A finger on the pulse: John Adams first hit the headlines by turning hard news into grand opera. Now he's turning concertos into ballet. Nick Kimberley reports

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The Independent Culture
In America John Adams is the living composer whose works are most often performed in concert. Since his music is equally popular in Europe, he may be the most performed of all living composers - no big deal, you may think, given the classical music world's antipathy to new music, and the suspicion that playing something by a living composer is a mere token, a means to secure that elusive grant. Yet Adams's music does seem genuinely popular; audiences do turn out to hear his work: recordings of his music sell well, sometimes in tens of thousands: not quite Gorecki or Tavener, but significant none the less. His operas have filled opera houses, and much of his music has been choreographed - indeed, his Fearful Symmetries has been choreographed, Adams calculates, no less than 10 times, most recently by the Royal Ballet's Ashley Page.

Such popularity comes at a price, and the price is usually critical sniffiness. For some, a receptive audience implies that the music is disposable, insubstantial, unserious. It is Adams's work in the opera house that has caused the most critical disarray. He has written two operas so far. Nixon in China (1987) dramatised Richard Nixon's 1972 meeting with Chairman Mao - but was Nixon its hero? Surely not. But then, was Mao its hero? And why was the music so bright and Broadway breezy? Was The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), derived from the 1986 Achille Lauro hijacking, pro- Jew? Anti-Arab? Anti-Jew? Pro-Arab? Its Brussels premiere was attended by bomb threats, which almost looked like a neat publicity ploy. Since, apart from fleeting Edinburgh Festival performances, the operas have not been seen in this country, it remains hard to judge them.

In the meantime, Adams continues to plough his own furrow, sometimes taking time off to aim potshots at the critics, especially among the British press. Tomorrow night his latest work, a violin concerto, receives its UK premiere, with Kent Nagano conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Gidon Kremer as soloist. Responses to the January premiere in Minnesota suggest that the work marks a further step away from the minimalism that has been Adams's aesthetic grounding. Nagano tends to agree: 'It's a more chromatic piece than anything we've heard from him, darker and more driven. The use of rhythm is often more intense than in the past, and yet the lyrical passages are haunting and beautiful - the violin part is so difficult that the word 'virtuoso' is an understatement. Adams has resisted the urge to take refuge in the popularity of his earlier works, he has kept moving, and that's exceptional and rare.'

Adams himself views the work as pivotal: 'If you look at the major classical composers, many have written just one violin concerto: Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg. For any composer, the violin concerto is the summit. There is something that one could almost call heroic about the form - this relatively small instrument, in acoustical terms, pitted against that huge mass of sound creates a David-and-Goliath scenario. In the past I think I was intimidated by stringed instruments. Of all instruments the violin is closest to the human voice, with an almost limitless lyric potential. It's very idiosyncratic, the way pitches lie on the four strings, the way the hand falls when it places itself on the strings. A passage which seems logical and easy turns out awkward and difficult, and vice versa. I worked closely with Jorja Fleezanis, the soloist in the world premiere, and Gidon Kremer has given me advice. That's almost de rigueur now, that a composer collaborates with the performer to create a piece that is playable. The Schoenberg concerto is an example of a piece that everyone admires and virtually no one plays because it is so physically difficult that many of the finest violinists are seriously worried about injuring themselves.'

Adams's concerto was jointly commissioned by the Minnesota Orchestra, the LSO and the New York City Ballet: at some point it will join Adams's other works as a dance-piece. A violin concerto is not the obvious work to choreograph, although precedents include Balanchine's 1941 Balustrade to Stravinsky's violin concerto. For Adams, the possibility of dance is a positive stimulus: 'When I was writing the concerto, it was continually on my mind that it would be choreographed, so there is always a sense of pulse. The general dance feel of much new music, the use of pulsation, have been responsible for a significantly renewed interest in contemporary music. I think there's been a huge renaissance in music in the last 20 years or so. I know that's hotly disputed, especially in England, where there are many people who profoundly disapprove of the music that's coming out of America.'

The music he means is minimalism. Yet Adams himself feels he is moving beyond what might be termed classical minimalism: 'Minimalism is a technique, like cubism is a technique, or collage. It's quite precisely defined: repeated motifs, tonal harmony, pulsation; and I still use those elements in my music. But as for minimalism as a way of being, I feel it's time to move on, even if I still feel that minimalism is the most significant evolution in Western art music since Schoenberg's development of the 12-tone system. It seems to be a fin de siecle event: I'm moving towards something less precise, more all-encompassing. Eventually we'll go back into a period of reduction, of purification of the language.'

Projects taking Adams nearer the fin de siecle include a new work for the Kronos Quartet: 'It's called John's Book of Alleged Dances. They're dances that I've invented: the fox-pass, the alligator escalator, Walk My Dog. It's a piece for string quartet and what I call 'sample loops': the quartet will play along with a sampler that has loops of sound, some string sounds, some speech, some prepared piano. One of the players will be able to advance those loops in rhythmic sequence by pressing a pedal on the floor.'

The other major new work is an as yet untitled music-theatre piece, to be staged by Peter Sellars (who directed Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer) and with a libretto by June Jordan, one of America's most astute cultural critics and black activists. This will be very different from the earlier 'grand operas'.

'With grand opera it's difficult to get performances. You're dealing with an economic reality of stupefying complexity, and with audiences who are generally only interested in familiar repertoire. So I'm writing a whole evening of songs, very much influenced by popular music, and with a pit band - guitar, bass-guitar, drums. It won't be scored for operatic voices, it's not an opera. I call it a song-play, which is my translation of the German Singspiel. I wanted to write something small, simple and eminently portable.'

Adams Violin Concerto: UK premiere 7.30 tomorrow, Barbican Hall, EC2 (071-638 8891). 'Fearful Symmetries': in rep at the Royal Ballet, Covent Gdn, WC2 (071-240 1911) to 30 June

(Photograph omitted)

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