Shortly after its premiere in May of 1996 at the University of California’s Zellerbach Playhouse in Berkeley, California, the pianist, writer and curator Sarah Cahill wrote about John Adams, June Jordan and Peter Sellars’ new stage work, “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and then I Saw the Sky”
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
by Sarah Cahill Review from the East Bay Express May 19, 1995
I was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky
Review, East Bay Express
May 19, 1995
No one has figured out exactly what to call the new collaborative venture between composer John Adams, poet June Jordan, and director Peter Sellars. Since it opened for previews on May 3, it’s been referred to as “that new opera/music theater/musical performance whatever” or “John Adams’ latest um…uh…thing.” Its resistance to pigeonholing might work to its advantage. This is a youthful, exuberant creation that will get fans of classical opera and of MTV to commingle in the theater. After the world premiere of Ceiling…Sky last week, I watched a TV biography of choreographer Agnes de Mille, who recalled that audiences of Oklahoma! often told her they hated ballet, so they couldn’t believe that it was ballet they had such a good time watching in Oklahoma!. Similarly, Ceiling…Sky is so entertaining that you forget it’s “opera” and “poetry,” those loftiest of lofty art forms. This may be a piece with a profound message, imaginative direction, and complex, sophisticated music, but you still come out of the theater humming the tunes.
I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky– the title is a quote from an LA resident describing the moment her house collapsed in the earthquake– follows the stories of seven young characters as they deal with hot topics like immigration, racism, birth control, and natural disasters. Love is at the core of the work, in many guises: the surging lust of the young preacher David; love against all odds between the Salvadoran undocumented immigrant mother Consuelo and the black reformed gang leader Dewain; the empathy of Rick, a Vietnamese lawyer; TV crime reporter Tiffany’s obsession for Mike, a white cop; Mike’s own confused sexuality; the deep yearning of Leila, who works in a family planning clinic. Their stories are told through a fluid, seamless sequence of 22 songs, during which Mike arrests Dewain for stealing two bottles of beer, Leila and David go to bed and feel the earth move, and Tiffany’s love life takes an unexpected twist. Very few props enter the bare stage. The only sets involve dramatic banners of vivid graffiti, painted by twenty California graffiti artists to introduce each song. Violent, immediate, richly detailed, and technically dazzling, these paintings reinforce the action and set up each scene.
While Alice Goodman, librettist for Adams’ and Sellars’ Death of Klinghoffer and Nixon in China, wrote highly stylized poetry in rhymed pentameter peppered with curiosities like “bituminous” and “manumitted,” Jordan’s work is, as the title of her UC Berkeley class suggests, “Poetry for the People.” We hear street talk, slang, and the clipped rhythms of American speech. Of course there are moments of great poetry, but they don’t depend on archaisms or arcane vocabulary (although Goodman’s librettos are tremendous achievements).
Adams’ musical response to Jordan’s libretto sounds, if anything, more natural and fluent than the music/text relationships of Klinghoffer and Nixon. He has always shown an unusual respect for language, keeping its everday rhythms intact. (You have only to compare his setting of the title song, in which the phrasing of “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky” precisely matches its spoken counterpart, with the work of his colleague Philip Glass who, for his theater piece Hydrogen Jukebox, chopped up the expansive exhalations of Allen Ginsberg’s poems into distorted bits of syllables, obliterating all sense of Ginsberg’s voice in the process). It’s as if Adams took Jordan’s text and spoke it over and over until he found the natural cadences and melodic contours of each phrase, and then composed the music to fit. This is true of each song from Rick’s virtuosic discourse in his legal defense of Dewain, “Your Honor My Client He’s a Young Black Man,” in which the last three words are hammered out with punchy emphasis, to the gentle lyricism of Leila’s solo “Alone,” where she sings “I want to be somebody’s straight-up number one” with a lift and pause on “up,” just as one would speak it. The music also underscores dramatic tension at crucial points: when Dewain and Consuelo argue, for instance, the music thickens with dissonance and accelerates. Even at its most amplified, the music never overwhelms, thanks in part to each singer’s handheld microphone.
On the surface, Adams’ mixture of pop, jazz, gospel, blues, funk, and other idioms may seem like a radical departure from his work for the concert hall. It is, in fact, a logical extension of his music to date, which has always been rooted in the vernacular. From the opening bars, in which one pitch generates layers of shimmering ostinato patterns, Adams’ own compositional voice predominates. In “Your Honor My Client” and in other songs, we hear the playful contrapuntal density of his 1992 Chamber Symphony, each instrument given its own independent line punctuated by offbeat thumps of percussion. Consuelo’s touching solo “Donde Estas?”, with its poignant, glassy guitar riffs, recalls the wistful pedal steel guitar soliloquy from Adams’ “Dissapointment Lake,” on his 1993 all-MIDI album Hoodoo Zephyr. We even hear a brief hint of his 1973Christian Zeal and Activity, when a disturbing saxophone line insinuates itself to build tension, in “Terrible in the Middle,”a confrontation between Tiffany and Mike. Strangely, moments in Jordan’s text even recall Klinghoffer: the line “Obviously this is not a good night,” Tiffany’s massive understatement in the face of personal and seismological calamity, echoes the moment in Klinghoffer when the terrorist Mamoud sings the ironic line, “As things stand now, this will not be an easy day.”
Ceiling…Sky belongs to no category but its own, yet resonates with its roots in opera and musicals. You can find conscious or unconscious references to everything from Don Giovanni’s “Catalogue Aria,” when Leila taunts David with a list of his conquests’ names, to Hair, with a symmetrical pairing of men’s and women’s ensembles singing about the wonders of sex. In the latter, “Song About the Bad Boys and the News,” the three singers team up for an angelic hymn and then break into a no-holds-barred paean– fusing Motown, gospel, a stride bass, and polyrhythms– to the male body (Jordan seems to have a thing about fish and flowers: the women describe the penis as “the flower, the fish, and the bone” in this song, and later Dewain recounts the earthquake as “a miracle of fish and flowers”). The men’s fabulously filthy “Song About the Sweet Majority of the World” is a hip-grinding hilarious gem with a sexy slow groove and Hammond organ-like funk progressions. But if in Ceiling…Sky we hear echoes of various genres, the music is both warmly familiar and also entirely original.
The eclectic group of eight musicians performing as the Paul Dresher Ensemble contributes enormously to Adams’ score, which demands some improvisation. Since the ensemble includes both outstanding improvisers and classically trained musicians, the music reflects their combined skills. For instance, pianist Phil Aaberg pounds out a rousing gospel piano solo for David’s Baptist preaching, and keyboardist Dred Scott gives us a screaming wild solo right after the earthquake (which, by the way, is ingeniously rendered by a remarkably small group of instruments).
Each of Ceiling…Sky’s seven cast members get a moment to shine. Jesse Means II whips the audience into a frenzy as the charismatic preacher David, kissing audience members and shouting out the gospel as he races across the stage. Kennya J. Ramsey, the powerhouse Acid Queen in the recent tour of Tommy, gives Leila a dimension of soulfulness in her solo “Alone.” Welly Yang, in Rick’s “Your Honor My Client,” projects energy and charisma, articulating with beautifully choreographed hand gestures. Sophia Salguero, playing Consuelo, reveals the range of her agile soprano in “Donde Estas” when she slips down a slow descending chromatic scale. Harold Perrineau Jr. exudes extraordinary vitality and feline grace in Dewain’s “Solo in Sunlight,” in which he basks in his newfound freedom from jail. Kaitlin Hopkins as Tiffany and Michael Ness as Mike transform their characters: we see them first as unappealing people with racist proclivities, but finally they become sympathetic and multidimensional.
There will, of course, be detractors. Later, in a record store, I overheard an Asian woman vehemently object to Rick’s attraction to Tiffany, since she has just told him to get back on a boat. Why should Rick have anything to do with her? In front of me, two audience members wished for more foreshadowing of Mike’s latent homosexuality, and an elderly woman wondered aloud why the women’s ensemble about men was so much more graphic than the men’s about women. It’s fitting that the piece premiered in Berkeley, which is simultaneously one of the most tolerant towns in the country and a place where people stick to their little factions and ridicule any conflicting points of view. While the final message of Ceiling…Sky- that we can overcome our differences and celebrate the unifying force of love- may be simplistic, it is conveyed with such passion and optimism that we may just begin to believe it.