John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic”: Three Excerpts

In a 1987 interview with Edward Strickland, John Adams discussed myth and archetype in relation to his new (at the time) opera, Nixon in China: …My Nixon is not the historical Richard Nixon, he is every President. I take him to be an archetype of an American head of state- maybe not even necessarily a head of state, just any emotionally undeveloped man who finds himself in a position of tremendous power. It’s …

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Aftertones of Gymnopédie: Channeling the Spirit of Satie

Yesterday marked the 152nd anniversary of the birth of the colorfully eccentric French avant-garde composer, Erik Satie (1866-1925). Satie had a profound influence on later composers, from Debussy, Ravel, and Milhaud, to the neoclassicism of Stravinsky. Even more amazing is the way Satie’s music anticipates the minimalist and ambient styles of the late twentieth century. The three serene Gymnopédies for solo piano, completed in 1888, remain Satie’s most famous and powerfully evocative works. With sublime, …

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On a Roll: Music Inspired by the Pianola

“The main business of humanity is to do a good job of being human beings,” said Paul, “not to serve as appendages to machines, institutions, and systems.” -Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano I foresee a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue -or rather by vice -of the multiplication …

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John Adams’ “Harmonielehre” and the Ghosts of Late Romanticism

A terrifying raw energy, released in thirty-nine unrelenting E minor hammer blows… So begins John Adams’ monumental 1985 symphony in three movements, Harmonielehre. This titanic opening statement, which Adams has equated to “a grinding of gears,” sprang from a strange and vivid dream. For Adams, it brought a sudden end to a “perplexing and deeply disturbing creative block” which had paralyzed him for eighteen months. In his autobiography, Hallelujah Junction, the composer writes, At what seemed like the absolute nadir …

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“Short Ride in a Fast Machine”: MTT and the San Francisco Symphony

You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn’t? This is how John Adams explains the title of his 1986 orchestral fanfare, Short Ride in a Fast Machine. It’s an exhilarating five-minute musical joyride that rests just on the edge of terror. Given its popularity, Short Ride in a Fast Machine must be one of the few pieces written in the last fifty …

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John Adams at 70

Today marks the 70th birthday of American composer John Adams. Adams may be the most publicly recognizable face of contemporary American music. More than any other living American composer, he seems to have inherited the mantle once held by Aaron Copland. John Adams’ earliest music, like Phrygian Gates (1977) and Common Tones in Simple Time (1979), grew out of the pulse-based, pattern-oriented minimalism of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. But even these early works seem restless to …

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Remembering the Twins, Fifteen Years Later

Sunday marks the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. If you’re old enough to remember that day and the numbing weeks which followed, the details of your life at that time, both consequential and trivial, are probably seared into your memory. For me, the horrific events of 9/11 followed on the heels of my successful audition for the Richmond Symphony. On that warm, clear Tuesday morning, I had just …

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