Home / Uncategorized / A Note by Nico Muhly, from ‘John Adams Collected Works’ – Nonesuch Records

A Note by Nico Muhly, from ‘John Adams Collected Works’ – Nonesuch Records

Nonesuch Records releases the forty-disc John Adams Collected Works a box set of recordings spanning more than four decades of the composers career with the label on June 24 2022. It includes two extensive booklets with new essays and notes by Timo Andres Julia Bullock Robert Hurwitz Nico Muhly and Jake Wilder-Smith. Here is Nico Muhlys note  One of the first pieces I heard whose score I wouldnt look on until easily a decade later was Harmonium 1981 written the year I was born. It sets Negative Love by John Donne and two of Emily Dickinsons most celebrated poems Because I could not stop for Death and Wild Nights. The piece is formally organized into three movements in the traditional structure of fast–slow–fast but within the first and third movements there is a sub

 

As composers mark birthdays and anniversaries of seminal works its too easy to look back at their work as a trajectory from obscurity to fame from simplicity to complexity or from antagonist to institutionalist. We can lazily trace the genealogy of an idea to someone from a former generation Oh I see where she got that…. Were sometimes encouraged to let the line bend a bit as with Stravinskys stylistic changes of tack but otherwise the rigidity of the line always holds an analytical temptation. It would be difficult to make an account of all the ways John Adamss music has influenced me and my work but in the spirit of writing something personal Id like to offer a few perhaps impersonal observations about his work in a more circular even crabwise fashion. There are specific places in Johns music where there is a rhyme hidden across decades relating to an elusive sense of meaning in his music which radiates across his body of work.

My access to Johns music was always limited by the availability of the scores and recordings when I was young. In 1993 it wasnt easy to just pop out to the library and grab a giant orchestral score and limited to the selections at the local record store or library I treated each new acquisition as a special occasion. I have a really specific memory of grabbing one of my best friends and a boombox to listen to the newly released CD of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky 1995 in our high schools cafeteria the joyful fourths that start that piece and expand out into that bouncy cluster remain a happy memory a little present of a chord.

organizational strategy of large shapes mostly giant crescendi deploying various devices to swell and expand. Although the work can be lazily categorized as minimalist inasmuch as repetition and layering form the predominant motor driving the ship every orchestrational strategy here is toothsome Romantic dramatic forceful and derived from the texts. For instance I would happily argue that the opening shape of the third movement would satiate even the most perverse Wagner enthusiasts Rhine-needs. Harmoniums first movement shatters the Donne text through repetition not just of words but by single syllables even the unison choral moments are split into canons and pulse leaving us with the thrust of the text abstracted through music.

The second movement treats Dickinsons poem in almost constant unison even though there are processes at work the processes have delivered some proper tunes We passed the school where children played should surely replace some depressing lullaby in common use.The third movement deploys a combination of abstract and straightforward setting and contains some of Johns more delicious modulations even if the motor comes from the lofts of New York in the 1970s the heart is Americana romance style class and show business all at once.

In the first movement one of the more vertiginous waves delivers a choral entrance in full unison in an ecstatic cluster based around an E-flat chord on the words If any who deciphers beſt  What we know not our ſelves can know  Let him teach mee that nothing …. Im not sure how I can express how thrilling and mind-blowing that climax was for me to hear as a high school student with my background in both very traditional text-setting Schubert and fully topsy-turvy extended techniques such as those found in Crumb. Harmonium taught me that you can take a beautiful piece of text and choose how to set it and mix those choices. It doesnt have to be the pure abstraction of Berio or the stylized dryness of Stravinsky it can be both when the text demands it. When talking about the ocean you dont need the declamatory watersports of Vaughan Williamss Behold! the sea itself!  And on its limitless heaving breast thy ships followed by crash cymbals. Johns dead-simple quiet invocation Ah—the sea! bears the full effect of the speakers yearning but in subtle dialogue with the heartbeat of benediction the accompaniment offers.

I heard those climactic chords again radically transformed when I first heard The Death of Klinghoffer 1991 written a decade after Harmonium. Its first chorus remains one of Johns most expressive and powerful pieces of music of any kind. Its shape is in brief one giant crescendo but not just in volume after the first few bars which consist of just an F minor chord played in even eighth notes string lines begin floating above the grid pushing the womens chorus higher and higher step by step as they relive a simple memory of a Palestinian childhood en famille. The orchestra becomes more and more agitated shifting off the grid as well the overall rhythmic footprint becomes driving and fervent. That shape ushers in an echo of the same climactic cluster from Harmonium on nearly the same pitches but this time the text is steely and clear itself a declaration of a resilient monotheism so powerfully articulated by Alice Goodmans libretto Though we have paid

to drink  Our water and our wood  Is sold to us we thank  The only God. Another bottom-to-top orchestral crescendo delivers us back to a very similar cluster but here the text is more strictly narratively emotional Let the supplanter look  Upon his work. Our faith  Will take the stones he broke  And break his teeth. I dont want it to sound as if Im belaboring a small technical point—because I am of course obsessed with the artistic achievement here—but its important for me to note that a similar set of chords deployed entirely differently ten years apart creates a plasticity of meaning within the work of a single artists career. Once the bowsprit of a musical shape here a dramatic and savagely powerful cri de coeur.

Speaking entirely personally I think it should be a truth universally acknowledged that two of the most extraordinary chords of the 20th century are to be found at the beginning of Brittens Abraham and Isaac canticle and at the beginning of Stravinskys Symphony of Psalms. Brittens is an E-flat major chord but without the fifth so there is a sense of emptiness that in Brittens universe makes room for the voice of God about to ask Abraham to do something terrible. Stravinskys chord is note-for-note more overstuffed than Brittens its an E minor chord primarily composed of its third with room between the highest and lowest expressions wide enough to drive a truck through. For me its always represented the sudden but ever-present shock of the Psalmists devotions a purely Old Testament expression of faith where suffering is real and salvation is distant.

The third such chord for me is the sole currency of the opening few pages of Johns Harmonielehre 1985. This opening chord repeated 40 scourging times is itself a hollowed-out E minor chord without a fifth. Like its colleague in the Britten it grabs me by the throat and insists on the mind filling it up narrativizing it imbuing it with some covert and personal meaning. The last gesture of the piece two movements later—during which minimalist techniques have somehow become liquid and deliquescent passing through and being transformed by the ghosts of the 19th and 20th century in an elegant and singular way—is an E-flat major chord with much of the orchestra ignoring the fifth in their patterns save for the ones who have it who hammer it brutally insisting on a sense of completion fulfillment and ecstasy.

This type of chord has come to mean something in Johns work inadvertently or not and I think its most important to focus on what it means for the listener. Dramatic frozen pillars of it can be found in Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes 2018 and most arrestingly in the orchestral introduction and the interludes attendant to the aria at the end of Act I of Doctor Atomic 2004–05 Batter My Heart which sets John Donnes sonnet by the same name. The aria begins on a unison D unisons in opera generally set up something scary as we know all too well from Wozzeck agitated and dramatically lit from within and suddenly expands out to the menace of a D minor chord again without a fifth pulsed violently between winds strings and timpani. That sonority and distance between the notes becomes an idée fixe in the aria. Here Robert Oppenheimer is apostrophizing the bomb itself struggling with the Mystery of the Trinity a loaded term in Los Alamos and wrestling with reason faith mortification and destruction. In contrast to the interludes the vocal lines are lyrical as befits the poem albeit tormented. Between each vocal utterance the hollow menace comes back always dragging us back from any possible resolution

into some kind of inexorable terror. The bad version of the end of this act would conclude of course in the Saint-Saënsian way with Oppenheimer singing some ridiculously high note as the walls of the temple come tumbling down all the way upstage. John elects to place us in the middle of a mans very human fear and shines strobe lights on the void of this chord for the entire audience to look through.

The first scene of Nixon in China 1987 features among other celebrated musical and dramatic outrages a wonderful athletic aria for Nixon News has a kind of mystery in which the libretto and the music shuttle quickly between all of Nixons preoccupations hopes and neuroses. There are fast and incessant pulses throughout and small text fragments repeat in jittery ways. The text suggests a slightly ominous shift and then a distant idea moves quite close and the pulse becomes choppy—a morse code of anxiety. Nixon says The rats begin to chew  The sheets. Theres murmuring below.  Now theres ingratitude! My hand  Is steady as a rock. He repeats the rats begin to chew the sheets several times under which we begin to hear something quite unsettling the male chorus starts muttering under their breath without distinct words. The orchestra hollows out into an e-minor chord with no fifth in it and we are left with a cold man in a cold bare airfield only a rude little key change a pivot on the wished-for note tells the choir to calm down and gets us back into the relative warmth of fully formed chords again. Given the stability of the harmonic language and repetition-based economy of the pulse its striking to have this murmur in the background information without pulse form or planned pitch.

John uses this technique again in The Gospel According to the Other Mary 2012 a quarter of a century later but it has been radically transformed from an effect into a highly pressurized and sacred moment. We are to imagine Jesus Mary of Bethany and Martha around Lazaruss tomb four days after his death. Jesus calls forth Lazarus and the orchestra melts and shatters the cellos quite high start playing glissandi into uncharted notes the chorus divides into strange clusters with some women singing notes held at random lengths making individual changes of dynamics. The male chorus enters without notes and only a shape and the composer instructs glossolalia troubled anxious muttering. It grows ever more intense as Lazarus is raised from the dead. For me the resonance between Nixons distant rats so important in American history and this moment so important in the New Testament is striking. What was a distant effect has become powerful sacred foreground and here as the text and story would suggest the entire ecosystem of the music is murky impossible to find footing and dangerously hazy.

Its overly convenient to say that Johns music has changed a lot over his career in the enervating way that the parents of childhood friends make it a point to comment about how they knew one when one was extend hand mid-thigh tall but it is also great fun to see the extent to which he has in fact moved house a great deal and in a satisfyingly non-linear way. Many composers are stylistic homebodies buying early fixing the place up slowly maybe tearing up the shag carpet in 1982 to expose the wood beneath and barely re-doing the kitchen in the late 90s to get rid of the glass brick by the breakfast bar. John has moved from place to place out of an artistic need happily jettisoning the trappings of one place knowing he can get them back again. Even when the immediate environment of his music sounds different on the surface there is always a deep curiosity and vigor to

which I can only aspire. His music from this morning doesnt immediately sound like his music from 1971 or from 1993 or from 2013 the orchestral works dont sound like bigger versions of the piano pieces and the string quartets dont sound like sketches for symphonies. However on closer examination you begin to see old friends popping up not just through subtle or explicit influence Hey isnt that opening of CeilingSky like the impish grandkid of Steve Reichs Four Organs but through a sense that the things hes carried with him have taken on additional luster patina and emotional resonance. A detail has become a centerpiece a figurative painting lit differently has offered levels of unforeseen abstraction and telling detail. Its these small details that make me admire John so much the big shapes are obviously fantastic effective powerful and brilliant but the little objéts the strange tools of the trade and talismans kept close to hand keep me on my toes with a sense of constant wonder.

Johns now become a colleague and a friend but its worth noting that we most formally met when I was playing orchestral piano in Harmonielehre as a student. The piano plays the opening triple-forte hollowed-out terror-chord with the rest of the band trust and believe I played it with perhaps too much gusto but the composer for reasons perhaps best left unexamined leaves the piano out of the last 50 bars joyful repetition of that fifth. Recently I made a few calls to other pianists whod played that part over the years and I expressed my vexation at being left out of the final tutti. Most of them just said Oh yeah I always just play it with the xylophone and the vibes its so good. Dont tell John.

It would be difficult to make an account of all the ways John Adamss music has influenced me and my work Nico Muhly writes in his note in the upcoming 40-disc box set John Adams Collected Works but in the spirit of writing something personal Id like to offer a few perhaps impersonal observations about his work in a more circular even crabwise fashion. There are specific places in Johns music where there is a rhyme hidden across decades relating to an elusive sense of meaning in his music which radiates across his body of work. You can read his complete note from the box set here.

Copy

Nonesuch Records releases the forty-disc John Adams Collected Works a box set of recordings spanning more than four decades of the composers career with the label on June 24 2022. It includes two extensive booklets with new essays and notes by Timo Andres Julia Bullock Robert Hurwitz Nico Muhly and Jake Wilder-Smith. Here is Nico Muhlys note

As composers mark birthdays and anniversaries of seminal works its too easy to look back at their work as a trajectory from obscurity to fame from simplicity to complexity or from antagonist to institutionalist. We can lazily trace the genealogy of an idea to someone from a former generation Oh I see where she got that…. Were sometimes encouraged to let the line bend a bit as with Stravinskys stylistic changes of tack but otherwise the rigidity of the line always holds an analytical temptation. It would be difficult to make an account of all the ways John Adamss music has influenced me and my work but in the spirit of writing something personal Id like to offer a few perhaps impersonal observations about his work in a more circular even crabwise fashion. There are specific places in Johns music where there is a rhyme hidden across decades relating to an elusive sense of meaning in his music which radiates across his body of work.

My access to Johns music was always limited by the availability of the scores and recordings when I was young. In 1993 it wasnt easy to just pop out to the library and grab a giant orchestral score and limited to the selections at the local record store or library I treated each new acquisition as a special occasion. I have a really specific memory of grabbing one of my best friends and a boombox to listen to the newly released CD of I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky 1995 in our high schools cafeteria the joyful fourths that start that piece and expand out into that bouncy cluster remain a happy memory a little present of a chord.

One of the first pieces I heard whose score I wouldnt look on until easily a decade later was Harmonium 1981 written the year I was born. It sets Negative Love by John Donne and two of Emily Dickinsons most celebrated poems Because I could not stop for Death and Wild Nights. The piece is formally organized into three movements in the traditional structure of fast–slow–fast but within the first and third movements there is a sub-organizational strategy of large shapes mostly giant crescendi deploying various devices to swell and expand. Although the work can be lazily categorized as minimalist inasmuch as repetition and layering form the predominant motor driving the ship every orchestrational strategy here is toothsome Romantic dramatic forceful and derived from the texts. For instance I would happily argue that the opening shape of the third movement would satiate even the most perverse Wagner enthusiasts Rhine-needs.

Harmoniums first movement shatters the Donne text through repetition not just of words but by single syllables even the unison choral moments are split into canons and pulse leaving us with the thrust of the text abstracted through music.

The second movement treats Dickinsons poem in almost constant unison even though there are processes at work the processes have delivered some proper tunes We passed the school where children played should surely replace some depressing lullaby in common use.

The third movement deploys a combination of abstract and straightforward setting and contains some of Johns more delicious modulations even if the motor comes from the lofts of New York in the 1970s the heart is Americana romance style class and show business all at once.

In the first movement one of the more vertiginous waves delivers a choral entrance in full unison in an ecstatic cluster based around an E-flat chord on the words If any who deciphers beſt  What we know not our ſelves can know  Let him teach mee that nothing …. Im not sure how I can express how thrilling and mind-blowing that climax was for me to hear as a high school student with my background in both very traditional text-setting Schubert and fully topsy-turvy extended techniques such as those found in Crumb. Harmonium taught me that you can take a beautiful piece of text and choose how to set it and mix those choices. It doesnt have to be the pure abstraction of Berio or the stylized dryness of Stravinsky it can be both when the text demands it. When talking about the ocean you dont need the declamatory watersports of Vaughan Williamss Behold! the sea itself!  And on its limitless heaving breast thy ships followed by crash cymbals. Johns dead-simple quiet invocation Ah—the sea! bears the full effect of the speakers yearning but in subtle dialogue with the heartbeat of benediction the accompaniment offers.

I heard those climactic chords again radically transformed when I first heard The Death of Klinghoffer 1991 written a decade after Harmonium. Its first chorus remains one of Johns most expressive and powerful pieces of music of any kind. Its shape is in brief one giant crescendo but not just in volume after the first few bars which consist of just an F minor chord played in even eighth notes string lines begin floating above the grid pushing the womens chorus higher and higher step by step as they relive a simple memory of a Palestinian childhood en famille. The orchestra becomes more and more agitated shifting off the grid as well the overall rhythmic footprint becomes driving and fervent. That shape ushers in an echo of the same climactic cluster from Harmonium on nearly the same pitches but this time the text is steely and clear itself a declaration of a resilient monotheism so powerfully articulated by Alice Goodmans libretto Though we have paid to drink  Our water and our wood  Is sold to us we thank  The only God. Another bottom-to-top orchestral crescendo delivers us back to a very similar cluster but here the text is more strictly narratively emotional Let the supplanter look  Upon his work. Our faith  Will take the stones he broke  And break his teeth. I dont want it to sound as if Im belaboring a small technical point—because I am of course obsessed with the artistic achievement here—but its important for me to note that a similar set of chords deployed entirely differently ten years apart creates a plasticity of meaning within the work of a single artists career. Once the bowsprit of a musical shape here a dramatic and savagely powerful cri de coeur.

Speaking entirely personally I think it should be a truth universally acknowledged that two of the most extraordinary chords of the 20th century are to be found at the beginning of Brittens Abraham and Isaac canticle and at the beginning of Stravinskys Symphony of Psalms. Brittens is an E-flat major chord but without the fifth so there is a sense of emptiness that in Brittens universe makes room for the voice of God about to ask Abraham to do something terrible. Stravinskys chord is note-for-note more overstuffed than Brittens its an E minor chord primarily composed of its third with room between the highest and lowest expressions wide enough to drive a truck through. For me its always represented the sudden but ever-present shock of the Psalmists devotions a purely Old Testament expression of faith where suffering is real and salvation is distant.

The third such chord for me is the sole currency of the opening few pages of Johns Harmonielehre 1985. This opening chord repeated 40 scourging times is itself a hollowed-out E minor chord without a fifth. Like its colleague in the Britten it grabs me by the throat and insists on the mind filling it up narrativizing it imbuing it with some covert and personal meaning. The last gesture of the piece two movements later—during which minimalist techniques have somehow become liquid and deliquescent passing through and being transformed by the ghosts of the 19th and 20th century in an elegant and singular way—is an E-flat major chord with much of the orchestra ignoring the fifth in their patterns save for the ones who have it who hammer it brutally insisting on a sense of completion fulfillment and ecstasy.

This type of chord has come to mean something in Johns work inadvertently or not and I think its most important to focus on what it means for the listener. Dramatic frozen pillars of it can be found in Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes 2018 and most arrestingly in the orchestral introduction and the interludes attendant to the aria at the end of Act I of Doctor Atomic 2004–05 Batter My Heart which sets John Donnes sonnet by the same name. The aria begins on a unison D unisons in opera generally set up something scary as we know all too well from Wozzeck agitated and dramatically lit from within and suddenly expands out to the menace of a D minor chord again without a fifth pulsed violently between winds strings and timpani. That sonority and distance between the notes becomes an idée fixe in the aria. Here Robert Oppenheimer is apostrophizing the bomb itself struggling with the Mystery of the Trinity a loaded term in Los Alamos and wrestling with reason faith mortification and destruction. In contrast to the interludes the vocal lines are lyrical as befits the poem albeit tormented. Between each vocal utterance the hollow menace comes back always dragging us back from any possible resolution into some kind of inexorable terror. The bad version of the end of this act would conclude of course in the Saint-Saënsian way with Oppenheimer singing some ridiculously high note as the walls of the temple come tumbling down all the way upstage. John elects to place us in the middle of a mans very human fear and shines strobe lights on the void of this chord for the entire audience to look through.

The first scene of Nixon in China 1987 features among other celebrated musical and dramatic outrages a wonderful athletic aria for Nixon News has a kind of mystery in which the libretto and the music shuttle quickly between all of Nixons preoccupations hopes and neuroses. There are fast and incessant pulses throughout and small text fragments repeat in jittery ways. The text suggests a slightly ominous shift and then a distant idea moves quite close and the pulse becomes choppy—a morse code of anxiety. Nixon says The rats begin to chew  The sheets. Theres murmuring below.  Now theres ingratitude! My hand  Is steady as a rock. He repeats the rats begin to chew the sheets several times under which we begin to hear something quite unsettling the male chorus starts muttering under their breath without distinct words. The orchestra hollows out into an e-minor chord with no fifth in it and we are left with a cold man in a cold bare airfield only a rude little key change a pivot on the wished-for note tells the choir to calm down and gets us back into the relative warmth of fully formed chords again. Given the stability of the harmonic language and repetition-based economy of the pulse its striking to have this murmur in the background information without pulse form or planned pitch.

John uses this technique again in The Gospel According to the Other Mary 2012 a quarter of a century later but it has been radically transformed from an effect into a highly pressurized and sacred moment. We are to imagine Jesus Mary of Bethany and Martha around Lazaruss tomb four days after his death. Jesus calls forth Lazarus and the orchestra melts and shatters the cellos quite high start playing glissandi into uncharted notes the chorus divides into strange clusters with some women singing notes held at random lengths making individual changes of dynamics. The male chorus enters without notes and only a shape and the composer instructs glossolalia troubled anxious muttering. It grows ever more intense as Lazarus is raised from the dead. For me the resonance between Nixons distant rats so important in American history and this moment so important in the New Testament is striking. What was a distant effect has become powerful sacred foreground and here as the text and story would suggest the entire ecosystem of the music is murky impossible to find footing and dangerously hazy.

Its overly convenient to say that Johns music has changed a lot over his career in the enervating way that the parents of childhood friends make it a point to comment about how they knew one when one was extend hand mid-thigh tall but it is also great fun to see the extent to which he has in fact moved house a great deal and in a satisfyingly non-linear way. Many composers are stylistic homebodies buying early fixing the place up slowly maybe tearing up the shag carpet in 1982 to expose the wood beneath and barely re-doing the kitchen in the late 90s to get rid of the glass brick by the breakfast bar. John has moved from place to place out of an artistic need happily jettisoning the trappings of one place knowing he can get them back again. Even when the immediate environment of his music sounds different on the surface there is always a deep curiosity and vigor to which I can only aspire. His music from this morning doesnt immediately sound like his music from 1971 or from 1993 or from 2013 the orchestral works dont sound like bigger versions of the piano pieces and the string quartets dont sound like sketches for symphonies. However on closer examination you begin to see old friends popping up not just through subtle or explicit influence Hey isnt that opening of CeilingSky like the impish grandkid of Steve Reichs Four Organs but through a sense that the things hes carried with him have taken on additional luster patina and emotional resonance. A detail has become a centerpiece a figurative painting lit differently has offered levels of unforeseen abstraction and telling detail. Its these small details that make me admire John so much the big shapes are obviously fantastic effective powerful and brilliant but the little objéts the strange tools of the trade and talismans kept close to hand keep me on my toes with a sense of constant wonder.

Johns now become a colleague and a friend but its worth noting that we most formally met when I was playing orchestral piano in Harmonielehre as a student. The piano plays the opening triple-forte hollowed-out terror-chord with the rest of the band trust and believe I played it with perhaps too much gusto but the composer for reasons perhaps best left unexamined leaves the piano out of the last 50 bars joyful repetition of that fifth. Recently I made a few calls to other pianists whod played that part over the years and I expressed my vexation at being left out of the final tutti. Most of them just said Oh yeah I always just play it with the xylophone and the vibes its so good. Dont tell John. Nico Muhly featuredimage  John Adams Nico Muhly 2022

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