Voice of America:
Composer John Adams Speaks for the Nation
by Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 2003
An interesting thing has happened to John Adams during the past year or so. With neither discussion nor fanfare, he has become America's composer laureate.
Not literally, of course -- the last time I checked there was no such position (though we do have a poet laureate, which must rank as an even more marginal gig). But at 56, Adams has become the de facto embodiment of classical contemporary music in this country.
Of course, there have been many observers -- myself among them -- who have long thought that he was writing the most cogent, beautiful, witty and technically assured music of anyone in the United States. And that view only gained credence as he spent the past decade turning out one powerful, memorable masterpiece after another.
But that's not the same as being the accepted go-to guy for the musical powers-that-be. Adams took on that role last year, when the New York Philharmonic turned to him for a piece to memorialize the victims and heroes of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- a commission he fulfilled with great distinction in the choral and orchestral tapestry "On the Transmigration of Souls."
And last month, when Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony premiered "My Father Knew Charles Ives," Adams went a step further and acknowledged his new role. To an extent unmatched by any of his predecessors but one, Adams is now the exemplary American composer -- and he knows it.
The only previous composer to have occupied a comparable niche was Aaron Copland. No other 20th century American has been granted quite that iconic status, and for good reasons -- Samuel Barber's music, for instance, is too genteel, Ives' too ornery and disruptive, Leonard Bernstein's too inconsistent, Elliott Carter's too ugly.
But Copland, like Adams, could blend intellectual rigor and populist directness in proportions that enabled him to be (within reason) all things to all listeners. And his conscious determination to write music that could act as a sounding signifier for American geography and culture -- the wide, windswept prairies, the mountains, all those zippy dances -- meant that the nationalism of his most famous works was an integral part of what made them distinctive.
Adams steps into Copland's shoes at a time when the idea of being the consummate American composer is a much more ambiguous affair. Nationalism is (or at least ought to be) looked on with considerably more ambivalence than it was 60 years ago, and listeners are more aware of the multiple strains that go to make up any musical landscape.
For that matter, the idea that America's leading musical spokesman would be writing for symphony orchestras is itself passé. It's likely that Bruce Springsteen speaks for, and to, the American populace as a whole more convincingly than Adams or any of his colleagues do; certainly "The Rising" will be heard by more listeners than "On the Transmigration of Souls."
But the purveyors of orchestral music like the Philharmonic still need someone to call when they want to make a contribution to the national mourning process, just as monarchs employ court composers and poets to mark momentous national events. And it has to be someone whose artistic voice, like Copland's, is distinctively and recognizably American.
Adams answered the Philharmonic's call, and rose to the challenge of creating a public utterance of enormous dignity and tenderness. But it was only with "My Father," as I hear that score, that he accepted the full responsibility of being the nation's musical representative in the way that Copland was before him.
That may seem an odd interpretation of such a deeply personal creation, what the composer has called a "Proustian madeleine" of a piece. Yet its fusion of personal and cultural history -- the way Adams intertwines his own musical past with that of the United States, as exemplified by Ives -- suggests that there is more at work here than simple nostalgia.
What Adams is attempting, I think -- as he has before but more explicitly this time -- is to define the terms of an indigenous American musical tradition. And the assertion is twofold: The tradition begins with Ives, and it is encapsulated today by Adams' music.
The second part is not nearly as arrogant as that formulation makes it sound, any more than it was arrogant for Copland to try to invent a musical American West out of his own Brooklyn-born imagination. Yet there is a slightly polemical edge to it, which is made even more direct by the invocation of Ives -- still by no means a universally accepted father figure for American composers.
In that regard, Adams reminds me of another unofficial 20th century composer laureate, Benjamin Britten.
Like Adams, Britten began his career as a Young Turk, embracing heretical musical influences (the Second Viennese School in one case, minimalism in the other) before settling into an entente with the British musical establishment in middle age. Britten was even dragooned into writing an opera, "Gloriana," to mark Elizabeth II's ascension to the throne, which is about as court- composerish as you can get.
Yet the English tradition that Britten carried forward was embodied for him most crucially by Purcell, who had been dead more than two centuries when Britten was born. And Britten's many homages to his Baroque forebear -- deliberately skirting such immediate predecessors as Vaughan Williams and Elgar, for whom he felt nothing but impatience -- find their echo in Adams' similarly pointed obeisances to Ives.
Of course, being the new front man for the musical establishment has its ups and downs, as was made clear by the mild flap surrounding last month's awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for Music to "Souls." Adams took the occasion to point out, with justification, that the prize has a pretty poor record when it comes to stylistic diversity; nearly all of the past winners are of the modernist, high-intellectual stripe.
But he was also criticized in some quarters, again with justification, for seeming to overlook the fact that he is now just as prominent and established a figure -- and therefore just as uncontroversial a selection -- as previous winners like Carter, Milton Babbitt or Leon Kirchner. That he got the prize for a project as mainstream as "Souls" -- rather than, say, the extravagantly inventive "El Nino" or the darkly idiosyncratic "Guide to Strange Places" -- only reinforces the point.
Such are the perils of Adams' new situation, and there is no reason to think that the road is going to get any easier for him. But if his current burst of extraordinary creativity and artistic mastery is anything to go by, the music he produces should be enough to sustain both him and us.
E-mail Joshua Kosman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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