the composer john adams -- 6/3/22
Today's selection -- from Hallelujah Junction by John Adams. The minimalist composition Phrygian Gates (1977-8) was a key early milestone in the extraordinary career of composer John Adams:
"[In 1977], I began thinking of other ways that I could translate my fascination with the wave metaphor. A close friend, the pianist Mack McCray, proposed that I write a big solo piece for him, something grand and virtuosic that would play to his powerful hands with their subtle control of pianistic colors. To compose the piece for him I moved a battered spinet piano into my tiny cottage by the beach. The room where I worked was so small that even that little spinet sounded thunderous, and I banged away at it for months, testing out ideas for the music that would ultimately become Phrygian Gates, my first mature composition, my official 'opus one.' By the time Mack played it in March 1977 at Hellman Hall at the Conservatory, I had just turned thirty. It had taken that long to find my voice.
"The enigmatic title Phrygian Gates reveals the music's origins. Lasting twenty-four minutes and moving through six of the twelve key centers of the circle of fifths, the piece turned out to be a behemoth: a nonstop tour of the keys -- or rather half of them -- that kept the pianist going at maximum concentration as the music moved back and forth from Lydian to Phrygian modes. I imagined each hand of the performer as its own wavemaker, independent of the other. The 'waves' were actually repeated patterns that changed shape as the music moved along. Inserted into every new key area was an arbitrary 'ping,' usually a high bell-like note, which articulated an internal structure of 3-3-2-4.
"Phrygian Gates and its smaller companion piece, China Gates, written for the pianist Sarah Cahill, were the most strictly organized, rigorously ordered works I ever composed. They also demonstrated the fruits of my initiation to Minimalism. I had first heard Terry Riley's epochal In C while still living in Cambridge, probably in 1971. A friend, another composition student, invited me back to his flat with the promise of introducing me to something 'like you've never heard before.' And he was right. What he played for me was the famous Columbia Masterworks LP of the landmark piece that announced a new style in contemporary music. Terry's In C may have been to contemporary American music what Ginsberg's Howl or Kerouac's On the Road were to literature. With its insistent, unyielding pulse on the high C of a piano and the sunny, upbeat fragments of melodies recirculating over and over in a loose polyphony, In C captured the congenial hippie spirit of the West Coast while at the same time proposing a new, slowly evolving approach to musical form. It was also marvelously provocative, giving an R. Crumb middle finger to the crabbed, pedantic world of academic modernism.
"I later heard more organized, more elegant versions of the Minimalist aesthetic when Steve Reich brought his ensemble to town in 1974. Their performance of Drumming revealed a different but equally novel take on pulsation as the guiding principle of the music -- the main event, so to speak -- but compared to In C, Reich's materials were more fastidiously organized and the gradual process of melodic, harmonic, and timbral evolution more methodical. What also impressed me about Reich's music-making was that it was done at a high level of expertise and preparation. In contrast to the free, anarchic avant-garde 'happenings' I'd been involved with, Reich's music used precision and balanced counterpoint to create a sound world that was carefully organized, musically engaging, and sensually appealing."