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John Adams: "American Classic"

img  Tobias

Already the title to this documentary is anything but obvious. The status of a „classic“ is, of course, the last thing John Adams' numerous critics would like to see bestowed on him. And for a composer as immersed in the present as Adams, the insertion into a canon of iconoclastic legends would seem to unfairly suggest he'd already frozen in his artistic development. On the other hand nothing whatsoever can be taken for granted with this man, not even his stance towards the genre he is commonly attributed to: „I hated Opera and I never went. In fact, I rarely go even now. And it's sort of ironic that for many people I'm only an Opera composer“, Adams confesses right at the beginning of the movie and later admits only being persuaded and cajoled into writing „Nixon in China“ by long-time collaborator, influential director Peter Sellars. It is yet another unusual twist in his career, which has gone from confusion and disorientation to great clarity and triumph in over forty years.

„John Adams: American Classic“ is not the typical kind of adulatory, reverential fan-flic. It only briefly mentions the status of Adams as his country's most performed composer. It never portrays him as the most important, most genial or gifted artist of the 20th century either. Rather, it allows him and his friends to talk about what motivates them and to defend their points of view in the line of public fire. Set against the filming of „The death of Klinghoffer“, the notorious and heavily debated („the most contentious opera written in over a century“ according to director David Jeffcock) follow-up to breakthrough „Nixon“, the movie deals with Adams' slow evolution and self-discovery, his defining influences, aesthetics and his perspective on opera as an essentially unreal and therefore ideal medium to deal with the biggest topics of humanity.

Adams' sensation of unease and dissatisfaction with the hermetic high-brow nature of academic composition and his natural inclination towards a natural flow of music are singled out as the decisive factors for shaping his personality on „American Classic“:  „I've always imagined that 200, 300, 500, 1000 years from now, the people will look back at the era of Schoenberg, Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez and Elliot Carter as a very strange aberration in the current of musical evolution“, Adams ponders, „That there was a period back in the 20th century when composers aggressively took any sense of pulse out of the music. And that at the same time many of them aggressively destroyed the tonal syntax of music.“ His daily routine at college was to pretend as though the arts were a parallel galaxy: „I found myself going to the seminar room and being given the most grim view of what music was about. And then I walked out into the fresh air and heard Jimmy Hendrix.“ And while John Cage's philosophies were highly instrumental in bringing him back to life after a period of uncertainty, they would never satisfy his hunger for a warm and rich style: „It was a lot of fun, but there was a voice in the back of my ear saying: John  Cage is a wonderful citizen, but there's just  a really important depth of emotional experience that is just inaccessible to that kind of music.“

Addressing these emotions and reinstalling music as a form of communication, then, according to Adams himself, are the two main catalysts behind his approach. And almost by default, these preferences gently suggested an idiosyncratic style, which made use of the sounds and ideas around him, while transforming them into something both impure and personal. While the key to interpreting several of his pieces may lie in an understanding of their creative queues, the result is neither a pastiche nor cross-over. Rather, it delineates a new musical space with an emphasis on spirituality and human fundamentals. Jazz and  Minimalism are seamlessly incorporated, turning into compositional techniques rather than clear-cut references. A trip to Venice, right at a time of frustration with Avant Garde music, turned him onto repetitive structures and patterns through the realisation „that beautiful, graceful, expressive, large structures were made out of the periodic repetition of small identifiable cells. And that seemed to suggest a musical language.“ And yet, the language he envisioned was never going to be restricted to a single scene.

A discussion of three of Adams' operas, prominently featuring „The Death of Klinghoffer“, takes up the second half of the movie. „Klinghoffer“ uses the story of the Achile Lauro's highjacking as its point of departure and as an allegory for the Israeli-Pallestinian conflict in particular. Adams mentions that he had shown the work to Jewish friends before the premiere, who found nothing offensive about it. He expounds his belief that there are reasons for even the most vile and horrific actions and that facing them was the first and necessary step towards understanding. As Sellars puts it: „The thing we know least about is our own history, events that have happened in our own lifetime, Because inevitably, they've been reduced to these propagandistic soundbites that never begin to explain... or show you... or have an insight into the spiritual life of a 19-year old Palestinian man who will offer his life in a suicide bombing.“ There can be no doubt about the sincerity of their motivations, and yet at least one or two statements by some of the many outspoken critics would have been interesting as a counterweight to their arguments.

For all of the seriousness of its topics, however, there is also a lot of laughter on „American Classic“. Adams is genuinely delighted about a critic's assertion that „Nixon in China did for the Arpeggio what McDonalds did for the Hamburger“ and, in general, enjoys listening to the opinion of others. A lot of big names on this DVD have a lot of extremely complimentary things to say about him, including conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. And yet, Adams considers keeping on eye level with his listeners as essential: „One may not be working for a large audience, but one wants a response. Otherwise, what's the point of doing art.“ That, alas, has not been anything but an obvious statement for a contemporary composer to make.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: John Adams
Homepage: EMI Classics

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