... dams, at his best, was the great American composer of the second half of the 20th century. He could, like Stravinsky, satisfy the professional with his craft, while honestly appealing to a larger public. There are two key elements that make his body of work from “Shaker Loops” to “Hallelujah Junction” so important
The first is the librettist Alice Goodman. That “Doctor Atomic,” Adams’s opera to a Peter Sellars libretto, is so bad—static, wearying assertions of stressful determination around the one good passage of music, the aria “Batter my heart”—sets into relief not only how great his first two operas are, but also how Goodman’s librettos provide so much of their real humanity and drama. Those qualities, and the essential sing-ability of the words, come straight from Goodman (what makes “Batter my heart” one of the great contemporary opera arias is the poetry of John Donne).
The other fundamental quality of Adams’ best work is its essential meaninglessness. When he made music with no more content than his own dream images, the music was often great; as he increasingly uses music as a vehicle to tell everyone what he thinks about things, the music suffers. [emphasis added] My now dutiful exposure to his new work brings me back again and again to “Grand Pianola Music.” Across the past two seasons in New York, I’ve witnessed two performances—one by Juilliard’s new music ensemble AXIOM, the other by the International Contemporary Ensemble at this summer’s Mostly Mozart Festival—that have convinced me this is his finest work. It’s nothing but form, timbre, structures, harmonies, and gestures that create drama and fulfillment in sound. It’s as if all Adams wanted to do was make something beautiful. That would be enough.
The "essential meaninglessness" claim is interesting. What made Adams' best work his best work was that it didn't mean something? What seems to come across is that Adams was at his best when he wasn't freighting his music with so many "authors' message" tropes that the extra-musical or non-musical associations suffocated the musical materials in some way. having been on an Adorno binge in the last few years the trouble artists can run into is that when they try to make their art explicitly political they are doomed to create propagandistic hackwork; yet when they have their art vanish into some kind of art for art's sake formalism they doom themselves to tacitly embracing and celebrating some kind of status quo, celebrating the power of "the spell" that art has to affirm whether or not what is affirmed is what could be considered a just society.
I've made my modestly cheerful anti-Romanticist tendencies relatively clear at this blog, I hope, but I do sometimes get this idea that there may be an inversely proportional relationship between how seriously artists say we should take the arts and how seriously we should then take those arts. If someone says this or that artistic implement kills fascists their art may be worth basically nothing. If you want to kill fascists there are soldiers for that, right? As has been said in television that you don't win the Emmy by going for the Emmy, perhaps the music of John Adams that "changed things" did so as an accident of the creative impulse more than by Adams setting out to "change things". Can the arts "change things" by accidents of providence or does it all have to be ... knowingly engineered?
This isn't to say I don't enjoy works by Adams. Shaker Loops is fun. It just may be that the music that sets out to be fun and experiment with things and aims to, oh, maybe please an audience, might end up changing things more than stuff that is taken up to "speak truth to power" or "change things". You can aim to do that stuff, to, it's just there's no certainty of success at that level. A comedian could declare that Clinton was going to be president and then ... well ...
I'm middle-aged as numbers go and it seems to me that Adorno was spectacularly wrong about popular culture and popular music at several levels. I'm not saying he was wrong to be worried about the narcotic effects of mass culture in mass market systems. I don't say that either he or Dwight Macdonald were necessarily wrong to worry about that. But I say Adorno was wrong to assume that there could be no successful fusions between high and low arts. I think such a fusion can happen and should be pursued by artists of all sorts. I don't see it as a foregone conclusion that ostensibly "low" art forms like cartoons can't e well made, beautiful, and even intellectually stimulating. In that sense I'm a thorough-going poptimist in the realm of cinema. I find it easier to take seriously many a cartoon and a genre film than I am able to take seriously the kinds of middle and highbrow films that are more formally recognized as "art". I'll take the Lee/Ditko run of Spider-man over James Joyce, though if you like James Joyce that's okay.
I don't think we as humans can escape the impulse to create canons of art and artists we revere. i don't think we need to stop doing that. What I do think we need to have more of is a poly-canonic approach to creativity. We should be able to go out and make music that reveres Stevie Wonder as much as Haydn, for instance. We should be able to compose in a way that shows as much fealty to the genius of Scott Joplin as to Bach. These musicians displayed genius at different levels of formal expertise, sure, but the beauty of their work is beauty I admire. I don't mind saying so. I am less interested, by far, in academic turf wars about which canon we should have or the proposal that we move beyond canons than in artists and musicians creating music that demonstrates a comparable respect and historical understanding of Robert Johnson and Bach and William Byrd across the board.
A theory instructor once said in a class that the norm is for music theory to lag a generation or two behind musical practice and that this changed every now and then as it did when twelve-tone methods were formulated. Theory could precede practice from time to time, as Bukofzer summarized as being what happened in earlier Baroque theorizing, but in a lot of ways music theory was summarizing at a practical level what was already being done.
We're living in what I like to think of as a new kind of Baroque era. We have a panoply of styles and forms, none of which necessarily dominate music pedagogy or musical practice; each of these forms and styles has their respective social place and value within a community; and there's cause to admire those musicians and writers who are able to disply a mastery of and appreciation for as diverse a range of styles as possible that respects the unique beauties and challenges of the respective styles.
It's axiomatic that the last generations' revolutionary can turn into this generation's reactionary. That's soaxiomatic as to be boring. We've lived in an era in which what I think of as the ars perfecta of the musical art of the "long 19th century" has played out and been displaced by a range of styles, many of them popular and not very strictly tethered to the ideals of, well, German Idealism. The aim of authenticity that can be associated with German Idealism can still play itself out in rockist manifestos and pleas for "authenticity".
Raymond Knapp has written a bit briefly on how the ethos of authenticity has tended to play out in rock criticism along lines of purity to do with race and class and ideals of sexuality--the irony being that many of the fans of rock and pop music who "think" they have set themselves against the classical traditions as defined via German Idealism don't realize how much they're being German Idealist in their checklists of authenticity. Knapp's counter-proposal in Making Light, his recent monograph on the music of Haydn, was to propose that in American music there have been a variety of musical traditions ranging from minstrelsy to operetta to the Broadway musical that all traffic in camp, that the most vibrant American musical traditions tend to cluster around idioms that puncture the aspirational aims of German Idealism.
Which becomes supremely ironic in biographical work on Scott Joplin because he seems to have embraced an aspirational art-as-edifying ideal for his ragtime works ... but I'll have to get to that later.
But that's all veered well off course from the starting point of John Adams' music being described as being more effective when it was not being written so explicitly to "mean something". I have, I think, managed to keep the conceptual thread going by suggesting that American music can paradoxically mean more when its creators don't set out to freight the music with so much meaning than when they set out to be taken seriously.