tropical storm builds in this internal space, starting with a direct quote from Phillip Glass then swelling into music right out of Das Rheingold. As the rain clears, Pat has become part of the resolution of this story. It’s an incredible musical and dramatic transformation, we’ve been moved into what seems another dimension, and the opera itself has become immensely more complex and dramatic. It is the greatest feat of operatic dramaturgy I have ever witnessed, and it’s an inherent part of the composition. It is also the kind of simultaneous and multidimensional dramatic artifice that can only happen in opera.

This production and performance is the most directly involving opera I’ve witnessed. As Nixon steps out of the door of Air Force One, to hints of Parsifal, the audience at the Met applauded. James Maddalena’s wave back is part of the staging, but in that moment he seemed to be responding directly and spontaneously to us. There is also a simple, mysterious and tremendously effective bit of stagecraft during the banquet scene that concludes the first act; as the characters stood for ceremonial toasts, the house lights slowly came all the way up and we were seemingly all together in the same hall.

That is how we care about Nixon, Mao and Pat. Another reason we care is the marvelous libretto from Alice Goodman. The Anglican church’s gain has been opera’s great loss, she had no equal in this style of writing, which is so difficult. A libretto is not just a text, it’s a sung text, it needs to make it’s argument and it also needs to be musical. Her approach, poetic and actually edged more towards oratorio than opera, gives us Nixon and Mao as vain leaders, bickering over the details but enjoying the amity of their mutual status. She, Sellars and Adams set the piece in history but they don’t give us a documentary, or even a metaphor. They give us encounters, reveries, memories and misunderstandings. Nixon expresses his sincere, naïve reverence for America:

As I look down the road

I know America is good at heart

And one line later he turns inward, to his bitter, paranoid heart:

The rats begin to chew the sheets

There’s murmuring below

Now there’s ingratitude!

Combined with the music, we know who this man is, and we may not like him but we pay attention to him. That is how a libretto is wrought.

Maddalena is almost frighteningly good as a Nixon who is singing to us. His voice has become much deeper and darker than when he originated the role, and he seemed to be fighting a cold, but his sound and manner could not be more right for the character. He’s real, so we listen to him. Janis Kelly was just as real as Pat, her aria, “This is prophetic!,” in Act II was mesmerizing and her singing deeply affecting. Robert Brubaker was equally good as Mao, expressing a comparable vanity and bitterness.

It is Chou En-lai who is the moral center of the work, not because he has answers but because the character has a basic sincerity and willingness to question what is happening. The original role featured the wonderful Sanford Sylvan, but I found Russell Braun at the Met to be a better choice. His darker bass baritone sounds plainly more adult than Sylvan’s lighter and lovelier instrument, and the beauty of his singing was less in his sound, which was excellent, than the great, moving, expressive force. He sang like a man who has doubts about himself, his convictions, and the world, and yet was committed to doing his best. The thoughtful artistry of the performance was matched by Adams in the pit, conducting the score with a gentle, lyrical, searching touch that was very different than the tougher, brilliant recordings. In a form as extroverted as opera, it seems impossible to dig deep into interior experience in front of 3,000 people, but that’s what Adams and the singers did. At the end, as the Nixons drift off to sleep on the flight home, and Mao falls into post-coital somnolence, it is Chou and the orchestra who sing to us, “I am old and cannot sleep,” of regrets, and fears. The character seemed alone in the universe, singing into emptiness. He hopes, he hopes, and a lonely cello rises up, trying to reach him, followed by a violin. And then it ends. But it can’t be forgotten.

Remaining performances are Wednesday February 9, Saturday February 12 (the HD movie theater broadcast), Tuesday February 15 and Saturday February 19. Go here for tickets and more.