Sunday, January 27, 2013

Saturn V

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: John Adams, Harmonielehre. I was already a fan of his opera Nixon in China, which I had the good fortune to see at L.A. Opera in 1990, when I stumbled upon Adams' breakthrough work from 1985 in a used bin at Aron's Records. The jolting opening--35 stomping, arrythmic E-minor chords--is justly famous, as head-banging a throwdown as Le Sacre's "Danses des adolescentes." And in a sense, the entire rest of the piece, all three movements of it, is a kind of reckoning with the energy unleashed in those first 20 seconds or so, the swirling particulate cloud that follows an explosion, or the cosmic carousel following the Big Bang; and somehow Adams' floating sound-storm manages to crackle and swell with enough density and intensity, and enough harmonic drama, to stay in the air for 40 minutes.

Reportedly his inspiration was a dream about an oil tanker rising from the San Francisco Bay and taking off like a Saturn V rocket, and indeed there is a kind of pictorially vivid urgency to the work. It's there not only in the giant, honking sonorities and twinkling, chiming orchestral accents but particularly in its obsessive, irregular meters, which convey and foreshadow the surging moods and passions that keep breaking to the surface of the sound. This restless, unpredictable pulse is a signature tic of Adams' that has always made him seem closer in temperament to the Romantic composers than to the Zen detachment of his so-called "minimalist" peers.

If it's partly true that Adams' harmonies are throwbacks, at least by the seriously skewed lights of late-20th-century atonal/serialist orthodoxy, his compositional methods and form seem entirely of his era, even forward-looking. This is tonal music, certainly, but there aren't tunes here, really, or easy-to-grasp organizing shapes; it's as if Adams is using vernacular English, recognizable grammar, to render a huge, mysterious, non-narrative poem. Even after several listens, Harmonielehre still sounds to me as vast and curious and compelling as the night sky, soaring rockets or no.

Katie Barry Ishibashi I'm liking these random recommendations. Keep em coming!

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