Rub-a-dub In the Tub

I bought a few scores last week, partially just for fun, although for tax purposes, they’re entirely for “study.” The scores are for John Adams’s “Harmonielehre” and “Slonimsky’s Earbox,” and Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians.” These are three of my “desert island” pieces.

I first heard “Harmonielehre” live at the Cabrillo Contemporary Music Festival in August 2005. “Redline Tango” opened the concert, and “Harmonielehre” was the entire second half. (It runs about 45 minutes.) Marin Alsop gave a crisp and exciting performance, and I fell in love with the piece.

Here’s a piece that’s 45 minutes long, and to my ear, doesn’t have a single good tune in it — and yet, it’s constantly riveting. I mean, okay, there are “tunes,” but I just don’t think Adams can write a great tune. (I feel safe writing that, as I’m confident he isn’t a reader of this blog. Hard to believe, I know!) The thing is, he doesn’t need any tunes. This piece is all about pacing, pulse, and orchestration — and although I used to think the most important thing in Minimalism was pulse, this piece proves that the most important thing is pacing. Adams knows exactly when to change something. His transitions are seamless. (A colleague of mine in undergrad used to say that you can tell a great composer by their transitions. On that alone, Adams is a great composer. I love listening to a piece and suddenly thinking, Wait, how did we get here, when we were doing something else 60 seconds ago? How and when did that happen?) It was the idea that pacing could be the most important thing in a piece — a realization I suddenly had while sitting at that concert in Santa Cruz last year — that gave me the first idea for “Turbine.”

(Funny side note. Although the review of that performance of “Redline Tango” was positive, the critic from the San Francisco Gate also wrote, ” ‘Harmonielehre’ outshone everything around it as decisively as a Beethoven symphony would have,” adding that the other works — including “Redline Tango” — were “entertaining and even attractive music, but nothing to challenge Adams’ pre-eminence.” Gotta agree with that one. But come on — how am I supposed to top one of the best orchestra works of the past 20 years?!)

Adams technique for orchestration is incredible. AEJ described it as getting the feeling that Adams was “playing the orchestra” — like an enormous, single instrument. There’s an incredible ability that allows him to use the full force of the orchestra for the most immense sounds — like huge chords punching you in the chest — or to have 20 simultaneous things happening (as he does in “Slonimsky’s Earbox”) — all of them somehow different — and allow you to hear every line clearly. How does he do this?! How can he write counterpoint like this with so many players, and not make it muddy?

“Slonimsky’s Earbox” gave me the idea for the very end of “Turbine” — the way it’s all bright and high-register and twinkly for a dozen or so bars, right before the big low-brass and bass drum “bam” at the last beat. Adams does it infinitely better (no doy). Still, without “Slonimsky’s Earbox” and “Harmonielehre,” “Turbine” would be a different piece, if it would have even existed.

This got me thinking about my other works and their “inspirations.” “Mass” wouldn’t exist had I never heard “Music for 18 Musicians.” Believe it or not, but my parody piece “Under the Rug” wouldn’t exist if I’d never heard a bunch of Berio. “Turning” owes a great deal to Warren Benson’s “The Passing Bell” and Corigliano’s “Circus Maximus.” If I’d never heard Tan Dun, I wouldn’t have written the first movement of my Percussion Concerto the way that I did, with its unabashed Asian and Indian sounds.

This made me question it on an even larger level. I mean, if I’d never heard the music of John Adams, my music would sound completely different, because that sound makes its way into almost everything I do, usually on a subconscious level. What would Adams say? I mean, what composer’s music did he hear that made him go, “wow, I’ve never thought of music this way before. This takes me in a totally new direction.” I kind of suspect his answer would be Reich. (Adams said of Reich, “He didn’t reinvent the wheel so much as he showed us a new way to ride.”) What about Reich? I’m sure there’s an answer — probably Terry Riley, and before him, La Monte Young — but Reich seems to be the first one to really make Minimalism what it is. Those are the “blow-your-mind” artists — the ones who come along and do something so new — and good — and there’s no real telling where it came from.

So this is a question I now want to ask composers when I meet them. What composer (or even a specific piece) changed the way you thought about music? The next time I see Corigliano, I’m going to ask him. If I’m ever in a room (or bathtub) with Steve Reich again (see below), I want to ask him. Hell, I want to ask Newman and Bryant and Bonney and Whitacre and Wataru — and anybody else who’s willing to take the time to answer.

(That’s composer Mark Adamo, conductor Robert Spano, John Corigliano, composer Jennifer Higdon, Steve Reich, and me — all in a bathtub at a party for Spano, January 30, 2004.)


Cathy says

"Adams was "playing the orchestra" -- like an enormous, single instrument"

That's frickin' brilliant! Will you ask the lovely AEJ if I can use that sometime, except about band?

Steve says

Wow - good post. Contemplative mood, huh?

My answer(s) - Corigliano's score to "Altered States" (direct inspiration for "Loose Id"); some Strauss piece I can't even recall - I just recall the moment in undergrad while listening to it on vinyl (VINYL!) that it occurred to me I could go nuts orchestrationally and throw things all over the place like I'm juggling 50 different balls at once. Several others, I'm sure. You know, you should ask this over on the BCM Forum. Perfect topic.

nobleviola says

I was lucky enough to play the US premiere of Slonimsky's Earbox, as principal viola of the Oregon Symphony w/ James DePreist. Big rockin' viola solo in this piece!

FOSCO says

Alas, I am less lucky than "nobleviola" (as I don't actually play an instrument); however, I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the NY premiere of "Slonimsky's Earbox" with the NYPO.

Such a great observation that Adams can't write a great tune--it had never occurred to me before, but it's so true.

The Adams piece that knocks my socks off every time is "Naive and Sentimental Music."

I have tickets to the premiere of his commission for the SFS in March--you and AEJ should head up to SF and go!

jim says

Hoo... what composer changed the way I thought about music? I'm going to have to go with Stravinsky, and if I have to pick one piece, I'd say Rite of Spring -- so many amazing colors, and it's just so visceral, so edgy and in-your-face... at the age when I discovered it, it contained enough contemporary power and violence (without collapsing into indecipherable noise) to really appeal to me. I still discover all kinds of things in that score. I also admire how he continued to evolve as a composer, and try new styles... I could go on and on and on...

nobleviola says

I agree w/ FOSCO, no great tune writing, but what I find amazing is that I don't miss the tunes - there's so much interesting stuff going on. I'm dying to perform Näive and Sentimental as well as Harmonielehre - both monumental pieces deserving more performances (but very difficult). BTW - my friend Karen Wagner was playing principal oboe at Cabrillo for the Harmonielehre.

Avguste Antonov says

Hey John
This is Avguste, Carter's friend.
I was involved in the recording of Redline Tango.You may remember me.LOL
Anyway,I am happy for the great concert at KU and LSU.Great Pics,LOL.How was Old Chicago?The beer is still that good?LOL
And I am sure you probably met my ex girlfriend at LSU(Janelle Ott).She is a bassoon player.
My email address is
Lets keep in touch
Best wishes

Anonymous says

Re: Adams and much of the time, his music is layered, so there is no way to concentrate the musical focus on one musical line. One exception to consider: the first and third movements of "Gnarly Buttons," the clarinet concerto. The nature of the clarinet as a single-line instrument may have drawn Adams to focus more on melody. The first movement is austere in tone, but is all about the development of a single melodic line. It doesn't create the romantic swell of Tchaikovsky "Romeo and Juliet" but is intriguing and compelling for its development and inventiveness. The third movement, depicting his father's end of life struggle with Alzheimer's disease, is a sentimental, expressive melody. Like the first movement of "Naive and Sentimental Music," the melody and chords seem to lose track of one another, but this is the beauty of it. These pieces depict a sense of wandering travel, with a mixture of hope and doubt. In these cases, the beauty still depends on the layering, but is effective, and whether or not the melody is beautiful unto itself, I don't know, but the melody/chord combination is.
Anthony Taylor

Dylan Edwards says

I was certainly not expecting to see this photo. Not only are the best in the same picture... they're also in a bathtub.

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