John Adams Meets Alarm Will Sound via Podcast and More

Stick with me through this introduction, girls and boys, because the wild and wacky music I'm about to discuss is worth it! Scan any "A" list of living American composers, and the names of two Pulitzer Prize in Music recipients with the last name of Adams inevitably appears: John Adams (b. 1947, Worcester, MA), and John Luther Adams (b. 1953, Meridian, MS). Although a third Adams, John Adams' son Samuel Adams (b. 1985, San Francisco, CA) is fast emerging as a major composer, we'll spend the next two weeks exploring new recordings of music by the two elder Johns.

Few recent recordings of John Adams' music are more definitive, exciting, and with the times than Alarm Will Sound with Meet the Composer/Splitting Adams. Recently issued by contemporary music label Cantaloupe, and auditioned via 24/96 hi-rez WAV files, the recording features two of Adams' works, Chamber Symphony (1992), whose music and instrumentation inspired Alarm Will Sound to form their ensemble, and Son of Chamber Symphony (2007), which Adams wrote for AWS after hearing them perform Chamber Symphony.

As if the connection between composer and performers were not enough to convince you that this recording is way cool, its hip pedigree is further assured by AWS's choice to replace detailed liner notes with two Meet the Composer podcasts, both of which feature ensemble members chatting with Adams. The host for both podcasts is Nadia Sirota, who just happens to play viola on Son of Chamber Symphony.

Adams wrote Chamber Symphony under the inspiration of one of the "serious heavy hitter[s] in early 20th century Vienna," Arnold Schoenberg. Lest thoughts of Schoenberg's atonal music send you running, it is thoughts of the crazy contradictions brought about by Schoenberg's forced emigration from Vienna to Hollywood in 1933 that most tickled Adams' fancy.

"I love flirting with commercialism, crassness, and the collision between Hollywood and Viennese high culture," says Adams of a composer who, after fleeing the Nazis, ended up playing tennis with George Gershwin and living on the same street as Shirley Temple and Cole Porter.

Adams had just completed his politically controversial opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, and was studying Schoenberg's darkly chromatic, irrepressibly wild Chamber Symphony No.1, Op.9 when he realized that his infant son, Samuel, was watching cartoons in the next room. Immediate connections between the music of the great "chase" cartoons—think Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner—and the wildness of Schoenberg's more serious oeuvre sent him back to the composing board. The result is music where so much is happening at once as it dashes all over the place that it has been likened to kids making a racket while jockeying for attention at a birthday party.

Chamber Symphony's opening movement, "Mongrel Airs," was inspired by a British critic who berated Adams for not writing music with breeding. Simply put, it's pretty damn nuts, with a chaotic ending. Movement 2, "Aria with Walking Bass," trots along amiably as melodies and ideas collide and compress. Its conclusion reminds me of a cell phone going off in the middle of a concert, and driving audience members batty. The symphony ends with six minutes of "Roadrunner," complete with lots of deep percussion, and a fabulous wild albeit impeccably controlled ending that uses an excerpt from Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony.

John Adams first let AWS know about his work on Son of Chamber Symphony by sending them some of the music, accompanied by a snapshot of him standing next to a PeeWee Herman doll. But as funny as that may sound, bass clarinetist Beth Stimpert wasn't laughing when Adams asked to come to the very first rehearsal, and heard her struggling with its exceptional difficulty bass clarinet part. Thus did he rewrite the music. With some of its roots in the first movement of Beethoven's Symphony 9, it has been described as a minefield for musicians, with a million holes that could break the whole piece apart were a single musician to stumble into one.

The beauty of the second movement's opening reminds me of Fauré's Pavanne . . . but it doesn't stay that way too long. Adams rewrote the section, but AWS likes the original version so much that they've recorded it here, with Adams' permission.

The final movement evolved from a five-minute birthday piece that Adams wrote for his frequent stage director, the equally brilliant and spikey Peter Sellars. It not only quotes Schoenberg, but also Adams himself via his brilliant breakthrough "minimalist" opera, Nixon in China. As with every other movement on the disc, it makes its best case when played at realistically loud volume. Imagine yourself seated in the first row or close to it, and go from there. The piece ends neither with a bang nor a whimper; it just ends. I guess that where the son finally grows up.

You may be wondering why this lover of opera and art song, especially works by Mozart, Richard Strauss, Puccini, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Fauré, Duparc, Barber, and others, has been spending so much time listening to and reviewing contemporary orchestral music. The answer is simpler than you may think: I love exploring new musical vistas, challenging myself, and opening my mind.

I hope you're enjoying this sojourn into the unusual, and you'll give this music a whirl. It will certainly whirl you around. I expect attendees at the recent Los Angeles Audio Show heard bits of this recording, as well as part of the equally colorful Lou Harrison recording I reviewed a few weeks ago. Both recordings are a great test for a sound system.

jporter's picture

Shaker Loops has always been one of my favorites. John Adams is completely underrated. Thanks for the heads up on this...

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Thanks for your comments. John Adams' music is really wonderful, isn't it? I expect you will agree that each piece is different.

I'm not sure who is underrating John's music. If it's a professional critic or symphony board member, I would try to determine if political bias plays a part. If it's one or more music lovers you know, it would be worth finding out if they think great music ceased being composed upon the deaths of Giacomo Puccini (1926) and Richard Strauss (1949), or if they simply think that contemporary music is unlistenable.

It is my belief that a lot of people who pan contemporary music don't really listen to it. Sometime in the past, they heard one piece they found off-putting and, like someone who harbors prejudice against immigrants on the basis of having met a single immigrant they didn't like, projects that experience onto an entire group of people.

Many music lovers simply want to remain passive listeners, and have their music do all the work for them. Others want music to perform specific functions, e.g. relax them while driving, and don't like music that may excite or jar them.

I, on the other hand, like to be fully engaged, whether it be emotionally, mentally, spiritually, or all three. If that engagement brings up strong emotions and requires all my attention, that's fine by me.

I also don't mind being challenged, and being forced to either acknowledge my own limitations or declare that something is not for me. For an example of same, see my John Luther Adams review above.

AaronGarrett's picture

I love this recording. Thanks for all your suggestions for contemporary music. This recording turned me on to two other fantastic Alarm will Sound/Cantaloup productions via Roon and Bandcamp-- Nadia SIrota's Baroque -- what a viola tone! -- and Alarm Will Sound's arrangements of Aphex Twin. I can't believe I missed that one!

Dcbingaman's picture

Get a copy of Adam's Saxophone Concerto by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Maestro David Robertson - its killer !!