The Do-It-Yourself School

I drove 190 miles to Boston last night to hear a concert of John Luther Adams’s music at NEC, as I’ve learned they call New England Conservatory. I had never been there before, and all I could think about were Charles Ives’s complaints about the place: “[In an old lady’s voice,] You never hear negro spirituals mentioned up there to the New England Conservatory!” But anyway, pianist Stephen Drury, famous for performances of Cage and Zorn piano works, has an ensemble there, and had organized a wonderful Adams program: Strange Birds Passing for flute ensemble of 1983, Red Arc/Blue Veil for piano, percussion, and tape of 2002, and the world premiere of For Lou Harrison.

This last piece is for two pianos, string quartet, and string orchestra. It opened with a riveting opening gesture, in which all of the instruments swept upward through their full ranges in huge, lush arpeggios at different tempos, settling at last into a calm chord. That gesture came back again and again and again, initiating each new phase of the piece. For an hour several rhythmic levels flowed in contradiction to each other, the string quartet launching into a new crescendo while the orchestra was still, the pianos booming into new arpeggios as the string quartet was still, some lines doubled in unison but otherwise hardly any two levels of activity ever at the same speed. It seemed to me that the entire piece was all within a single diatonic scale, though apparent changes of harmony entered with each new drone note in the bass; John tells me, though, that the key changed a few times, though so discreetly that I never caught it happening. At last the rhythmic levels dropped out one by one, and the piece died away with a radiant, pp chord in the orchestral violins.

Someone afterward ventured an opinion that JLA’s music does best on recording, that hearing such long, still, sustained textures in live performance distracted one from the gorgeous surface. I see the point, and I look forward to the recording that the group was scheduled to make today. You just don’t necessarily want to be sitting confined in a chair, surrounded by strangers, as those intermittent waves of sound wash over you. Still, it was lovely to watch how the piece worked. The pianists (Yukiko Takagi and Keith Kirchoff) kept up a magnificent independence, the quartet sang through their rising lines heroically, and I think the audience members felt that they had been present for an important premiere. For Lou Harrison is the third in a trilogy of Adams orchestra works, the first two being Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowning and In the White Silence. I think In the White Silence might still be slightly my favorite (perhaps because I’m addicted to the way John uses celesta), but For Lou Harrison could easily grow on me. John claims that he’s through writing for orchestra; we’ll see. He is currently working on a big electronic sound installation for a museum in Fairbanks. And he recounted, in the program notes, a conversation he’d had with Lou Harrison:

…At the time Lou was enjoying a surge in performances of his orchestral music, and I suggested that this must be gratifying to him.

“It’s nice,” he said, “but it’s not really what we do.”

I asked him to elaborate.

“The orchestra is a glorious noise. But the heart and soul of our music lies elsewhere. We’re the ones who form our own ensembles, makes our own tunings, build our own instruments, and create our own musical worlds. We’re the ‘Do It Yourself’ school of American music!”

I was humbled. Here Lou was finally starting to receive from the classical music establishment some measure of the recognition he deserved, yet he wasn’t seduced at all.

And that is what being a postclassical composer is all about.