John Adams

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Edo De Waart, cond.)

album cover

Big Chord Changes

When the noted minimalist John Adams began writing this piece for chorus and large orchestra using poems by Emily Dickinson and John Donne, he confronted a paradox of poetry: Though the lines might hold hints of rhythms and reveries, or carry the forlorn tone of a cello playing alone in the distance, they can lose resonance when yoked too tightly to music. The poet's discipline is about proportion and order; the moment a melody swells too aggressively into the forefront, the spell is broken.

Adams overcomes this by treating the text as just another element, not the center-ring attraction. Often the words take a back seat to his elaborate schemes of tension and release; Harmonium is really a study of magical chords and the many ways a resourceful composer might resolve them. Sometimes, on the setting of Donne's "Negative Love," the harmony seems static, with Adams moving massive blocks of consonant harmony around slowly, shifting tones one at a time in the manner of a "dissolving" shot in a film. At other times, notably on the transcendental "Wild Nights," Adams creates extended passages of gathering-storm portent, building tension over several minutes until there's an eruption. This sends orchestra and chorus lunging into an unexpected new key center, a wild frontier where new phantoms lurk.

"Because I Could Not Stop for Death" is even more visual. Adams follows Dickinson's character on a journey, perhaps in a slow-moving carriage, through the things she knew in life. The "fields of gazing grain" and other images come outfitted with shimmering and distinct textures; by the end, as the speaker in the poem heads toward eternity, the music acquires the faint bluish luster some near-death survivors have described as the "channel" between life and death.

This is one of two Adams pieces from roughly the same period with "Harmony" in the title. Harmonielehre, the caustic commentary on twelve-tone music, is more beloved by critics. It's a big work, with brainy transitions that utilize the same types of tension/release schemes found in Harmonium, only in more animated, gee-whiz ways. Though Harmonium is less immediately gratifying and murkier, it resonates more profoundly. When Adams engineers one of his epic chord changes, you don't merely appreciate the craft and the way the words figure in, you feel it in your gut.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1984, ECM New Series
Key Tracks: Part 1: "Negative Love"; Part 2: "Because I Could Not Stop for Death," "Wild Nights"
Catalog Choice: Harmonielehre, City of Birmingham Symphony (Simon Rattle, cond.); Grand Pianola Music, Solisti New York (Ransom Wilson, cond.)
Next Stop: Steve Reich: Reich Remixed
After That: Miles Davis: The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions
Book Page: 6

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